Rabbi doubts evolution, “but not because of religion”

The title of the article at issue is a masterpiece of dissimulation, because if you read the piece you’ll find that its author, a rabbi, is skeptical completely because of religion. In fact, I’ve known of only one evolution-denier who didn’t form that opinion on religious grounds (it’s David Berlinski, and I suspect he’s a secret believer), although I suppose there’s a smattering of others.

Anyway, the title of the piece, published at the Jewish website Tablet, is “Skeptical about evolution—and not because of religion“, and it’s by Avi Shafran, a New York rabbi with his own website.

Why the skepticism? Well, Shafran first cites a new study in Current Biology showing that the rate of “radiation” (formation of new species) in mammals, along with the pace of morphological change during that radiation, was much higher in the middle to late Jurassic than previously suspected. Here’s part of that paper’s abstract:

We assess rates of morphological evolution and temporal patterns of disparity using large datasets of discrete characters. Rates of morphological evolution were significantly elevated prior to the Late Jurassic, with a pronounced peak occurring during the Early to Middle Jurassic. This intense burst of phenotypic innovation coincided with a stepwise increase in apparent long-term standing diversity [ 4 ] and the attainment of maximum disparity, supporting a “short-fuse” model of early mammalian diversification [ 2, 3 ]. Rates then declined sharply, and remained significantly low until the end of the Mesozoic, even among therians. This supports the “long-fuse” model of diversification in Mesozoic therians.

This is no big deal: we have plenty of examples of the pace of evolutionary change varying greatly over time, for the strength of natural selection, which promotes much of that change, surely changes over time, as when the climate suddenly varies or new ecological niches become open. This is not news. It’s not as if a whole group of mammals suddenly appeared, as if God created them ex nihilo. It’s simply variation in rates!

Rabbi Shafran, however, seems to think that this casts serious doubt on evolution:

A relatively minor discovery but it wasn’t expected. In fact, larger surprises, leading to substantive revisions in the study of evolution are the rule rather than the exception. From Lamarckism to classical natural selection to Darwinism to the Modern Synthesis, evolution theory, well, evolves. But whatever mechanisms are believed to serve as the engine of evolution, the theory’s fundamental idea remains that life sprang from inanimate matter and came to yield all the organisms in the biosphere we occupy. As such, the news was, for me, another opportunity to come face-to-face with a personal reality.

Seriously, a variation in evolutionary rates creates a “substantive revision in the study of evolution”? Not in my view, for even Darwin, in The Origin, points out the likelihood of rate variation. It would in fact be surprising if such variation didn’t occur; it’s precisely what’s expected under natural selection. When selection is very strong, as in artificial selection practiced by human to create dog breeds, we can get tremendous morphological variation in only 10,000 years: dog breeds would be recognized as different species, if not different genera, if they were found only as fossilized skeletons.

It turns out, though, that Shafran’s Big Beef isn’t this rate variation, it’s the fact that he doesn’t think that evolution has been sufficient to explain a.) the proliferation of species over the history of life, and b.) the origin of life itself.

. . . Instead, I refer to a real heresy: my reluctance to accept an orthodoxy so deeply entrenched in contemporary society that its rejection summons a heavy hail of derision and ridicule, and results in effective excommunication from polite society. What I can’t bring myself to maintain belief in is… evolution.

I don’t reject science, only speculations and assumptions made in its name. . .

. . . What I cannot bring myself to accept, though, is speciation, the notion that the approximately 10 million distinct species on earth (along with another estimated 20 million marine microbial organisms) all developed from a common ancestor.

So he doubts common ancestry, the result of the branching process of speciation.

Has life proliferated too fast to be explained by natural processes? No.  Let’s assume that we start with one species 3.5 billion years ago (the “universal common ancestor”, or UCA), and it simply bifurcates into two lineages. How long would it take to get to a billion species? (The rabbi estimates ten million today, but let’s assume, as is reasonable that 99% of the species formed since the UCA went extinct without leaving descendants. So we have to account for the evolution of a billion species) That’s an easy calculation (watch; I’ll screw it up!):

2^x = 1,000,000,000, where x is the number of splitting events required to produce a billion species.

x log 2 = log 1,000,000,000 = 9

x = 9/0.301 ≈ 30

In other words, only 30 splitting events would yield that billion species.  Over 3.5 billon years, that’s one speciation event every 116 million years. As Allen Orr and I calculated in our book Speciation, on average a new species forms by splitting of a given lineage at a rate between one every 100,000 years and one every million years. (This is a rough estimate, of course, and varies by taxa.)  The upshot: the data we have on species formation shows that there’s been plenty of time time for evolution to have created a billion or even 100 billon species.

But the data is stronger than that, for we have tons of evidence showing the common ancestry of those species. For some reason—and I hope it’s not willful ignorance—Rabbi Shafran neglects that evidence.

These data include the presence of predicted transitional forms between extant groups (e.g., fish and amphibians, like Tiktaalik, amphibians and reptiles, reptiles and mammals, reptiles and birds, early apes to our own species, and so on). The data include the hierarchical distribution of genes and traits, as predicted by a branching process. The data include the distribution of species on the surface of the planet— biogeography—showing species forming from other species. And the data include the location of specific junk DNA, like transposable elements, residing in the exact same position in the DNA of species descended from common ancestors, like humans and chimps.  We also have seen speciation in action in many organisms, especially in the formation of polyploid plants (see Speciation), which constitute a sizeable percentage of existing plant species that have formed naturally.

So Rabbi Shafran seems to be ignorant of the massive data supporting speciation. He prefers instead to rely on rabbis rather than scientists. Here’s where his claim that his motivation is not religious become a clear lie:

I claim no official scientific credentials, but have had an abiding interest in science since I was a boy (which, as noted, was a good while back). As a young man, I devoured the layman-friendly but well-informed works of Asimov, Gould, Dawkins, Thomas and others, never doubting the assumption that speciation was fact.  Until I decided to apply my own critical thinking to the theory’s assumptions. My faculties, I know, are puny compared to those scientists’.  But I can’t help but feel that while brilliant people may always be brilliant, they can also sometimes be wrong.

While I believe in the divine origin of the Torah and its account of creation [JAC: if he is going by evidence, as he claims, he’d completely reject the divine origin of the Torah], my refusal to accept speciation as fact is based on reason, not religion. In fact, contrary to popular perception of religious thought, not believing in evolution is hardly dogma: no less an Orthodox luminary than the illustrious 19th century thinker Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch allowed for the possibility that all life might come from a single simple organism.

. . . But, to my lights, that “vague hypothesis,” as Rabbi Hirsch characterized it, remains just that, more than a century later. When scientists in a lab manage to create a living organism (let alone a reproducing one) from inanimate matter, or to irradiate a simple organism and turn it into a clearly different one, I will happily concede the possibility, at least, that such happened in the past.  That it happened millions of times? Well, we’ll talk.

I fully appreciate the fossil record and the similarities among some different species. And I realize that organisms have been bred or mutated in ways that, using arbitrary definitions, are called “new” species. But a fruit fly has never been coaxed into becoming a housefly. [JAC: Ah, here we see the creationist canard that “if you can’t see a new species form, it didn’t happen.” The good Rabbi doesn’t appreciate the value of historical reconstruction as an accepted part of science.]

. . . In the meanwhile, lead me to the stocks, if you must. And as I’m pilloried, I will proclaim the words of a famous man who once wrote that “it is always advisable,” when dealing with things beyond our immediate experience, “to perceive clearly our ignorance.”

His name was Charles Darwin.

Yes, but the Rabbi neglects to add Darwin adduced evidence for his ideas, and much of that evidence was either indirect (as in biogeography), or historical, but in the end the inferences were TESTABLE.  Darwin had no fossil record to support his ideas, nor did he have any evidence of speciation or evolution occurring in real time—except under artificial selection. Despite that, the evidence that has mounted since 1859 shows that Darwin’s theory, including splitting of lineages, has become fact. It is accepted by all rational people and the huge majority of scientist (engineers and dentists don’t count.) Those who reject it are either ignorant of the evidence or, in the case of Shafran, blinded to the evidence by their adherence to Yahweh.

I don’t have to lead Rabbi Shafran to the stocks: he’s voluntarily put himself there! There’s no need to pelt him with rotten tomatoes and eggs, either, as he’s put the egg on his face all by himself.

h/t: Michael

81 Comments

  1. Gordon Hill
    Posted July 29, 2015 at 11:37 am | Permalink

    Doubting and denying are not the same. I doubt my perceptions, but accept the theory of evolution (and devolution) by simply observing my family and friends… 😉

  2. eric
    Posted July 29, 2015 at 11:42 am | Permalink

    But a fruit fly has never been coaxed into becoming a housefly.

    Here is a whole list of observed occurrences of speciation. Sections 5.3-5.5 are all about observed speciation in flies, including house flies.

  3. merilee
    Posted July 29, 2015 at 11:45 am | Permalink

    the old “I’m not a secientist, but…”

    • quiscalus
      Posted July 29, 2015 at 12:56 pm | Permalink

      yeah. ever notice that any discussion by goddies is like a really bad Groundhog Day? Nothing New Ever. Theology: the hamster wheel of the brain.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted July 29, 2015 at 6:14 pm | Permalink

      Yeah his,

      I claim no official scientific credentials, but have had an abiding interest in science since I was a boy….

      remark is argumentum ad puerum

      Okay, I just wanted to be snarky in Latin.

      • William G
        Posted July 29, 2015 at 10:17 pm | Permalink

        Argument against the boy? That’s a crueler version of the ad hom fallacy, dismissing your opponent by digging up his/her high school emo poetry or radical manifestos. You mean argumentum e puero.

        Haha! The Latin pedant strikes again!

  4. Kevin
    Posted July 29, 2015 at 11:52 am | Permalink

    Top Down: Evolution is an empirical fact. This is as debatable as the sun rising in the east.

    Bottom Up: Atoms into life and entropy driven systems. Maybe this is where the good Rabbi might want to focus his efforts but he should start with actually performing some experiments…in a lab…where conjectures find tenure or obscurity.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted July 30, 2015 at 5:14 am | Permalink

      Matthew’s post yesterday shows how bottom up is mostly top down today. Lane mentions how the chemiosmosis potential of alkaline hydrothermal vents (in a carbonated environment of, say, the Hadean oceans) are homologous to today’s cells.

      In fact, Mitchell’s theory seems to have inspired Russell to predict the existence of these vents!

      Today the constraint is stronger. Lane didn’t mention it, but there is a paper form his group (or perhaps Martin’s, I can’t remember) that rather robustly shows that chemiosmosis in cells could only have evolved in these vents by a sort of pH/H+Na pump/lipid membrane ratchet. Presumably then earlier cell emerged in the vents, but not necessarily. But in any case early cells coopted a part of Hadean Earth.

  5. John Harshman
    Posted July 29, 2015 at 12:05 pm | Permalink

    I see that Rabbi Shafran is very proud of his humility.

    • Heather Hastie
      Posted July 29, 2015 at 2:47 pm | Permalink

      That’s a characteristic that I frequently notice in people of similar beliefs to him too. Makes me roll my eyes every time.

  6. Reginald Selkirk
    Posted July 29, 2015 at 12:07 pm | Permalink

    I’ve known of only one evolution-denier who didn’t form that opinion on religious grounds (it’s David Berlinski…

    In the case of Berlinski, I have to suspect there might be a monetary basis for the doubt.

    • phoffman56
      Posted July 29, 2015 at 5:41 pm | Permalink

      The mention of Berlinski led me to find an old blog from Peter Woit, famous (infamous?) for the book “Not Even Wrong” about the supposed sins of String Theory groupies, namely:

      http://www.math.columbia.edu/~woit/wordpress/?p=596

      On Berlinski, though hardly needed here:

      “It’s one of the great mysteries of the popular science book business why anybody publishes the writings of Berlinski. His recent claim to fame is as an affiliate of the Discovery Institute, critic of Darwinism and proponent of Intelligent design, but he has also authored various popular books, including some on mathematics. Some web-sites claim that he has a Ph.D. in mathematics from Princeton, but it appears that the truth of the matter is that he was in the philosophy department there, writing a doctoral thesis on Wittgenstein. His writings on math and science that I’ve seen over the years have always struck me as singularly incoherent and confused.”

      But look also at the response below that from Berlinski himself, and the rejoinders.

  7. Je suis Charlie
    Posted July 29, 2015 at 12:13 pm | Permalink

    Succinctly pwned.

    How can a rabbi say ‘my doubt in science has nothing to do with my religion’ and still collect his salary?

    I see no competing theory with anything like the amount of evidence, so my RATIONALITY says it’s right!

  8. Randy Schenck
    Posted July 29, 2015 at 12:36 pm | Permalink

    He says – My faculties, I know, are puny. And then goes on to prove it.

  9. Posted July 29, 2015 at 12:38 pm | Permalink

    Nice post Jerry, and I agree 100%.

    But, a minor nit-pick, at one point you slightly misread him:

    “Seriously, a variation in evolutionary rates creates a “substantive revision in the study of evolution”? Not in my view, …”

    He actually says: “In fact, *larger* surprises, leading to substantive revisions in the study of evolution …”.

    So it’s not *this* study that creates the substantive revision.

  10. johzek
    Posted July 29, 2015 at 12:53 pm | Permalink

    Rabbi Shafran thinks that a fundamental idea of the theory of evolution is that life sprang from inanimate matter when in fact it doesn’t address that question at all.

    • Gregory Kusnick
      Posted July 29, 2015 at 3:12 pm | Permalink

      Actually I think it does, in the sense that any account of how life arose from non-life will almost certainly involve Darwinian processes of replication and selection at the level of prebiotic chemistry.

    • eric
      Posted July 29, 2015 at 3:36 pm | Permalink

      The OOL problem involves a lot of pretty successful historical goalpost moving. For hundreds of years before the 1950s, the BIG, ONE AND ONLY origin of life problem was the necessity of elan vitale – i.e., the presumed impossibility or unimaginability of atoms being sufficient to give life. Nobody could conceive of how a ‘mere’ configuration of atoms could be ‘life,’ there had to be other stuff involved. Crick and Watson (et al.) proved that was wrong.

      So then the skeptics did a handwave, and unfortunately we let them. Now the OOL “problem” is the presumed impossibility of simple replicators (that are DNA- or RNA- like) arising from non-replicating organic precursors. When that gets solved, I’m sure the evo skeptics will decide that the real OOL problem is how those replicators turned into organisms with mitochondria or became sexually reproducing or something. Or maybe they’ll go backwards in the chain and ask, “yes but how could the conditions under which those replicators form from simple organics arise on earth? It seems impossible to us…”

      So IMO, yes modern evolutionary biology does address OOL. In fact it already solved the biggest problem about the origin of life by showing that organisms are ‘mere’ collections of atoms with no special, qualitatively different life-force needed. Want to know the origin of life? its atoms. And evolutionary science will continue, to say a lot about OOL, because its study of simple and old organisms helps us to figure out what early life looked like, and is a compliment to more fundamental bioorganic chemistry which approaches the same problem from the ‘bottom up’ direction.

      • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
        Posted July 30, 2015 at 5:19 am | Permalink

        Good point. Incidentally the same goes for ‘soul’ and ‘free will’ and ’emotions’, and we see the same goalpost moving.

        Reminding the religious about their “elan vitale”; I’ll have to remember that.

      • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
        Posted July 30, 2015 at 5:23 am | Permalink

        Also, yesterday there was a press release on a model paper on cycles of template-dependent replication. It showed how, in the right conditions of growing strands, the requisite phase transition to replicator populations show up. (And earlier experiments show that first DNA, and this year RNA, strands show growing strand lengths in vents doing PCR cycles…)

  11. Steve Pollard
    Posted July 29, 2015 at 12:57 pm | Permalink

    Tell the Rabbi he should read a book. Tell him the one to read, as well.

  12. Posted July 29, 2015 at 1:05 pm | Permalink

    “engineers and dentists don’t count”

    Hey now! You are damaging my safe space with such comments! I’m butt-hurt by that! 🙂

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted July 29, 2015 at 6:07 pm | Permalink

      😀

    • stuartcoyle
      Posted July 29, 2015 at 8:25 pm | Permalink

      You should stop pulling teeth or building bridges.

      I’m a Computer Engineer so even Engineers don’t think that I count.

      They are right: I don’t count, I let a computer to the counting.

      • infiniteimprobabilit
        Posted July 30, 2015 at 12:11 am | Permalink

        I thought you could only count up to 1 …

        😉

        cr

        • Posted July 30, 2015 at 3:26 pm | Permalink

          Yes, but millions of times a second!

          /@

          • infiniteimprobabilit
            Posted July 30, 2015 at 11:56 pm | Permalink

            Sounds like an acute case of OCD to me.

            😉

            cr

  13. Sastra
    Posted July 29, 2015 at 1:08 pm | Permalink

    . . . Instead, I refer to a real heresy: my reluctance to accept an orthodoxy so deeply entrenched in contemporary society that its rejection summons a heavy hail of derision and ridicule, and results in effective excommunication from polite society.

    Ah yes, the hoary and well-known “Argument From You -Can’t – Tell – ME – What – To – Do.” If there’s a consensus then the bullies are not far behind. The rabbi of course neglects to notice that in the United States his description of the “heavy hail of derision and ridicule” is more likely to rain down on “militant atheists” (ie outspoken ones who argue their case) than creationists.

    The title of the article at issue is a masterpiece of dissimulation, because if you read the piece you’ll find that its author, a rabbi, is skeptical completely because of religion.

    At this point, whenever I see that someone who denies major theories and discoveries in modern science is explaining that they’re totally “not religious,” I automatically mentally add in “they’re spiritual.” Too many believers make a big fat hairy distinction between supernatural beliefs connected to churches, doctrines, creeds, and rituals — and supernatural beliefs which are not. They then call the former “religion” and hope that the “pure” versions which are less gussied up with details will pass as secular and totally consistent with science.

    No and no. Plus, wrong.

    • reasonshark
      Posted July 29, 2015 at 4:51 pm | Permalink

      “The rabbi of course neglects to notice that in the United States his description of the “heavy hail of derision and ridicule” is more likely to rain down on “militant atheists” (ie outspoken ones who argue their case) than creationists.”

      Never let facts get in the way of a good story. Those boffins in their lab coats need a reminder from us spiritual types where their place is, after all, or where would society be? We’d be running away from genetically engineered dinosaurs, or battling against evil AI and robotic hordes, or bringing back eugenics, or enacting A Clockwork Orange, or – heaven forbid – creating an atheist society.

      Seriously, though, knocking science down – even only passive-aggressively – is essential if religion isn’t to lose its power base in society. That’s why religious apologists, at best, try and turn science into a kind of complimentary equal to religion that even non-specialists are adept enough to “criticize”, however humble. Seriously considered, science is utterly anathema to religion, but too many personal stakes ride on this not being so, hence the PR.

  14. TJR
    Posted July 29, 2015 at 1:17 pm | Permalink

    Clearly the good rabbi has not read enough Sophisticated Theology. Once he has read n+1 books of Sophisticated Theology he will be qualified to comment.

  15. Posted July 29, 2015 at 1:33 pm | Permalink

    It isn’t difficult to understand evolution. It isn’t brain surgery.

  16. DrBrydon
    Posted July 29, 2015 at 1:43 pm | Permalink

    It is accepted by all rational people and the huge majority of scientist (engineers and dentists don’t count.)

    /snerk

    I actually had a friend who was an atheist who said he wasn’t convinced about evolution, and actually brought up the eye canard. In those days, though, I wasn’t prepared to debate the point. (There’s been a very useful book that’s come out then since then….)

    I think Jerry is right, that the Rabbi is picking and choosing what evidence he accepts for what topics. The evidence for evolution is at least as persuasive as the evidence for the events in the first five books of the bible.

  17. Posted July 29, 2015 at 2:03 pm | Permalink

    David Berlinki is a theist, but he’s not willing to lead a religious life.
    I guess he told so at a luncheon, recorded by the “FixedPoint foundation”.

  18. Jim Jones
    Posted July 29, 2015 at 2:38 pm | Permalink

    “That’s an easy calculation (watch; I’ll screw it up!):

    ….

    In other words, only 30 splitting events would yield that billion species.”

    My brain must have stopped. Aren’t you assuming that each branch will split somewhat at the same time? So 2 becomes 4 and 4 becomes 8 etc?

    Which is more than 30? Because if you have half a billion species and want one billion, don’t you need half a billion splits? Not one?

    • Heather Hastie
      Posted July 29, 2015 at 2:56 pm | Permalink

      I assumed he meant 30 generations 1, 2, 4, 8, 16 is 5 generations of splits. Don’t know if that’s the right terminology – like the rabbi, I’m not a scientist. 🙂

    • Gregory Kusnick
      Posted July 29, 2015 at 3:20 pm | Permalink

      Yes, that’s what he’s assuming: that each lineage (including daughter lineages) bifurcates roughly once every 116 million years, or 30 times in 3.5 billion years. But I agree that “only 30 splitting events” is a confusing way of putting it.

      And by the way, you don’t need to resort to logarithms to perform that calculation. All you need to know is that 2^10 is approximately 1000.

      • Jim Jones
        Posted July 29, 2015 at 3:24 pm | Permalink

        I always remember that 2^64 grains of wheat is a lot of wheat.

        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wheat_and_chessboard_problem

        • merilee
          Posted July 29, 2015 at 11:14 pm | Permalink

          a metric shitload of wheat, to be precise

      • steve
        Posted July 30, 2015 at 5:26 am | Permalink

        Or as a high-school student who hasn’t learned log’s yet would do: use the y to the x button to input increasing values of x for “2 y to the x” = until you get the number you need; or better yet, for those who don’t know how to use their “y to the x” button, just keep hitting “=” after doing “2 X 2” and count the number of times you press “=” until you get the number you want.

  19. Hav0k
    Posted July 29, 2015 at 3:14 pm | Permalink

    There’s a transitional form between mammals and birds? o_O
    Besides that, thanks for the article!

  20. thh1859
    Posted July 29, 2015 at 3:32 pm | Permalink

    Following the well known cartoon, every country should keep a store of pre-1950 antibiotics exclusively for the treatment of those who reject evolution. Some countries would need larger stores than others.

  21. Mark Sturtevant
    Posted July 29, 2015 at 3:37 pm | Permalink

    Even if you showed the Rabbi your simple calculations that there is an overwhelmingly generous amount of time to produce many times the number of species, he would no doubt find a means to deflect it in order to hold on to his own conclusions. He has the perfect recipe for staying deluded: He is highly religious and highly Important as a religious figure and he has enough education to gin up the most labyrinthine set of excuses for why he is right and all those ‘experts’ are wrong.
    Among the large population of science deniers there will be a few that can be turned by evidence, but among those that will never be converted are the ones with that perfect recipe.

  22. Posted July 29, 2015 at 5:09 pm | Permalink

    A great post, thanks. The Rabbi reminds me of the people who write IANAL and then go on to pontificate loudly about some obscure corner of the law. It is both a disclaimer and also implies that really you do know quite a lot about this or that aspect.

    One small quibble – I don’t think you should write that Darwin had no fossil record. Not the kind of fossil series we have today certainly, but fossils were well recognized by his time.

    I think fossil collecting was already quite a fad in the early 19th century, particularly in England. Also, I believe, Darwin realized that many of the fossils he acquired in South America were similar to, but subtly different from, the living specimens he collected. That being one of the facts that led to “The Origin..”

    • gravelinspector-Aidan
      Posted July 29, 2015 at 10:27 pm | Permalink

      Darwin thought of himself as a geologist more than as a “naturalist”. He knew the fossil record of the time perfectly well, though it was less extensive than today’s data. For example, William Smith’s geological map of Britain was published a decade or so before the Beagle departed. While Beagling, Britain was consumed (well, Darwin’s professional society (and mine) was consumed) by the conflict between Murchison and Sedgewick (one of Darwin’s tutors) which resulted in the separation of the Cambrian, Silurian and Ordovician series, on largely fossil grounds. (Did you ever wonder why all those Welsh tribes? Because of that bun-fight.)
      Meanwhile Hugh Millar was demonstrating the presence of an Old Red Sandstone sequence (Devonian) and a New Red Sandstone series (Permian), separated by the very fossiliferous and economically important (for the UK) Carboniferous.
      I’m wondering where Down (chez Darwin) is in respect of Mantill’s home, where he kept his Iguanodon fossils. Another near-contemporary.

  23. Randy Schenck
    Posted July 29, 2015 at 5:12 pm | Permalink

    Only the religious has the balls to say — until I see life created in the lab I’m sticking with that g*d thing. How can you not accept an invitation to stupid.

  24. Diana MacPherson
    Posted July 29, 2015 at 6:09 pm | Permalink

    It’s terrible because the rabbi seems to really be thoughtful and he has put a lot of energy into considering these things but he just got it all ass backwards.

    • Diane G.
      Posted July 29, 2015 at 8:00 pm | Permalink

      You’re giving him much more credit than I would.

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted July 30, 2015 at 5:03 pm | Permalink

        I’m just kind that way. LOL that’s sarcasm for people who don’t know me.

        • Diane G.
          Posted August 1, 2015 at 4:18 pm | Permalink

          *snort*

    • Eric
      Posted July 30, 2015 at 4:04 am | Permalink

      I’m a religious Jew and I’m familiar with this particular rabbi from many other essays of his. His job is to do PR for his rather fundamentalist rabbinic organization. Whatever the organization’s policy is, he writes an essay defending it. His essays are often well written, but when the policies are so wrong to begin with, there’s nothing he can do to fix that.

    • rickflick
      Posted July 30, 2015 at 7:32 am | Permalink

      I think the only “thought” and “energy” is an attempt to make his rationalizations sound plausible. To find a way to his preordained conclusions. I suspect to his target audience, he does sound reasonable. It’s down right sneaky. The public schools should teach skepticism starting in kindergarten.

      • Avi Greengart
        Posted July 30, 2015 at 12:14 pm | Permalink

        His target audience doesn’t go to public schools, but send their children to private Yeshivas which often skimp on basic English, math, and science, never mind skepticism. (To be clear, there are modern Orthodox Yeshivas which teach evolution as fact; those are not Shafran’s target.)

        • rickflick
          Posted July 30, 2015 at 9:40 pm | Permalink

          You are doubtless right about that. Yet teaching skepticism in public schools is still a good idea. We need to safeguard the general public. There are assuredly some who are out of reach and beyond saving.

          • Diane G.
            Posted August 1, 2015 at 4:12 pm | Permalink

            All our great ideas about teaching critical thinking, skepticism, etc., ignore the fact that most teachers represent the same population of religion-accepting Americans we’re trying to overcome.

            • rickflick
              Posted August 1, 2015 at 6:26 pm | Permalink

              Perhaps they are, but they were public school students once too. Let’s break the cycle of ignorance.

              • Diane G.
                Posted August 1, 2015 at 11:14 pm | Permalink

                I’m all for it! (But still pessimistic, alas.)

  25. frednotfaith2
    Posted July 29, 2015 at 9:46 pm | Permalink

    So because the Rabbi is too stupid to understand the scientific evidence for evolution he falls back on the religious hunch for which there is absolutely no scientific evidence and dares to claim he is not basing his idiocy on his religious belief??? What chutzpah!!

    • rickflick
      Posted August 1, 2015 at 6:27 pm | Permalink

      Idiocy + chutzpah = disaster.

  26. rickflick
    Posted July 29, 2015 at 9:53 pm | Permalink

    “lead me to the stocks, if you must”.
    Sounds to me like a play for sympathy. Love me, I’m the underdog here.
    As Jerry says, he leads himself there.

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted July 29, 2015 at 11:31 pm | Permalink

      And I’ll happily supply the rotten tomatoes.

      Just another creation freak. And (as JAC pointed out) a liar when he says that isn’t down to religion (“While I believe in the divine origin of the Torah and its account of creation…”

      That annoys me. He’s intellectually dishonest.

      cr

  27. Michael
    Posted July 30, 2015 at 3:44 am | Permalink

    I believe that’s my hat tip. 🙂 And I’m even an orthodox Jew! But Shafran does this all the time and it drives me crazy. (You should see is nonsense on life on other planets.) The main give away in his piece was “I claim no official scientific credentials” People should have stopped reading there.

    Thanks for doing a great job!

    • Diane G.
      Posted July 30, 2015 at 3:33 pm | Permalink

      Are you still an orthodox Jew?

      • Michael
        Posted July 30, 2015 at 4:25 pm | Permalink

        Yes, I am.

        • rickflick
          Posted July 30, 2015 at 9:45 pm | Permalink

          That’s really interesting. Most people here-abouts are survivors or catastrophically none. What’s your stand on pork?

          • Michael
            Posted July 31, 2015 at 5:06 am | Permalink

            I think it’s very unkosher when legislators stuff it all in to an unrelated bill! 🙂

            • rickflick
              Posted July 31, 2015 at 9:55 am | Permalink

              Splendid!

  28. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted July 30, 2015 at 5:00 am | Permalink

    So evolution isn’t established science!? Oh, please!

    Sigh. More rubbish:

    the theory’s fundamental idea remains that life sprang from inanimate matter and came to yield all the organisms in the biosphere we occupy

    Only a religious person can say that, to pull it back to magic beliefs of life emergence. The evolutionary process is independent of how the ancestral living populations arose, it takes it from there. Like gravity is independent of how Earth accreted under gravity when it predicts how a rock falls today.

    Conversely we know the early Earth was sterile, but now is not. The easy prediction is that life can emerge out of early terrestrial conditions. What would the religious nut have us predict instead? Let me guess, it involves magic – but only _his_ kind of magic.

    When scientists in a lab manage to create a living organism (let alone a reproducing one) from inanimate matter, or to irradiate a simple organism and turn it into a clearly different one, I will happily concede the possibility, at least, that such happened in the past. That it happened millions of times? Well, we’ll talk.

    And here we have religion in all its folly. The extremists really think that their magic randomly “poofed” each species into existence, instead of accepting the simple fact of speciation that we all see. Because, magic.

  29. Posted July 30, 2015 at 8:47 am | Permalink

    Lying for YHWH. Is anyone surprised?

    I’ve mentioned this before; but I was once imprisoned with a talkative rabbi. Well, actually, I had jury duty; and the dude sat in the jury waiting room declaiming to all and to none about how, yes, “the Torah has the answer to any question in life,” blah, blah, blah. And smirking away while he said it.

    I wanted to ask him, “PC or Mac?” but really I just wanted to get away from him and certainly didn’t want to engage with him (and have him pester me, personally).

    That verb, “engage” (what the religious do with the “deep questions”. They don’t answer them, they “engage with” or “address” them. Funny that.)

    It reminds me of a local NPR talk show from last week. They were talking about the “nones”; and they had some pastor from the local community (Minneapolis area) on the show. And he said, oh no, hardly any of the nones are atheists (clutch thine pearls!). No, we engage them on their spiritual questions and welcome them in.

    Yeah, well, that’s about all religion can claim: It engages questions. I prefer answers. Those only come from science. The rest is post-modernism.

    • Diane G.
      Posted July 30, 2015 at 4:30 pm | Permalink

      Excellent point. And I smiled at “imprisoned” and “PC or Mac?” 😀

      In addition to “engaging” and “addressing,” they also do a lot of “wrestling” with ideas.

    • rickflick
      Posted July 30, 2015 at 6:35 pm | Permalink

      By “engaging” they actually mean:

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3jd1Ih8EUmw

  30. WT
    Posted July 30, 2015 at 8:50 am | Permalink

    Excellent piece, Professor Coyne. One comment:

    “I’ve known of only one evolution-denier who didn’t form that opinion on religious grounds (it’s David Berlinski, and I suspect he’s a secret believer), although I suppose there’s a smattering of others.”

    Don’t forget Virginia Heffernan, the postmodernist creationist from a couple years back!

    (As a school of thought, postmodernism leads to absurdity almost as reliably as theology, so it was hardly a surprise that there are postmodern creationists.)

  31. Vaal
    Posted July 30, 2015 at 6:04 pm | Permalink

    Rabbi Wrote: “When scientists in a lab manage to create a living organism (let alone a reproducing one) from inanimate matter, or to irradiate a simple organism and turn it into a clearly different one, I will happily concede the possibility, at least, that such happened in the past. “

    Ah, but then all that experiment would prove is it takes Intelligent Design to create life!

    There’s always an out….

  32. Posted July 31, 2015 at 11:38 am | Permalink

    “to irradiate a simple organism and turn it into a clearly different one”

    — Notice he doesn’t understand how mutations work!

    • Jim Jones
      Posted July 31, 2015 at 4:17 pm | Permalink

      Keith Douglas ” — Notice he doesn’t understand how mutations work!”

      Isn’t that how it works in comic books?

      “Spiderman, Spiderman, does whatever a spider can.”

  33. redsearoadkill
    Posted August 6, 2015 at 8:28 am | Permalink

    In my past life as an Orthodox Jew (not all that long ago) I had a handful of interactions with Rabbi Shafran; nothing particularly memorable.

    When I started seriously doubting the dogma, I started paying more attention to what the rabbinic leaders of my slice of Judaism were saying. Rabbi Shafran was (and still is) one of the most prominent of those voices. I exchanged private communications with him on three occasions, each time in a futile attempt to get him to recognize basic science, which he claimed to accept.

    The third (and final) time was when he wrote the following piece promoting ‘gay conversion’ therapy:
    http://www.cross-currents.com/archives/2012/02/23/give-gays-a-chance/

    I emailed with remarkable care and tact considering how hateful and damaging his message was. I forwarded a review from the American Psychiatric Association (APA) showing how horribly destructive these ‘therapies’ are. He replied by digging in his heels, and saying things like:

    “As to the scientific agreement, the APA is entitled to its opinion (and biases, which many of its members have charged it with). But I assure you that the young man I referred to is one of many I know of, and that a number of professional therapists have corroborated to me that they have had successes with patients — not “curing” them but helping them relate sexually to the opposite sex and keep their same-sex attractions at bay. These are not cranks, by the way, but mainstream therapists.

    So I stand by my claim.”

    After that, I stopped trying. This man is a religious ideologue who finds shallow, plausible-sounding strands of semi-evidence to bolster his community’s dogmas, and then presents them as scientific positions. It is indistinguishable from the tactics of The Discovery Institute (which I think I recall Shafran has actually linked to in the past). In his defense, I don’t think he does this consciously; I think his religious beliefs feel like ‘facts’ — I know that’s how they felt to me for most of my life. Since he ‘knows’ the religious truth (evolution is false, homosexuality is an abomination, etc.) is fact, any shred of supporting evidence, no matter how weak, must be good. I do not think he’s consciously deceiving anyone; he’s done too thorough a job at proactively deceiving himself. And he’s just marginally more eloquent than the average member of the community; he really does represent the community consensus (all my siblings and my parents, for examples).

    For a very depressing example of this kind of thinking, check out Lawrence Kelemen’s “Permission to Believe”, a book various rabbis suggested I read when I told them of my crisis of faith. It is a compendium of weak arguments for belief in the Orthodox Jewish version of God, presented blatantly as having just enough plausibility to give the reader intellectual ‘permission to believe’, so they can then stop thinking critically about it.

    • rickflick
      Posted August 6, 2015 at 12:17 pm | Permalink

      Your story is remarkable. Fascinating. Your trip from belief to non-belief must have been quit an adventure. It leaves you in a unique position to understand and explain what to me seems inexpiable. Congratulations for having thought yourself through.


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