Sunday, October 31, 2010

Irrefutable Proofs & the Case of the Panda's Thumb

The national project of the Jewish people has been to study the Torah (received from G-d at Sinai), to put it into practice, and to transmit it intact (to the best of our abilities) to the next generation. The Rambam (MN II.25) goes so far as to say that only an irrefutable proof (by Aristotle or Plato, for example) would be grounds for reconsidering the simple reading (peshat) of the first chapters of Genesis. The essential historicity of the first chapters of Genesis is accepted by all our b'aalei mesora.
On each day of the six day creation week, novel entities were formed outside of the system of nature currently in operation and, on the seventh day (Shabbos), the state of the world became lasting and established just as it is at present. [Rambam, MN 1:67]

“The geographical location of the mizbeach was extremely precise; it’s location is never to be altered…It is a tradition in the hands of all that the place Dovid and Shlomo built the mizbeach in Goren Arvinah is the same place that Avraham built the mizbeach to which he tied Yitzchok. It is the place which Noach built upon when he exited the ark. It is the mizbeach which Kayin and Hevel offered upon and Adam haRishon sacrificed a korban when he was created. And from there he was created. Our sages have said, ‘Adam was born from the dust located at the place of his atonement’”. (Rambam, Hilchos Beis haBechira 2:1-2)
Proofs against our mesora, needless to say, have not been provided. Following the Rambam, we are committed to rational discourse. We have a well authenticated national tradition -- so the burden of proof is on those who wish to contest our baalei mesora.

In his books R. Slifkin has taken a view contrary to our baalei mesora including the Rambam (see above). Following Darwin, R. Slifkin believes that man evolved from primitive ape-like precursors, and he thus aligns himself with Darwinians who believe in vestigial organs, embryological debris and poorly designed structures such as the Panda's thumb. Evolution's Blind Watchmaker Thesis claims that we are here by unguided processes (e.g. random mutation and natural selection) that did not have us in mind. While this type of belief is supportive of atheism, R. Slifkin believes that we can nevertheless be "religious Darwinists". “Naturalistic Darwinian evolution is fully compatible with religion” (Challenge p. 294). “The blind-watchmaker thesis need not be incompatible with God” (Challenge p. 297). Consider a section titled "Imperfect Design from a Perfect Creator" in which Rabbi Slifkin writes as follows: 
Stephen Jay Gould [Harvard University] has elaborated upon this argument in his work The Panda's Thumb [1980]. Pandas do not have an opposable thumb that is one of the five digits, as do other animals with grasping hands. Instead, they have a modification of the wrist bone, which serves to help grasp bamboo. Such a "thumb" makes sense in light of Darwinian evolution; the thumb was already pressed into use as a finger, leaving natural selection to operate with the wrist bone. But, argues Gould, this is too inefficient a limb to be the work of a wise Creator. There are other features of organisms that not only appear poorly designed, but are even potentially detrimental. ... Evolutionists correctly argue that these indicate descent from earlier species; atheist evolutionists incorrectly argue that they disprove the existence of a wise Creator. ... 
We can therefore plausibly contend that He [the Creator] would use the simplest means to obtain the complex goal of the world in which we live. It is a mark of genius to create a system that can produce a panda from a non-panda (even at the cost of having an inflexible thumb), rather than having to design one from scratch. Far from being a menace to religion, boundless Darwinian evolution assists in explaining an age-old problem of why there are so many features of living things that seem poorly designed, useless, or even harmful. [Challenge p. 303-304, Emphasis added]
The above style of reasoning (common in evolutionary biology) is very far from the standards of the hard sciences (and even further from the standard of proof demanded by the Rambam when it comes to our mesora). For example, even if it is true that the Panda's thumb is poorly designed, there are no detailed testable Darwinian pathways that can explain the origin of wrist bones, thumbs, the muscle, nerve and the brain mechanisms needed to run all this machinery (robots that perform these functions are the product of advanced intelligent design techniques).

However, a 1999 study in Nature analyzed the giant panda's thumb using computed tomography, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and related techniques. Contrary to R. Slifkin's and Gould "poorly designed" panda's thumb, the study shows that the radial sesamoid bone (its "thumb") is "one of the most extraordinary manipulation systems" among mammals.
The way in which the giant pandaAiluropoda melanoleuca, uses the radial sesamoid bone — its ‘pseudo-thumb’ — for grasping makes it one of the most extraordinary manipulation systems in mammalian evolution. ...
The three-dimensional images we obtained indicate that the radial sesamoid bone cannot move independently of its articulated bones, as has been suggested, but rather acts as part of a functional unit of manipulation. The radial sesamoid bone and the accessory carpal bone form a double pincer-like apparatus in the medial and lateral sides of the hand, respectively, enabling the panda to manipulate objects with great dexterity. ...
We have shown that the hand of the giant panda has a much more refined grasping mechanism than has been suggested in previous morphological models.
[Endo, H., Yamagiwa, D., Hayashi, Y. H., Koie, H., Yamaya, Y., and Kimura, J. 1999. Nature 397: 309-310. Emphasis added]
For more on the Panda's thumb see here.

R. Slifkin should consider adding the case of the Panda's thumb to the errata list he has compiled for his book. In the preface to Challenge of Creation, R. Slifkin writes that he is "following the approach of the Rambam". This too should be added to the errata list. More to the point, R. Slifkin has embraced "theistic evolution". But, theistic evolution is a new (or at least different) religion whose dogma is contrary to the essence of our mesora


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  2. The Rambam (MN II.25) goes so far as to say that only an irrefutable proof (by Aristotle or Plato, for example) would be grounds for reconsidering the simple reading (peshat) of the first chapters of Genesis

    Please expand. Did Aristotle and/or Plato present an irrefutable proof or not? What exactly is the standard here?

  3. Did Aristotle and/or Plato present an irrefutable proof or not? What exactly is the standard here?

    The Rambam says they did not (although I am not aware of any source showing that the global consensus of philosphers agreed to the Rambam's position).

    The Rambam's formulation of this classical Jewish attitude is fundamental:

    "If we were to accept the Eternity of the Universe as taught by Aristotle, that everything in the Universe is the result of fixed laws, that Nature does not change, and that there is nothing supernatural, we should necessarily be in opposition to the foundation of our religion, we should disbelieve all miracles and signs, and certainly reject all hopes and fears derived from Scripture, unless the miracles are also explained figuratively. The Allegorists amongst the Mohammedans have done this, and have thereby arrived at absurd conclusions. If, however, we accepted the Eternity of the Universe in accordance with the second of the theories which we have expounded above (ch. xxiii.), and assumed, with Plato, that the heavens are likewise transient, we should not be in opposition to the fundamental principles of our religion: this theory would not imply the rejection of miracles, but, on the contrary, would admit them as possible. The Scriptural text might have been explained accordingly [i.e., that the material of the universe always existed "side-by-side" with God, but at a certain time He began forming it in a meta-natural way over a six-day period, and then, on the seventh day, established a different process through universe runs, that being what we call "Nature,"--ZL] and many expressions might have been found in the Bible and in other writings that would confirm and support this theory.

    "But there is no necessity for this expedient, so long as the theory has not been proved. As there is no proof sufficient to convince us, this theory need not be taken into consideration, nor the other one: we take the text of the Bible literally, and say that it teaches us a truth which we cannot prove: and the miracles are evidence for the correctness of our view.

    "Accepting the Creation, we find that miracles are possible, that Revelation is possible, and that every difficulty in this question is removed. We might be asked, Why has God inspired a certain person and not another? Why has He revealed the Law to one particular nation, and at one particular time? why has He commanded this, and forbidden that? why has He shown through a prophet certain particular miracles? what is the object of these laws? and Why has He not made the commandments and the prohibitions part of our nature, if it was His object that we should live in accordance with them? We answer to all these questions: He willed it so; or, His wisdom decided so. Just as He created the world according to His will, at a certain time, in a certain form, and as we do not understand why His will or His wisdom decided upon that peculiar form, and upon that peculiar time, so we do not know why His will or wisdom determined any of the things mentioned in the preceding questions.

    "But if we assume that the Universe has the present form as the result of fixed laws, there is occasion for the above questions: and these could only be answered in an objectionable way, implying denial and rejection of the Biblical texts, the correctness of which no intelligent person doubts.


  4. (continuation)

    "Owing to the absence of all proof, we reject the theory of the Eternity of the Universe: and it is for this very reason that the noblest minds spent and will spend their days in research. For if the Creation had been demonstrated by proof, even if only according to the Platonic hypothesis, all arguments of the philosophers against us would be of no avail. If, on the other hand, Aristotle had a proof for his theory, the whole teaching of Scripture would be rejected, and we should be forced to other opinions [that negate the whole teaching of Scripture--ZL]. I have thus shown that all depends on this question. Note it."

    (Friedlander translation)