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September 17th, 2009

The Creation Controversy

One Rabbi’s Rosh Hashanah reflection on Evolution

 
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charles_darwinSIMCHA2.INSIDHave you heard the one about the time the monkey escaped from the zoo? The zookeeper looked high and low, and after a long search, he finally found the monkey sitting in the public library.

His mixed-up looking monkey was holding a Bible in one (opposably-thumbed) hand, and Charles Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species” in the other.

“I’m confused,” the monkey told the zookeeper. “Am I my brother’s keeper – or my keeper’s brother?”

You’ll forgive a rabbi for starting off with a little joke. (“Very little,” I can hear some of you saying.) It’s a hazard of the job. But for a rabbi like me, the subject of evolution is no joke.

And as an Englishman now living in New York, I’m conscious of the fact that the topic is never far from the surface here in America. This is the country where atheists “celebrate” Christmas by trying to get “Silent Night” silenced from school pageants, then furious Christians respond with unchristian fury – and we Jews get blamed for it all!

I kid! Again. (Mostly.)

Creation Across the Pond
But yes, in the United States, the fallout from the famous Scopes “Monkey” Trial — which pitted evolutionists against creationists — is still in the air.

So I’m not surprised that the producer of a new British movie about Charles Darwin is blaming “religious American audiences” because his film, “Creation,” can’t get a distribution deal across the pond.

“Creation” stars Paul Bettany and Jennifer Connolly as Charles Darwin and his devout wife, Emma. The film depicts events leading up to the publication of Darwin’s world changing book. In particular, the death of Darwin’s ten-year-old daughter, Anna, caused him to question his Christian faith and paved the way for his theory of evolution and natural selection.

No sooner had the London Daily Mail trumpeted the producer’s claim that right wing Christians were trying to ban his movie, than Twitter and Facebook lit up like (soon to be banned) Christmas trees, with calls to defend “Creation” against those redneck censors.

The trouble is: a reporter from New York Magazine (hardly an ally of the fundamentalists) couldn’t find any actual film distributors to confirm the producer’s tales of persecution. The reporter then ventured another guess at the cause of the movie’s misfortunes: “Maybe the movie’s just not that good? And a money loser to boot?” mused Dan Kois, quoting one critic as calling it “Flat, dull, and painful to sit through.”

Real Theories
So while American Christians have indeed tried to ban “offensive” movies in the past, this time they don’t seem to care enough about “Creation” to bother. Frankly, until I read in the Daily Mail about this “controversy” allegedly sweeping America, I hadn’t heard a thing about it.

This doesn’t mean I don’t care about the topic of evolution. I’d just rather argue about real theories and real science, not imaginary controversies surrounding forgettable movies.

Don’t get me wrong: without the brilliance and hard work of scientists in every field, our world would be a poorer place. I admire their ingenuity and dedication. Heck, I admire the fact that they’ve mastered mathematics, because I sure couldn’t!

Evolutionary Confession
I only wish evolutionary scientists could admit that they are no more objective about their field than I am about mine. Scientists claim to be motivated by reason, logic and facts – but Darwin himself was clearly influenced by tragic events in his own life, and the feelings these events engendered.

Would the theory of natural selection have ever “evolved” if Darwin’s daughter had lived? We can only speculate – except that lots of “free thinking” scientists wish we wouldn’t.

Evolution says that a dumb universe can create intelligent beings. But we read in Genesis that our intelligent universe just looks dumb – it is smarter than we can perceive.

That’s not to say we human beings aren’t dumb: if you want to see how badly natural selection works, just watch some reality TV!

Some respectable Torah scholars have tried to align Judaism with evolution. Yet none of them can square the famous creation story in Genesis with Darwin’s theories, or their own.

Their error stems from the commonplace belief that evolution has been scientifically proven and therefore cannot be questioned. This is simply not the case. While Darwin’s theories were quickly embraced as handy (and sometimes sinister) metaphors by some artists, writers and philosophers – not to mention a famous dictator or two — they haven’t withstood more rigorous examination.

At bottom, we’re stuck with a handful of fossils, lots of speculation – and plenty of unanswered questions.

The human mind recoils at the prospect of having to say, “I don’t understand.” Any theory is better than none. As far as many moderns are concerned, even a half-baked theory is better than the alternative: religious faith.

Anyway, “Creation” co-star Jennifer Connelly is Jewish. In fact, she was raised here in Brooklyn Heights, where my synagogue resides. I would implore her not to waste this weekend worrying over her new movie’s disappointing performance at the box office. I invite her to come to shul for Rosh Hashanah instead. We may not have all the answers, but we do have something better than theories. We have faith.

 
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The Author : Rabbi Simcha Weinstein
Simcha Weinstein is an award-winning author, whose latest book is Shtick Shift: Jewish Humor in the 21st century (Barricade Books: 2008) is out now. He also chairs the Religious Affairs Committee at Pratt Institute in New York. Simcha serves as rabbi to Long Island College Hospital.
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Please note that the editorial staff reserves the right to not post comments it deems to be inappropriate and/or malicious in nature, as well as edit comments for length, clarity and fairness.
  • Carly

    I’m assuming by “handful of fossils” you mean the thousands of well-documented and studied fossils. And when you say that Darwin’s theories haven’t been rigorously tested, you’re not talking about all the biological experiments, field studies, and other such methods that have rigorously tested the theory.
    There is confusion over the word “theory” as it is used by scientists – it isn’t a guess, it is a systematic sets of concepts that provide explanations for observing patterns in nature. A good scientific theory: 1. Agrees with the data
    2. Has logical consistency – parts of it don’t contradict other parts
    3. Suggests verifiable causes that explain and predict
    Evolution has all these characteristics.

  • Henry

    Only atheists must believe in evolution, unless they believe we were planted here by some aliens from outer space, or some other evasion.
    I don’t suppose most people feel any urgency to take a position on the subject
    and are more interested in where they’re going when their own relatively short span of development is over.

  • pauline

    amazing article

    he’s not knocking science but rather hollywood getting it wrong and blaming the wrong people

  • Grant

    @Marissa – That’s exactly how I feel. I’m Christian, so I’m used to hearing others immediately put down the theory of evolution as “evil”. It’s a theory about our origins and (to the religious minded) one possible way God may have created man. Evolution doesn’t equal atheism.

  • Marissa L

    Those unobjective evolutionary biologists say “I don’t know” all the time with respect to things such as various unresolved phylogenies. Is it only evolutionary scientists that are unobjective about their field, or all scientists?

    The theory of evolution is not a half-baked theory; it is well supported by fossil and molecular evidence, which was unmentioned in this article.

    Evolution and natural selection really have nothing to say about whether the universe is dumb or intelligent, and certainly not about the existence of God, which is a question outside the realm of scientific investigation.

  • JRM

    “Would the theory of natural selection have ever ‚Äúevolved‚Äù if Darwin‚Äôs daughter had lived? We can only speculate…”

    Not true at all. The Rabbi’s knowledge of history is as abysmal as his knowledge fo sciecne. Alfred North Wallace, Darwin’s contemorary indepedently also worked out details of evolution.

    But the “bother’s keeper” joke was fabulous!

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