Torah and Evolution

*Note: the discussion below may be of a sensitive nature for some. Please read with an open mind, and please commit to reading it all the way to the end.

When reading the Torah’s first portion, Beresheet, one inevitably thinks of the origins of this universe, particularly of cosmology and cosmogony, as well as of astronomy, biology, genealogy, and ancient human history. Some of the biggest questions of faith are intricately tied with this parasha: How exactly did the universe come about? How old is the universe? Where did life come from, and what force stands behind the marvelous biodiversity in nature? The former two questions have been addressed in the past (see ‘Torah on the Big Bang and the Age of the Universe’). Now we shall look at perhaps the most controversial subject within the “Torah vs. Science” debate, and a subject that is poorly understood both in the religious world and in the secular world—evolution.

What is Evolution?

At its simplest, evolution means that life on Earth changes over time. This is pretty straight forward and self-evident. We have countless fossils of ancient species that are extinct, and have ourselves caused the extinction of many species in recent centuries. We see new dog breeds being produced every so often, and we have an “arms race” against infectious bacteria that develop antibiotic resistance over time, necessitating the development of new antibiotics. We find that human IQ tends to increase over the years, as has average human height, and average human lifespan. There is no doubt that life on Earth is not static; it changes!

Now, how it is that life changes is an entirely different story. Scientists pondered and debated this long before Charles Darwin (1809-1882). One of the most prominent evolutionists before him was Jean-Baptise Lamarck (1744-1829). He was famous for his theories of “use and disuse” (a specie that uses a particular organ extensively will experience that organ becoming more prominent over time, and vice versa) and the inheritance of acquired traits (a trait that a specie developed in its lifetime would pass on to its offspring). These ideas would later be disproven and, later still, resurrected and re-proven, as they actually have validity (especially when it comes to fields like epigenetics).

Darwin, after spending some five years doing biological and zoological research aboard the HMS Beagle as it journeyed around the world, put together his own ideas on evolution. What he is specifically famous for is the theory of “natural selection”. In short, we know intuitively that there is always competition among life forms for a limited number of resources. We as humans compete with each other for jobs and university seats, money and properties, on various tests and for all kinds of prizes. Animals compete for things like food and mates, plants compete for access to sunlight and water, and so on. Life, in Darwin’s words (based on the earlier work of Thomas Malthus), is in a constant “struggle for existence”. As such, those that are best adapted to their surroundings will be most likely to survive and thrive. In other words, there is a “survival of the fittest”, a term not actually coined by Darwin, but by Herbert Spencer (1820-1903).

Those surviving and thriving species will inevitably pass on their traits to future generations, while weaker species will be less likely to do so. The traits of the “superior” species will be amplified in the population. Thus, over long periods of time, species will change (“descent with modification”), and may diverge into entirely new species. With careful research and examination, we can put together a phylogenetic tree showing the relationships between existing species, as well as their biological ancestors.

We can use genetic information to further enhance our understanding of these relationships. (In fact, Darwin somewhat predicted the existence of genes that carry human traits—he called them “gemmules”—long before DNA was discovered.) For instance, humans and chimps share about 98% of the same genes, while humans and mice share about 90% of the same genes (making them very useful model organisms to experiment on). More amazingly, humans, mice, and chimps all share the same mutated sequences of DNA called Ancient Repetitive Elements (ARE’s), suggesting strongly that we all come from a common mammal ancestor (of course, it can just as well suggest that we were made by the same Creator working with the same raw materials!) Incredibly, even humans and bananas share something like 40% of the same genes. Ultimately, we all go back to one ancient common ancestor, the origin of all life.

On that important note, Darwin did not have a working theory for how life began, only the processes behind how existing life changed. Today, there is still no solid scientific hypothesis for the origin of life (more on this later). For Darwin, evolution may have contradicted certain religious principles, but did not preclude the existence of God. He would say that there is no reason a person cannot be both “an ardent theist and an evolutionist”, and later described himself as an agnostic, but never an atheist. While much of his own faith was shaken, he nonetheless wrote that “There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms… and from so simple a beginning, endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have evolved.”

This Darwin wrote in his famous On the Origin of Species outlining his theory, first published in 1859. Partly because of the religious implications, Darwin withheld publishing his theory for many years. He finally did so mainly because another naturalist named Alfred Wallace (1823-1913), who similarly spent years doing extensive biological research around the world, had come to the same conclusions as Darwin, and was preparing to publish his own work. Wallace corresponded with Darwin, and humbly stepped aside for Darwin to take full credit. Today, few know Wallace’s name.

All in all, the theory of evolution by natural selection was truly an elegant one, explaining a great deal about nature and making sense of all kinds of biological mysteries. Over time, more and more evidence was collected in support of the theory. It informs just about every aspect of biology, and has been at the core of the subject for over a century. It has stood the test of time and is agreed upon by the vast majority of the scientific community. Yet, it still has as a critical flaw that, ironically, can only be solved through the existence of a Creator.

Issues in Evolution

When Darwin put forth his theory, he assumed that life evolved gradually and consistently over long periods of time. The biological “tree of life” should therefore start very narrow and gradually get wider and more branched, roughly in the shape of a triangle. As it turns out, this is not at all the case! Today, we find evidence that for the first couple of billion years of life, there was little diversity at all, and only single-celled organisms for the most part. (For how to reconcile the scientific estimate of a universe that is 13.7 billion years old and our unshakeable knowledge that the universe was undoubtedly created in Six Days, see here.) We find that the majority of categories of species all emerged quite suddenly and around the same time, about 540 million years ago in a period known as the Cambrian Explosion. This is when groups like fish, reptiles and dinosaurs, mammals, and many others appear in the geological record—all seemingly at the same time. This flies in the face of Darwin’s “gradualism”.

As such, many evolutions switched to a belief in “punctuated equilibrium”, where life actually doesn’t change much at all for long periods of time. There are occasional sudden mass events that trigger a brief proliferation of new life, followed by long periods of dormancy and little variation. This does not fit well with the notion of slow and steady speciation, and is difficult to explain. What causes such “punctuations” in the geological record?

A related issue is that it quite difficult to find good examples of “macroevolution”, big jumps in speciation. We do find many cases of small-scale “microevolution”, such as bacteria evolving resistance to our antibiotics. Nonetheless, these bacteria are still bacteria of the same species. They have not speciated, just developed a new trait. If we look at the artificial selection of dogs, too, we find that despite thousands of years of purposeful human breeding, dogs are still dogs, and have not speciated into something new. The counterargument is that enough “microevolutions” will eventually lead to “macroevolution”, and that we simply cannot visualize this process since our human time frame is so short. It would be impossible to witness over a single lifespan, or even several lifespans, since it would take millions of years.

However, when actually doing the math, we find that there has not been nearly enough time (even with an Earth estimated to be 4.5 billion years old) to generate the vast diversity of life on the planet. There are over 2 million known species, each with vast richness and variation in genes and traits. In his essay “Evolution: Rationality vs. Randomness”, Dr. Gerald Schroeder works out the numbers to show it is simply impossible. Even just to generate a basic bacterial cell is mathematically impossible. Schroeder cites Belgian Nobel Prize-winning biochemist Christian de Duve as saying: “If you equate the probability of the birth of a bacteria cell to chance assembly of its atoms, eternity will not suffice to produce one…” There is no way that life on this Earth appeared spontaneously. Schroeder also cites renowned paleontologist Simon Conway Morris as stating: “Life is simply too complex to be assembled on any believable time scale…”

See the short video above to appreciate just a little bit of how unbelievably complex our genetic machinery is – and how obviously it points to a Creator.

Morris, like many top biologists today, is a theistic evolutionist. That means recognizing that organisms clearly do change over time, and speciation does occur, but also admitting that there must be a God who is overseeing this process and channeling those changes. A God who is triggering those inexplicable “punctuations” that drive evolutionary change. A God who is generating those worthwhile mutations (since we know, without a doubt, that the vast majority of random mutations actually cause cancers and disease, not improvements). Ironically, without a God who generates life and keeps the process going, evolution does not work!

Another theistic evolutionist is famed geneticist Francis Collins, who oversaw the ground-breaking Human Genome Project. He laid out his argument for theistic evolution in The Language of God, and concluded: “The God of the Bible is also the God of the genome. He can be worshiped in the cathedral or in the laboratory. His creation is majestic, awesome, intricate, and beautiful—and it cannot be at war with itself. Only we imperfect humans can start such battles. And only we can end them.” Intriguingly, one of the leading young evolutionists and biophysicists in the world today—who has even been called “the Next Darwin”—is an Orthodox Jew named Jeremy England (he has semicha, too). And this is possible because a careful reading of the Torah shows that the Torah itself speaks of theistic evolution!

Evolution in the Torah

Our Sages taught that “With Ten Utterances did God create the universe…” (Avot 5:1) As we read in this week’s parasha, God spoke a total of ten times (“Vayomer Elohim…”) and through these ten instances of speech, the entire cosmos and everything in it came about. One of those Ten Utterances was when God commanded the Earth: “Let the Earth bring forth living creatures, according to its kind…” (Genesis 1:24) What do we see from this? God did not directly make every individual species, but rather commanded the Earth to bring forth living creatures as necessary, “according to their kind”. He programmed the planet to bring forth life, with a wide diversity of species, l’minah.

Thus, while God certainly launched the process and oversees it (deciding ultimately what life should exist or not), it is nonetheless the Earth itself that was given the power to generate the various species of life. This is precisely what the Ramban (Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, 1194-1270) says in his commentary on Genesis 1:11: “[God] decreed that there should be in the propagation of the Earth a potential to grow and to produce seed… the power of growth comes from it [the Earth], and behold, from its power emanated the elements according to their species…”

Amazingly, the Zohar (III, 10a) suggested this as well long ago, saying: “The entire planet is rotating like a ball. There are people below, and people above. And all the different creatures have a varying appearance due to the different environments of each land.” (In the original language: דהא כל ישובא מתגלגלא בעגולא ככדור, אלין לתתא, ואלין לעילא, וכל אינון בריין משניין בחזוויהו משנויא דאוירא, כפום כל אתר ואתר) Recall that the Zohar dates back two millennia and was first officially published over 700 years ago. Yet, the Zohar already revealed tremendous secrets: not only is the planet spherical, but is “rotating like a ball”, something that scientists did not confirm until the end of the 19th century! Similarly, the Zohar states that there are different species of creatures all over the world because of shinuya d’avira, variations in the environment. In other words, species adapt to their environments and thus have varying traits, just as natural selection posits.

Looking back in the Torah, we find that the sequence of life forms being created neatly mirrors what scientists have discovered. The earliest known organisms in the fossil record appear to be photosynthetic microbes, the ancestors of modern plants. The Torah also speaks of the first life forms being photosynthetic plants (on Day Three). Scientists hold that life began in the waters, just as the Torah speaks of the earliest life forms “teeming” in the waters (Genesis 1:20). Here, too, on Day Five, the Torah mysteriously mentions taninim gedolim, the “large reptiles”, a term in which many see a reference to dinosaurs. (Keep in mind that our Sages said these taninim gedolim no longer exist, and that God destroyed them—except perhaps for one—because they were too terrifying!) In the Torah, mankind appears last, as do humans in the fossil record. The overall sequence, therefore, according to both Torah and science is in agreement.

Not surprisingly then, our rabbis in times past were more open to accepting the theory of evolution. For instance, Rav Kook (1865-1935) wrote in his Orot (565):

Evolution itself, moving upwards coordinately and undeviating from the lowest to the highest, demonstrates most clearly a pre-vision from afar, a pre-set purpose for all existence. Divine greatness is thereby enhanced and all the goals of faith confirmed, and trust and service of the Divine is all the more justified… there is no difficulty in reconciling the verses of Torah or other traditional texts with an evolutionary standpoint.

Rabbi Natan Slifkin brings more examples in his (unnecessarily controversial) book The Challenge of Creation, including the Netziv, Rav Hirsch, and Rabbi Naftali Levy (see pages 302-303). More recently, Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan espoused similar beliefs in his Handbook of Jewish Thought (though the comment has been censored out in modern editions!) Rabbi Yitzchak Ginsburgh is another prominent figure who has sought to synthesize Torah and evolution in a kosher way in his The Breath of Life. Nor did Rabbi Jonathan Sacks see a conflict between Torah and evolution, stating “Evolution… is in my view one of the most remarkably religious ideas ever developed in science. And the idea that it could lead to atheism, I find totally unintelligible…” Truly, there need not be any conflict at all. Science is far from perfect, and is always in flux, but has nonetheless uncovered some of the great truths that were already written in our holy Torah millennia ago.

For a lot more on Torah and evolution, please watch the following shiur: