The passionately contested scientific critique of Darwinian evolution called “Intelligent Design” is hotter than ever. Yet in this controversy, with its profound moral and spiritual implications, the Jewish community has remained curiously abstracted and irrelevant.
Our irrelevance stands out when you consider how many Christians, from President Bush to Cardinal Christoph Schonborn, have weighed in on the intellectual issue itself or on the more practical question of whether American public school students should be familiarized with Darwinism’s serious shortcomings. But it’s not just in comparison to Christians that Jewish silence on Intelligent Design is so notable. It is also a departure from our own tradition of engagement with scientific and theological questions of just this kind.
Intelligent Design, as most readers must be aware, is not creationism. It fully accepts that what we know of the earth’s great antiquity and of the interrelationship of species can’t be squared with a literal reading of the Genesis creation account. Rather, it asks probing questions about whether natural selection operating on chance genetic variation can explain the development of complex life, questions as yet not convincingly answered by Darwin’s modern champions.
The fight over Intelligent Design is on the cover of this week’s Time magazine, and the rest of the media is full of the subject. Nowhere, though, have I seen a Jewish contribution to the discussion that could be held up alongside last month’s Op-Ed essay in The New York Times by Schonborn, the archbishop of Vienna and an influential Roman Catholic theologian. He cogently sets forth his church’s reasons for affirming design in nature. Where, I wonder, are the scholars of Yeshiva University, Orthodoxy’s flagship educational institution that was founded to make Torah confront the issues raised by modernity? On Intelligent Design, Y.U. is so far AWOL.
When I say that Jewish abstraction from the debate betrays our heritage, I have Maimonides in mind. His “The Guide of the Perplexed,” completed in 1190, was addressed to Torah scholars, fully committed to Judaism and fully conversant with science, who wanted to understand how our tradition could be reconciled with the scholarship of the day, notably Aristotelian cosmology.
A hefty chunk of the book is devoted to eviscerating what Maimonides considered to be the vacuous theological science then being taught by Muslim scholars. He held this “science” in as high regard as today’s Intelligent Design theoreticians and Darwinists alike hold creationism. This was all by way of clearing the table for a critique of Aristotle’s theory of the world’s origins — or rather, its nonorigins.
In Aristotle’s view, physical matter is eternal, without a beginning, thus obviating the need for a creator in the biblical sense who produced the universe from nothingness. Maimonides gave his reasons for refusing to jettison the belief in a biblical creator. This refusal was not, he said, because Judaism imposes a fundamentalist obligation to read Scripture literally. It doesn’t.
Rather, he upheld the doctrine of a divine creator and designer for two reasons. First, because Aristotle’s teaching “has not been demonstrated,” as Maimonides argued in great detail. On this, of course, he turned out to be right. Secular science took more than 700 years to catch up, but now all agree that in the beginning there was a Big Bang.
And second, Maimonides retained the concept of a created universe because without it, a religion of commandments is rendered nonsensical. He wrote, “The belief in eternity the way Aristotle sees it… destroys the Torah in its principle, necessarily gives the lie to every miracle, and reduces to inanity all the hopes and threats that the Torah held out.” If the eternity of the university could be proved, then “the Torah as a whole would become void, and a shift to other opinions would take place. I have thus explained to you that everything is bound up with this problem.”
Darwinian evolution, whose purpose from the start was to show that no creator or designer was necessary for the development of life, remains undemonstrated. This is the conclusion of Intelligent Design’s expert advocates — biologists, chemists and paleontologists — a minority in those sciences but a learned one, daring to challenge those among their colleagues who, like professors in other fields, fiercely defend the sources of secular academic prestige.
Yet the Intelligent Design question might remain merely an academic one were it not for the fact that Darwinism — with its reliance on random genetic variation as the root source of complex life — would render Judaism, or Christianity, void as surely as Aristotle’s eternal universe threatened to do. In his 1871 book “The Descent of Man,” Charles Darwin himself spelled out the ramifications of his idea.
Without a designer, our moral precepts are simply the product of natural selection. As Darwin explained, we could have evolved differently. If we had done so, then our ideas even about fundamental ethical issues such as murder might be unrecognizable. “We may, therefore,” Darwin wrote, turning to another moral question, “reject the belief… that the abhorrence of incest is due to our possessing a special God-implanted conscience.” In Darwinism, there can be no moral absolutes.
Everything, as Maimonides said in a different but related context, is bound up with this problem. America’s moral future is being debated and we Jews remain untouched, barely aware. Our failure to engage the issue in a serious way is one of the sadder observations you can make about Jewish intellectual and religious culture today.
David Klinghoffer is author of “Why the Jews Rejected Jesus: The Turning Point in Western History” (Doubleday).