Reading various discussions amongst Orthodox Jews regarding how to relate to Evolution, and works which discuss it, I was always aggravated by two interrelated problems. One was that the primary focus was always on the “history” side of the equation, which I found to be of little to no consequence. The second was those who sought to live their lives and form their opinions based on Torah, but found it absolutely inconceivable that one could identify Evolution as heresy (even though HaRav Moshe Feinstein zt’l paskened to edit/censor textbooks which contained such references). The common denominator to either issue is the overlooking the real problem with evolution: Natural Selection.
“natural selection the mechanism proposed by Charles DARWIN by which gradual evolutionary changes take place. Organisms that are better adapted to the environment in which they live produce more viable young, increasing their proportion in the population and, therefore, being selected. Such a mechanism depends on the variability of individuals within the population. The variability arises through MUTATION, the beneficial mutants being preserved by NATURAL SELECTION.” (The Harper Collins Dictionary: Biology, Page 377).For the theist who seeks to incorporate Evolution into his or her worldview, whether due to not wishing to seem as a boor to academia or due to an actual understanding and acceptance of the empirical evidence which underlies Evolution, I believe the full implication of Natural Selection and its philosophical significance have been overshadowed. The notion that variations in a population allow them to adapt better to their environment and in turn to be more successful in producing offspring is essentially observable so in light of the other evidence it does not seem improbable to attribute such adaptation could lead to speciation given sufficient time.
Nevertheless “Natural Selection” is not just “natural selection” of variations which help the species adapt. More is implied by the term.
“This thesis is the Principle of the Origin of Species by Natural Selection. It asserts that natural selection operating on variations is not only a sufficient condition for the origin of a species but also the only sufficient condition for the origin of any species” (The Logic and Methodology of Science and Pseudoscience, Fred Wilson, page 150).
Not only can such a process be understood as a theory in accordance with the laws of nature, but it can and should be understood as in and of itself sufficient to explain the existence of life and all of its species without any divine guidance. Any attempt at suggesting a Creator’s involvement is unnecessary and undesirable. “Guided” evolution is anathema to “Natural Selection”.
This distinction is not merely the later spin of those antagonistic to faith. Already in Darwin’s writings we read such an implication.
“Several writers have misapprehended or objected to the term Natural Selection. Some have even imagined that natural selection induces variability, whereas it only implies the preservation of such variations as arise and are beneficial to the being under its condition of life…Others have objected that the term selection implies conscious choice in the animals which becomes modified; and it has even been urged that, as plants have no volition, natural selection is not applicable to them! It has been said that I speak of natural selection as an active power or Deity” (The Origin of the Species, Charles Darwin Chapter 4 page 89, Mentor Edition).
Darwin found it necessary to respond to early detractors who did not find his use of the term “natural selection” materialistic enough. Whether a deity, choice of the animal itself, or a force in and of itself, their understanding of “natural selection” was deemed to be too active. Darwin reassured them “natural selection” was merely a passive description of the positive outcome brought by random changes which proved beneficial to that species. “Natural Selection” is only personified by verbal necessity, in truth it meant to obviate the need for such active design of variation. It is a strictly material process which allows the clock to function in the absence of the clockmaker, if indeed there was a clock maker.
Such a view is unacceptable within Judaism. It is one thing to interpret data in exclusively according to the laws of Nature. It is quite another to declare the laws of Nature independent of the Creator. The laws of Nature are entirely dependent upon the existence of Hashem, “If one would imagine that He does not exist, no other being could possibly exist” (Rambam Yesodei HaTorah 1:3). While one may recognize that something has a naturalistic explanation one may not deny God’s active participation since nature itself is an act of God.
This is the real the heart of the conflict between Torah and Evolution and the common philosophy of science in the academic world today. Prior to the theory of Evolution many issues which we consider conflicts between religion and science had arisen, but none had led to such a degree of agnosticism and atheism. While material explanations could be found for the works of nature, the existence of the Universe and especially life in its complexity testified to the existence of a Designer. But Darwin’s theory of “Natural Selection” seemed to provide the mechanism by which, by chance, variations could lead to the multiplicity of life forms on Earth. “The British biologist Richard Dawkins, an outspoken defender of Darwin and nonbeliever famously wrote that evolution ‘made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.” (Newsweek Nov. 18, 2005 page 56). Even life, it seemed, could now be understood as originating in a strictly materialist way without resorting to a Creator.
Darwin was not, however, the first to suggest life in its complexity originated through a serious of chances.
First Theory—There is no Providence at all for anything in the Universe;…This is the theory of Epicurus, who assumes also that the Universe consists of atom, that these have combined by chance, and have received their various forms by mere accident…Aristotle has proved the absurdity of the theory, that the whole Universe could have originated by chance; he has shown that, on the contrary, there is a being that rules and governs the Universe. Guide to the Perplexed 282
“But it would be quite useless to mention the opinions of those who do not recognize the existence of God, but believe that the existing state of things is the result of accidental combination and separation of the elements, and that the Universe has no Ruler or Governor. Such is the theory of Epicurus and his school, and similar philosophers, as stated by Alexander [Aphrodisiensis]; it would be superfluous to repeat their views, since the existence of G-d has been demonstrated whilst their theory is built upon a basis proved to be untenable.” (Guide to the Perplexed page 173, emphasis mine)
The Aruch explains that the Hebrew term for “heretic”, Apikores, was derived from the Greek philosopher Epicurus. Epicurus’ belief that the world was the result of accident and chance could be understood as the archetypal k’firah (heresy). But Epicurus’ approach wasn’t rejected because it failed to provide a natural history account of the origin of the species; it was rejected because any such scenario based on chance was in-credible. Darwin’s observations about the fossil record, variations in species allowing them to adapt better, and his recognition that better adaptation increases the possibility of survival and reproduction produced a theory which far exceeded anything Epicurus could have produced in his wildest dreams with respect to a natural history. But Darwin’s theory did no more to show that such natural processes could be plausibly understood as accidental occurrences independent of Design. The argument from design doesn’t assert that we cannot account for creation by “natural means”. Rather it argues that it cannot be relegated to chance. To the materialist who believed that if God existed, He played no active part in the running of the world, the possibility of explaining our development according to natural laws was automatically equated with confirmation of this materialistic assumption. But there is a difference between explaining a process, albeit “natural”, and demonstrating that process is possible by mere chance. As evidence for strict materialism “Natural Selection” was preaching to the choir. It allowed an atheist to feel “intellectually fulfilled”, but in truth it only pushed the argument from design under the rug.
The difficulty with Natural Selection is not the process but the philosophical assumption that is bundled in with the term in its standard use. Undoubtedly there are many scientists who in their own philosophy of science are much more liberal in their understanding of “natural selection”. They may not have difficulty understanding it as a naturalistic explanation that does not demand rejection of the supernatural, or at least are not bothered by those who take such an approach. Perhaps it is perfectly acceptable for a theist to speak of “natural selection”, but despite the clear overlap in meaning it is essentially only verbal agreement. We may accept survival of the fittest as a natural law, not as a self-sufficient explination for the creation of the species. Perhaps a book which speaks of natural selection without explicitly discussing its hard-line philosophical rejection of the supernatural may not be strictly prohibited, but it might be analogous to a Christian discussion on the Unity of God which doesn’t directly address their belief in the Trinity. Should such need arise one must consult a competent Posek. Any work which speaks of “Natural Selection” in such a way that it is obviously meant to preclude the need, or even possibility, of the Divine is heretical and forbidden to be read by Jewish law other than the purposes of refuting them. Regardless of one’s feelings regarding evolution, Darwin’s Theory of Natural Selection contains elements which are heretical and forbidden by Jewish law to believe or to study.
It appears to me that while Rav Feinstein zt’l did not explicitly mention evolution etc. but being a p’sak on practical halachah the only reasonable inference is it discussed such subject matter and it is impossible to infer he spoke of only hypothetical k’firah.
“A sufficient condition for the occurrence of an event is a circumstance in whose presence the event must occur.” (Introduction to Logic, Irving M. Copi, page 400, bold mine)
The difference being one can think of better reasons to learn from a science textbook than a Christian theological discussion of G-d’s unity but…