Not By Chance! The Fall of Neo-Darwinian Theory

By Dr. Lee M. Spetner

Kest-Lebovits Jewish Heritage and Roots Library

Jerusalem, Israel, 1996

Reviewed by Carl Feit, Ph.D.

Dr. Lee M. Spetner holds a Ph.D. in physics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and has had a successful career in both academia (in the United States) and industry (in Israel), working in the fields of signal processing and electronics.  He also reports that since the 1960s he has had a deep interest in the study of organic evolution.

Most of his new book consists of Dr. Spetner’s description of modern molecular biology, in order to provide the necessary “background” for a lay reader to understand his critique of contemporary evolutionary thought, which he terms the Neo-Darwinian Theory (NDT).  Throughout the book, but especially in Chapters 4 and 5, he presents a sharp criticism of NDT, pointing out what he considers to be fatal flaws in evolutionary theory from the perspective of information theory and randomness.  In Chapter 7 he then discusses his own evolutionary hypothesis, dubbed the Non-Random Evolutionary Hypothesis (NREH), which he suggests as an alternative to the NDT.

There is much of value in this book.  Readers who have the interest and inclination to work their way through Dr. Spetner’s detailed description of molecular biology will undoubtedly learn much.  But Dr. Spetner’s aim in writing this book was not to teach molecular biology to an eager Jewish public.  The point was to show that “…the discoveries of the past thirty or forty years, together with elementary principles of information theory, have made this view [NDT] untenable.” (Preface, p.v.)  Demonstrating the weaknesses of NDT is important to Spetner because “ has had a profound influence on the shaping of the Weltanschauung of Western Society.  It has led to atheism and to the belief that we human beings are no more than a cosmic accident.  This belief serves as a basis for much of the social values and morals held by Western intellectuals, and for the attitude of many of them toward religion.” (p. vi).  Thus the goal is to show that, purely from a scientific perspective, we must consider alternatives to current theories and think “Is Creation an option?” (p.ix).

Unfortunately, this book fails to accomplish its goals.  Its weaknesses lie in three areas:  scientific, pedagogic and religious/theological.  Dr. Spetner’s scientific critique of contemporary Darwinian thought is both sophisticated and complex.  It cannot and should not be lightly dismissed.  The author has spent much time and garnered many examples to support his arguments.  This book deserves a reasoned and equally well-documented response.  However, this is not the place for a detailed discussion of what I believe to be the flaws in his critique of evolution.  Suffice it to say that evolutionary theory, like all areas of modern science, is an ongoing developing field and Spetner does not address several relatively new areas of research (complexity theory, neutral mutations, self-organization in complex systems, artificial life, common attractors, the modular domain structure of modern proteins), all of which are relevant to the issues that he raises regarding the probabilities and possibilities of living systems arising by means of random variation followed by natural selection.  In this review, I will concentrate on those aspects of the book that I believe are most important to a Jewish audience.

Turning to the pedagogic aspects of Spetner’s critique, the premise of this book can be described as the “God-in-the-Gaps” approach to the religion-science conflict.  This approach looks for areas that are not yet well explained by scientific thought, and concludes that even science must postulate the existence of a supernatural deity (although Spetner carefully avoids stating this explicitly).  The weakness of this approach should be obvious.  As scientific theory inexorably advances and fills in the gaps, then the need for the “God Hypothesis” must retreat.  Eventually we would be left with having to confess that there is no “need,” chas v’chalilah, for a Divinity.  We must be careful not to paint ourselves into a corner from which retreat will be embarrassing, if not futile.  To those who see the scientific quest as a fulfillment of God’s mandate to Adam “…to fill the earth, and achieve dominion over it,” scientific advancement is not an attack upon religion, but an opportunity to enhance our love and devotion for Hakadosh Baruch Hu, by developing in us an increased understanding of “the works of His hands”. (See Rambam, Hilchot Yesodei Hatorah, 4:12)

Finally, and perhaps most interesting, is the error that Spetner (and many others) make in assuming that in describing evolutionary advancement as being dependent upon events (whether referring to mutations, or environmental catastrophes) that occur at random, that we are working with a system that is inimical to a Torah hashkafah [viewpoint], in which it is a given that God has a plan for the universe and He carries out His plans in an orderly way.

To understand this issue, let us first consider some Torah texts.  The Mishnah in Masechet Yoma describes in detail the priestly service of Yom Kippur (which is also described as part of Musaf).  The centerpiece of this highly emotional day, involves the ceremony of the two goats:  He [the Kohain Gadol] came to the eastern part of the Azarah, north of the altar, the Segan on his right and the head of the [serving] family [of Kohanim] on his left.  There were [before him] two goats and an urn, in which there were two goralot [lots]… He reached into the urn and raised up the two lots.  One had “to Hashem” written upon it and one had “to Azazel” inscribed on it”(Yoma 37a and 39a).

The Gemara tells us that these two goats had to be identical in terms of their value, size and overall appearance.  Their destinies however were to be completely different.  By placing the lot with Hashem’s name on it over the head of one of the goats, that animal becomes Kadosh LaShem [dedicated to God] and is designated to serve as the Korban Chatat, a sacrifice offered on behalf of Klal Yisrael.  The second goat, designated for Azazel, was led out of the Beit Hamikdash to a rocky precipice in the wilderness, where it was thrown off the cliff and dies.  This is the seir l’Azazel.  The fate and destiny of these two identical animals is determined by lottery!*

The seir l’Azazel is probably the most dramatic, but by no means the only, decision made in the Beit Hamikdash that was done by a form of lottery.  Earlier in Mesechta Yoma the Mishnah tells us that there were four different lotteries [paiysot], that were regularly held to determine which of the suitable Kohanim would merit participating in the service.  In order to insure impartiality, the choice was done by lottery (Yoma 22a).

There is an interesting historical example of the use of lotteries in making important decisions described in Masechet Sanhedrin:

“…and two men remained in the camp.”  Some say that they remained in the urn [used for a lottery].  When God said to Moshe “…gather together 70 men of the elders of Israel,” Moshe asked himself “How shall I do this?  If I choose six from each tribe, that will give two extras.  If I choose five from each tribe, then I will be ten short!  If I choose six from some tribes and five from others, then I will cause jealousy between them.”  What did Moshe do?  He chose six elders from each tribe and 72 slates.  On 70 of them he wrote “Zakein,” and two he left blank.  He mixed them up and put them in the urn and said, “Come and choose.”  Whoever received a slate saying Zakein was told “You have been sanctified by Heaven.”  Whoever got an empty slate was told “God does not want you.  What can I do?” (Sanhedrin 17a)

All of these decisions, which animal becomes the Chatat sacrifice, which Kohain has the appropriate zechuyot [merits] to perform the avodah service, who serves on the Sanhedrin etc. are extremely important choices.  Isn’t the use of a lottery a very arbitrary way to make such religiously important decisions?  The answer to this question, and to how Judaism views “random occurrences” is to be found in Masechet Bava Batra, where the method of the division of the Land of Israel, in the time of Joshua is described:

     It [Eretz Yisrael] was divided only by lottery, as it says “…ach bagoral,” and it was only divided by the Urim v’Tumim [instrument of Divine direction] as it says…”al pi hagoral.”  How could this be?  Eliezer was wearing the Urim v’Tumim and Joshua and all Israel stood before him.  An urn with [the names of] the tribes and an urn with [the names of] the boundaries were placed before him.  Moved by Ruach Hakodesh [Divine direction] he declared, “Zevulun’s name will be chosen and the boundary of Acco will be chosen.”  He then reached into the first urn and out came Zevulun, and then he reached into the second urn and out came Acco. …And so for every other tribe.  (Bava Batra 122a)

I think that the implications of this Talmudic section are very clear.  It would not be appropriate to say that God somehow or other manages to stack the deck so that the outcomes of these events are not really random.  From the perspective of the physical, material world, these events are truly random.  Rather, we must conclude that for Chazal the will of God is expressed through events that are random, no less than by the more regular and predictable patterns of nature [Chukat Hateva].  If at first blush it seems inscrutable to the human mind to imagine how God can ensure that His Will is carried out by events that have random outcomes, without stacking the deck, we must always bear in mind the prophet’s warning “Lo machshevotai machshevoteichem v’lo darcheichem derachai,” stressing that God’s “thoughts” and ways are unlike limited human endeavor.

I have purposely chosen as examples of reliance on random methods, one which is mandated in the Written Torah (the seir l’Azazel), one decided upon by Moshe Rabbeinu (choosing the original Sanhedrin) and one picked by Chazal during the time of the Beit Hamikdash (choosing which Kohanim do various aspects of the service) to demonstrate that this view permeates both the Written and Oral Torahs.

The list is far from exhaustive, but I believe that the point is conclusive:  if random events are not anathema, it is not necessary to do mental gymnastics to “disprove” well founded scientific theories.

Scientific ideas can be abused and misappropriated (e.g. Social Darwinism, Scientism) to produce bad “science.”  But between true science and Torah hashkafah there can be no contradiction.  It is not for naught that the Torah bids us to recite twice daily:  Shema Yisrael Hashem Elokeinu, Hashem Echad.  The God of nature (Elokim) and (Hashem), the personal Redeemer and Lawgiver of Bnei Yisrael is One!

Dr. Feit is Dr. Joseph and Rachel Ades Professor of Health Sciences at Yeshiva University.

*For a profound insight into the religious significance of the goralot on Yom Kippur, see Reflections of the Rav, by Abraham R. Besdin, Chapter IV.

This article was featured in the Spring 1998 issue of Jewish Action.