Monday, July 11, 2005

On Nature and Evolution

I find it very interesting how some people are willing to accept the concept of Nishtanu Ha-Tevaim (nature has changed) in the broadest sense when discussing Chazal's (allegedly) erroneous scientific information, but yet are so viscerally against the natural concept of evolution.

There are, as we all know, many statements made by Chazal that are not correct according to current scientific understanding. Rabbi Slifkin, in his book Mysterious Creatures, details five ways to approach this contradicition. The first one he focuses on is "Nishtanu Ha-Tevaim," the very nature of nature (so to speak) has changed between the times of Chazal and now. Various cures for maladies that are mentioned in the Gemara are no longer effective, the idea goes, not because they were wrong, but because nature has changed, and so the cures mentioned are no longer effective. Likewise, lice that spontaneously generate no longer do so because of Nishtanu Ha-Tevaim. Half-earthen, half-flesh mice? No longer exist - Nishtanu Ha-Tevaim. And so on...

Of course, I find it very interesting that the same people who will try to bring scientific counter-proofs to evolution, will accept this very counter-scientific reasoning. There really is no scientific proof of the concept of "Nishtanu Ha-Tevaim." There is some anecdotal evidence that is mentioned from time to time (with regard to women's vestos and the like) but that may not be 100% reliable or may be explained by better nutrition/healthcare or improved technology. But, ultimately, the "proof" for Nishtanu Ha-Tevaim really comes down to "well, this-and-this worked in the times of the Gemara and it doesn't now, so nature must have changed." Of course, this really just assumes the premise that Chazal were scientifically infallable to begin with.

However, isn't it possible to view Nishtana Ha-Tevaim as an "evolution of nature?" After all, if nature has changed appreciably in the last two thousand years, who is to say that it is now static? Maybe it is still in the process of changing and continuing to do so. One who holds the doctrine of Nishtanu HaTevaim should probably have to hold of this possibility as well, no? After all, is there *any* Torah source that mentions NHT that also indicates that this changing of nature has stopped? I don't think that there is (although if someone is aware of one, I'd certainly be willing to hear it). As such, there is really no indication that these changes in nature have stopped.

All this, of course, leads to the next question: If one holds that nature itself is changing/evolving, why is it such a sin (so to speak) to maintain that objects *within* nature (animals, plants, etc.) are changing and evolving as well?

The Wolf


Anonymous said...

I was speaking to a rabbi this past weekend about this very topic. I won't mention his name but he is (very) orthodox and the son of someone classified as a "Gadol Hador who is no longer alive". We were talking about Rabbi Slifkin's books and got into this evolution thing. It would seem that his problem with Rabbi Slifkin's comments on evolution (which I have not yet read) is the concept that we could have even possibly evolved from animals (apes). So, he seems to accept forward evolution but has limits as to backward evolution.

BrooklynWolf said...

Thanks for the comment Anonymous.

An idea I've often entertained (although, to be perfectly honest, I haven't really given a lot of thought to or investigated how scientifically or hashkafically acceptable it is) is the idea that the proto-humans that are in evidence (up to and including the Neanderthals) evolved from lower creatures, but, at some point, God created Man (as we currently understand him) and he supplanted the other proto-humans (some of whom may well have been extinct by the time Man was created. This approach, to me anyway, sidesteps those that have the "human dignity" objection while still keeping intact most of the evolutionary process.

But, as I said, take this with a grain or two of salt. I haven't really given it all *that* much thought.

The Wolf

The Wolf

Godol Hador said...

There was an article on Aish by Rabbi Weisz who had the same theory. Doesn't really fit well with either Breishis or the Scientific evidence, but it's a nice theory.

Also, as regards Nishtaneh Hatevah. I don't think the people pushing NH as the answer think it's scientifically accurate. It's just another Nes/Nisayon type of thing.

Ben Avuyah said...


Don’t take this the wrong way, I am a fan of yours and your blog posts. You fascinate me, you are so rational and well reasoned and yet you continue to struggle painfully with issues that are not bound by logic but by faith.

“Why,” you ask, “can’t someone who holds of Nishtane Hateva (NH), not realize that they are in a sense believing in evolution…at least up to a point.”

It’s a great question, because the same people who will insist that nature and creatures and humans change to validate the chachamim, are always the first to grimace at the mention of evolution, like they just bit into a sour grape.

But think of the differences

Evolution is a scientific system: Genetic Variation inherently exists, Mutations occur over extended periods of time, Natural Selection plucks the best and the brightest, and all else is pruned away.

This has powerful explanatory powers. When the only food around is ant hills, he with the slimmest and longest beak survives, and so we observe in nature.

But NH has no underlying mechanism, no thought process that makes it work…it is pure apologetics, and explains nothing by virtue of having no reasons for it’s occurrence. If it were socially acceptable and reasonably well tolerated by the masses for NH’s proponents to say the chachamim were always right, even when contradicted by nature, because of “magic”, they would happily say so. There are no reasons here.. only excuses.

People who believe in NH are not jumping headlong into the superficially similar ideas of evolution because for them it was never about having a system that explained nature. It was only about an excuse that allowed them to continue to practice blind faith with as little disturbance from the real world as possible.

Wolf, the fact that NH'ers are not evoloutionist should start to give you a clue as to what religion is about. For you are right, NH proponents should be thrilled with evolution. But don’t you see, they don’t want anything explained or predicted, they just want to be left alone with bare faith…they are not looking for answers, because they have no questions, such is the nature of faith.

Jewish Atheist said...

All of these theories stem from intellectual dishonesty. The plain truth is that evolution happened and the world is billions of years old and the Torah doesn't present a correct view of it.

Wolf, you display your intellectual dishonesty here:

This approach, to me anyway, sidesteps those that have the "human dignity" objection while still keeping intact most of the evolutionary process.

You're transparently trying to fit the data to your conclusions. It's absurd to try to develop a theory which is as inoffensive as possible to the stubborn and ignorant. Tell the truth.

Enigma4U said...


Bravo! That was beautifully and succinctly articulated.

bluke said...

There is no comparison between the 2. Evolution works on a macro time scale, millions of years. Nishtane Hateva supposedly happened on a micro time scale, a few hundred to 1000 years from the time of chazal to the time of the Geonim and Rishonim. Therefore, it is pointless to compare the 2. They are completely different. One is science one is an answer given by the Rishonim to explain why things that Chazal said didn't work.

In any case, there is zero proof that nishtane hateva happened certainly not on the scale to explain the contradictions between science and chazal.

I have a whole series of posts about this and everything else related to the Slifkin affair on my blog The Jewish Worker including a respectful but detailed rebuttal of R' Feldman's letter.

BrooklynWolf said...


Thank you for your thoughtful comments.

I may not have made one point clear. That is that I'm not addressing those who dismiss science out of hand. For those people, they can believe in Nishtanu Ha-Tevaim and that's it. My concern was for those who "embrace" science when it serves thier purpose. As I stated:

I find it very interesting that the same people who will try to bring scientific counter-proofs to evolution, will accept this very counter-scientific reasoning.

All I'm really asking for, I suppose, is some consistency. If you want to dismiss science in toto, fine. I may not agree with you, but at least you're holding a consistent position.

But if you're going to ground your belief in "science" (and NHT *is* an attempt at a scientific answer -- albeit an extremely poor one) then I would think that you must, at the very least, accept evolution to some degree to be logically consistent.

The Wolf

BrooklynWolf said...


Firstly, as I stated up-front, it was just an idea. It may very well collapse in the face of science and/or hashkafah. If so, then it does.

The Wolf

BrooklynWolf said...


I agree with you. However, I would think that for those who do hold of NHT, they would view it as a natural process. After all, what other reason could there be for it?

As such, if NHT is a natural process, why would they be so averse to other natural processes.

The Wolf

Orthoprax said...


Frankly, anyone who considers the NHT as a reasonable answer at all is so far removed from reality that it _would_ be inconsistent to see them considering the reality of evolution.

Jewish Atheist said...

Wolf, I wasn't criticising your idea. I was criticising your methodology for proposing the idea. You looked first to see what would be "acceptable" and then to see if you could squint at the facts so that they fit your hypothesis.

Your goal should be coming up with correct hypotheses, not inoffensive ones.

Jewish Atheist said...

In other words, I believe that you are trying to come up with the hypothesis which is least offensive to frummies while still meeting the following criterion:

It doesn't totally contradict the facts.

That's bullshit, and you know it. The working hypothesis should be that which most closely explains the facts regardless of who it will upset.

amshinover said...

I had someone check out Heshy's place (964 E 3RD ST) this past shabas. He just reported back to me that its all true. About 70 people per meal, being a most diverse crowd; executives, intellectuals and average working stiffs. Heshy feeds them like in a restaurant ie salmon steak etc. I don't know where he gets the money from, but somehow he spends serious money on his guests. Also, Im told that he lives in a real mansion and that the hummer is there parked right outside. Im tempted to check this out for myself.

Semgirl said...

Sounds like a really cool place to eat on Shabbos. Are they really intense about gender segregation or is it more laid back like the UWS?

amshinover said...

I wasn;t there personally, but here's teh answer I was given. VERY laid back...And SEMGIRL, don't be a bit surprised to find some guys/ girls from your "little town" in South Jersey

godol hador said...

"There really is no scientific proof of the concept of "Nishtanu Ha-Tevaim."

Oh no?
What about HESHY? Here's a guy, who presumably has similar biological roots as us all, yet he is totally "nishtane". Here is a guy, who is mamash from a different era, as he espouses ideals and values totally alien to us, yet common and fundamental to Torah jews years ago. Simply stated, a case in point that nishtane hateva can "bring 1 back" to the madreiga of yidden many doros previosuly. AMAZING!

BrooklynWolf said...


From a purely scientific standpoint, I suppose you are correct. I am making certain pre-suppositions that will not be ruled out by scientific fact (God's existence, for starters). As such, I will freely admit that I'm not following the scientific method 100%.

The Wolf

Enigma4U said...


I disagree. Heshy espouses Torah-true ideals and values and is a fine example of one who has internalized Torah's eternal message. It is people such as me and you, who are tolerant of other ways of life, who prove Nishtana HaTeva. Our evolving values of acceptance and tolerance to others are foreign to true Orthodoxy; the reason you believe that your daughters should have equal rights to your sons, or that slavery is immoral, for example, is not due to your Torah learning, but rather to the influence of general society.


fake amshinover of July 12, 2005 1:04 PM and July 12, 2005 12:13 AM you are not the real me but your ip address is 129.156,which means i can find out your real name in a heartbeat so cut it out before i call your house and tell your mother what a loser her son is,ok.

GadolHador said...

Could it be that there are 2 amshinovers? ( Looks like Bobov is contagious lol)

Could the Blog world handle 2 amshinovers?