Darwin and the Jews

Yakov Rabkin
Fall 2008

Published in Shofar: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Jewish Studies, Volume 27, Number 1, Fall 2008, pp. 104-106

Darwin and the Jews

Geoffrey Cantor and Marc Swetlitz, eds., Jewish Tradition and the Challenge of Darwinism, Chicago & London: The University of Chicago Press, 2006, xii+260 pp.

This book is a collection of papers written by scholars in a variety of disciplines: genetics, history of science, health sciences, biology, Judaic studies, life sciences, history, theology and history of medicine. This book does not address the specialists in each field, but, rather, provides a survey of Jewish voices on a broad range of subjects related to Darwinism. One of the book’s main goals is to delineate the scientific and the theological dimensions of the topic in the context of engaging modern Jewish thought in the dialogue between science and religion. The book is eminently readable and accessible to educated layman.
While the book initially claims that there is no Jewish ‘problem’ with the science of evolution, throughout the text it becomes evident that not as much harmony exists under the surface in terms of compatibility between Darwin’s theory and Judaism. Indeed, in the final chapter, Darwinism is called “the greatest challenge to divine action” (p. 230). Likewise, one of the book’s editors says that ‘evolution’ is “probably the most prominent and controversial aspect of science” (p. 32).
An important theme that only scratches the surface in the collection is that of conflict and harmony. The theories of ‘mutual aid’ and altruism are raised in contrast to the competitive, war-based ideology, the struggle for life, survival of the fittest component of Darwin’s evolution, which was heavily influenced by Spencer’s social Darwinism. Mutual aid, as it was originally envisaged, actually contradicts evolutionary psychology, which has detached itself from metaphysics and ethics, to the degree that it imagines animals and sometimes plants as similarly ‘social’ beings equal to human beings.

Should we not respect the notion of a ‘continuing creation,’ at work in both natural history and human history? Is the reality of divine action something that can be considered in the light of divine knowledge, if not in secular human knowledge? Should we not leave space for the highly improbable or which evidence has not yet verified or which do not currently stand as legitimate, valid or highly current theories of academic stature? In this way anti-evolution, creation science and Intelligent Design (ID) are said not to resonate with modern Orthodox Jews, but this need not mean that this applies to all such theories and paradigms. One suggestion is given in the book, for example, of a reversal of typical views of evolution, suggesting that apes descend from human, namely from sinful ones.

The larger context thus regards the compatibility between science and Judaism. Judaism holds a singularly important voice in the controversy over evolution, which is nowadays current in some Christian circles, particularly in the United States.

Another aspect of the book that makes this book very timely has to do with the evolution of the Jewish identity and the place of the concept of race and the practice of eugenics in Zionism. It hardly needs recalling that Zionism – a political movement that operated a profound revolution in Jewish life – has drastically transformed the identity of the Jews, which has mutated, for over a century, from a religious identity rooted in a normative relationship with the Torah and its commandments to a national identity rooted in “blood and earth”. Jewish opponents of Zionism continue to lament this transformation of “a holy nation into an earth-bound people”.

Just like the anti-Semites, many Zionists believed that Jews constitute a separate race. Moreover, they agreed with the anti-Semites that Jews constitute a degenerate race, which is threatened with extinction by modern culture and urban lifestyles : “… the idea of finding a common index for a Jewish race proved attractive not only to anti-Semites but also to promoters of a secular Jewish identity. Jewish anthropologists hoped that by defining common characteristics of a race they would be taking the first therapeutic stage towards regeneration.” (p. 118)

Zionist settlement in Palestine offered a promising recipe against degeneration. Max Nordau, one of the founding fathers of political Zionism, wrote that “a people cannot, in the long run, remain healthy and strong if it does not again and again … return to the rejuvenating soil. Without this Anteus-treatment it inevitably falls prey to wasting disease. … Life in nature will rejuvenate their bodies, the secure possession of the soil will resurrect their self-esteem.” (p. 141) Anteus, the mythic Greek giant, who was invincible as long as he was in touch with mother-earth, is common in Zionist ideology. Thus one can read in the memoirs of Ariel Sharon: “When the land belongs to you physically, when you know every hill and wadi and orchard, when your family is there, that is when you have power, not just physical power, but spiritual power. Like Anteus, your strength comes from the land.“ Sharon’s ideological mentor Vladimir Jabotinsky also believed that “the source of national feeling should not be sought in education. In what? I studied this question in depth and answered: in blood.” (p. 143) It is little wonder that “the ideal of building a vigorous and healthy nation after two millennia of degenerative living in the Diaspora heavily influenced the absorption policy of the Zionist Organization, and eugenics considerations significantly influenced its settlement policy.” (p. 155) At the very end of this chapter, one is reminded that this is not only an historical curiosity: “Zionism and race are as intertwined today as they were a century ago.” (p. 162)

Thematic and ideological diversity is the main strength of this book. The editors may have been too ambitious and not sufficiently selective but the book does hold the attention of a reader interested in science and contemporary Jewish history.

Yakov M Rabkin

Professor of History

University of Montreal


Gregory Sandstrom

Department of Sociology

St-Petersburg State University


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