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Like many fiftysomethings, I remember being informed in grade school of the imminent solution to the mystery of life. Triumphantly, teachers described an experiment conducted by two researchers, Stanley Miller and Harold Urey, in which molecules believed to represent components of the early Earth's atmosphere had been induced by electricity to form some of the amino acids that are components of proteins necessary for life.
Soon enough, we were told, scientists would coax further artificial formation of primordial materials, proteins themselves and even, eventually, actual life - some single-celled organism like the one from which we ourselves (our teachers dutifully explained) were surely descended.
A half-century later, however, we are left with nothing - not even a pitiful protein - beyond Miller-Urey's original results. And even that experiment is now discredited by scientists as having gotten the original atmospheric soup all wrong.
The Miller-Urey memory is an important reminder of how, with all science's unarguable accomplishments, every generation's scientific establishment is convinced it has a handle as well on the Big Questions. And it is an important reminder of how much more common hubris is than wisdom. It is a thought well worth thinking these days.
NO ONE denies that species, over time, tend to retain traits that serve them well, and lose others that don't. But the appearance of a new species from an existing one, or even of an entirely new trait within a species - things contemporary science insists have happened literally millions of times - have never been witnessed. There isn't necessarily anything in the Jewish religious tradition that precludes them from happening, or being made to happen artificially. But the solemn conviction that they have occurred countless times, and by chance, remains a large leap ofâ€¦ well, faith.
Which is why "evolution" is rightly called a theory (and might better still be called a religion).
Scientists, to be sure, protest that billions of years are necessary for chance mutations of DNA, the assumed engine of Neo-Darwinism, to work their accidental magic. A lovely scenario, but one whose hallowing of chance as the engine of all is easily seen as a rejection of the concept of a Creator, Judaism's central credo.
It also begs the question of how the first living organism might have emerged from inert matter. Spontaneous generation is generally ridiculed by science, yet precisely that is presumed by the priests of Randomness to have occurred - by utter chance, yet - to jump-start the process of evolution.
What is more, the first creature's ability to bring forth a next generation (and beyond) would also have had to have been among that first living thing's talents. Without that, the organism would have amounted to nothing more than a hopeless dead-end. No DNA, after all, no future. And so a package of complex genetic material would also have had to have been part of the unbelievably lucky alpha-amoeba.
And yet to so much as express doubts about such a scenario is to be branded a heretic by the scientific establishment, the Church of Chance.
The issue is not "Biblical literalism" - a decidedly non-Jewish approach. Many are the Torah verses that do not mean what a simple reading would yield; the Oral Tradition is the key to the true meaning of the Torah's words; and there are multiple levels of meanings inaccessible to most of us. The words of Genesis hide infinitely more than they reveal - which is only that the universe was created as the willful act of God, and that the biosphere unfolded in stages. Details are not provided.
THE ISSUE is more stark: Are we products of chance, or of God? Jewish belief, of course, is founded on the latter contention, and, as a result, on the conviction that there is a purpose to the universe we inhabit, and to the lives we live. That what we do makes a difference, that there is right and there is wrong.
Is the very notion of good and evil an illusion, an adaptive evolutionary strategy that provides human beings with some cold biological advantage - or does our innate conviction that some human actions are proper and others not reflect a deeper reality?
If humanity's roots lie in pure chance, there can be no more meaning to good and bad actions than to good or bad weather; no more import to right and wrong than to right and left. The game is zero-sum. Either we are here by chance, or by design. Either there is no meaningful mandate for human beings, or there is. And if there is, there must be a Mandator.
Opposing the promotion of a particular religion in American public schools is a worthy stance. But at the same time, there is simply no philosophically sound way of holding simultaneously in one's head both the conviction that we are nothing more than evolved animals and the conviction that we are something qualitatively different.
And no way to avoid the fact that when children are taught to embrace the one, they are being taught, ever so subtly, to shun the other.
The writer is director of public affairs for the New York-based Agudath Israel of America. The above essay is adapted from a longer article that appeared in the December, 2005 issue of The Jewish Observer.