It is widely supposed that Charles Darwin's theory of the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection is as correct and certified as the laws of gravity or thermodynamics. Millions of people the world over accept the veracity of the principle as an abundantly obvious fact and view those who question it as simpletons, nut cases, or fools of the sort that still believe in leeching or that the moon and the sun are the same size. It is therefore with a certain trepidation that I point out that there have always been (and currently are) very many serious challenges and challengers to the core assumptions of Darwin's thinking.
It should be noted that evolutionary theory in any form is not a threat to Torah based theology. The text itself offers no detail on the mechanics of the development and there are classic commentators that interpret the Biblical narrative in an evolutionary-like way that is completely consistent with Darwin's model. The question is which model actually fits the evidence best, (and are we willing to put our assumptions aside and revisit that question with a truly open mind)? The main cognitive difficulties with the theory concern: the origin of life, the origin of the genetic code, the origin of multi-cellular life, the origin of sexuality, the gaps in the fossil record, the biological "big bang" that occurred in the Cambrian era, the development of complex organ systems, and the development of irreducibly complex molecular machines.
Despite being a personal fan of Darwin's and a supporter of certain forms of natural selection, Australian philosopher David Stove shreds the theory in his fascinating work "Darwinian Fairytales" and noted that the human race could not have survived unless cooperation had always been stronger than competition and "moreover, all the theories that Darwinists have come up with to resolve this dilemma are fatally flawed." The Paleontologist Niles Eldredge was particularly candid when he admitted that "we paleontologists have said that the history of life supports [the story of gradual adaptive change] knowing all the while it does not." American Darwinist Stephen Jay Gould was honest enough to state that Darwinism had "beguiled me with its unifying power when I was a graduate student in the mid-1960's; since then I have been watching it slowly unravel as a universal theory of evolution." Sir Karl Popper didn't even think it was science as the theory wasn't testable and was therefore "metaphysical." (Hat tip: Melanie Phillips - the World Turned Upside down). So while is seems clear that natural selection can account for things like beak size, moth coloration and the like (microevolution), the notion that all species have evolved from a single common ancestor (macroevolution) appears to be incomplete.
Is it possible that the Jewish mystical tradition could provide an answer to this challange? Jerusalem based Kabbalistic thinker and author Sarah Yehudit Schneider believes it can. In her small but dense work "Evolutionary Creationism" she notes the striking parallelism between modern cosmology and classical Kabbalistic thought. For instance, according to theoretical physics, (as presented by Michio Kaku, Brian Greene and others), the universe originally existed in 10 dimensions plus an additional one that acted as a kind of integrator. Anyone who is familiar with basic Kabbalistic thought will instantly recognize that as the "Tree of Life" structure of energy upon which the entire universe is based. It too is built of 10+1 dimensions. Kaku and Greene go on to explain that at one point in the history of our reality these 10 dimensions collapsed into our present four dimensional universe and a six dimensional one which folded into "an infinite array of submicroscopic knots, within and behind it." Again, the Kabbalah (as expressed in the Zohar) concurs that those original dimensions "shattered" - as a result of Adam and Eve's decision to eat from the "tree." The Zohar contends that all of the action that took place in the story of the Garden occurred in the earlier 10 dimensional world where objects and creatures and even Adam and Eve were more akin to thought forms than to physical matter. Whereas science uses the language of math to communicate its ideas, Torah uses imagery. Therefore, reality as we know it only begins post the expulsion from this "garden."
Kaku asks us to imagine reality through the eyes of Edwin A. Abbot's "Flatlanders" - a race of beings who live in only two spacial dimensions. What would it look like for them if a three dimensional object (ie: a carrot) passed through their world. As it would be impossible for their two dimensional minds to grasp the totality of the three dimensional reality, all that they would perceive would be a series of orange circles fading to green and then disapearing as suddenly as they came. The true, unified "big picture" reality would be lost on them.
Finally, there is Kabbalah's description of Adam. It's written that he originally "extended from one end of the universe to the other." This means that by virtue of his knowledge of and relationship to the Edenic universe at large, he represented the totality of all that was - a unified whole that contained all the elements of life as we know it (remember that Kabbalah generally speaks in images and not numbers). Therefore, just like the warping of perspective that occurs when a globe is flattened into a map or of the limited capability of perception of the Flatlanders when confronted with three dimensions, Ms. Schneider suggests that our ability to peer into our distant past is equally compromised. We see that there is a relationship between species but can't piece together precisely what it is. Perhaps this is the result of the 10 dimensional implosion of the unified whole that was our world. We can no more grasp 10 dimensional reality than the Flatlanders can 3. As she says "our earthbound minds cannot grasp its unity. Instead we observe a series of related but disconnected slices...where each appears as an entity unto itself. Still, there is no evidence that they evolve one from the other. Rather, they are simply, observably present."
Ms. Schneider's thinking on this topic is refreshingly original and represents a tantalizing solution that elegantly merges ancient and modern thinking on the tricky topic of our origins.
Follow Rabbi Adam Jacobs on Twitter: www.twitter.com/RabbiAdamJacobs