Friday, 18 April 2008

Evolution and the Bible: Revisted

I've noticed my blog is pushing at the envelope of atheistic disbelief and scientific reasoning, through the use of semi-scientific evidence and a little bit of unusual and occasionally original thought. I decided to pursue this position one more time with this post...

We all know the usual creationist/ID position, and I'm sure many have dismissed them [myself included] as forcing a modern, secular understanding of the world around us onto an ancient, religious document, with below-average success. However, I would like to explore the idea that the ancients did in fact know a thing or two about evolution, simply through observing the world around them. Using rabbinic and biblical sources, I'll show you what may be actual references to evolution in the bible.

Snakes had legs
According to New Scientist and various other thoroughly scientific sources, snakes used to have legs, many years ago. As evolution goes, they eventually mutated into having no legs, which is why we see snakes as they are today.

The midrashim on Bereishis say that the snake in the Adam and Eve story had legs and could walk. This is allegedly how Eve was pushed onto the tree which caused the pair to sin.

Human Evolution
The famous midrash is that before the flood, people used to have webbed hands and this a truism and left over from evolution? Or is this something made up? If the latter, the question that demands to be asked is, why would the rabbis make up the webbed hands and feet - what would they gain by it? Weave a more intricate web? Assure people that those before the flood are fundamentally different to those after it? Perhaps. Or perhaps at one point, "people" really did have webbed hands and feet. It would fit the evolutionary scale of things.

To conjecture further, perhaps people without webbed hands and feet lived alongside those with it, and a big flood wiped out the people with webbed hands and feet...? Either way, could this be another point at which the bible confirms evolution?

Genetic Inheritance
It is said that Abraham worried that people would think Isaac was not his son, so God made Isaac look like Abraham. I don't believe the biological fact of genes was spontaneously made by God at this point, but this aside, is this another reference from ancient times to what took humanity ages (literally) to discover? Perhaps.

OK, not strictly evolution. But is the concept of giants just fertile imagination? Perhaps people were shorter, so it was more odd to have people over 6 feet in ancient times. But to describe them as giants? We know Saul was considered very tall, but no-one described him as a giant. However, let's be vaguely scientific about this all...

1 Samuel 17:4 says Goliath, one such giant, "was over 9' tall." Now let us take a look at the tallest living people in medical history and then including the deceased. In both links, if we scroll down the page a little and ignore the pornographic pictures on the right (enjoy), we see that people up to 8 feet tall existed. It's not such a stretch to 9ft then, is it? And when we factor in that the writer of Samuel may have been incorrect in the height (let's face it, he was seen during a battle and no one would have measured him, would they) we see that the biblical "giants" may very well have existed as normal people who were way taller than everyone else.

Another explanation, perhaps describing Goliath's position...Could it be that very tall beings were observed by biblical characters as having a problem with their Pituitary gland? Perhaps. Either way, I think it likely that our modern understanding of "giant" is larger than the ancient idea of a mighty giant who stood just 9ft tall.

Giant Fish
Could the stories of giant fish be similar to the stories of giant people? Add a bit of imagination, a small village campfire and some good ol' fashioned embellishment and I think that is likely. Further, typing "giant fish" into Google reveals many pictures of giant tuna, crayfish and all manner of massive and scary looking sea creatures. One website called Fishosaur is dedicated to finding pictures of large fish, take a look.

Massive life spans
Adam lived for 930 years, but was supposed to live forever until he sinned. People after him lived pretty long too, Abraham and Sarah - 20 generations away from Adam - lived to 120 years and beyond.

This is more of an interesting conjecture than a possibility to be scientific fact, but if you've read this far, hear me out.

I was talking with someone after the second night seder, and we eventually started to talk about scientists who are isolating the aging gene(s). After discussing how it wouldn't do to allow everyone to live forever, and who would be able to eradicate such genes (the wealthy, the powerful and the gifted), I postulated that a good use of such technology would be to discover/colonise distant planets. Given how our technology is insufficient to transport humans to other planets within their lifetimes, making beings live forever would help solve the problem. They could then decide to commit euthanasia whenever they felt the colony was getting off to a good start. I postulated Adam was one such being. The argument goes like this...

The universe is expanding all the time, so the closer to the centre of the universe you are, the older everything is. It is therefore logical to postulate that another civilisation arose closer to the centre of the universe than we are. Being older than us, the beings there mastered the technologies we are stumbling upon only now, thousands of years ago. This older civilisation isolated the ageing gene and sent an explorer(s) to a distant planet we now call Earth. Adam founded civilisation here and hey presto! Here we are today.

As you can probably tell, I'm awaiting my copy of chariots of the gods....

Thursday, 17 April 2008

Girlfriend's House = New Food

I like my girlfriend. In fact, I love her very much and I have no doubt she's thrilled about me too. For the new readers, she isn't Jewish.

I've known her for several years, but only asked her out once I found religion was not the correct path to travel in life. She lives about an hour away from where I am and I recently went to keep her company whilst she was living alone in her house - the other occupants of the house had gone away for a short time. So there I was.

I had an amazing time of course, and my girlfriend - we'll call her "G" for "girlfriend" - is lovely about me not really wanting to eat some non-kosher foods just yet (pork, shrimp, etc.) and allowed me to make the choices when we went food shopping together. "I know you're still picky about the things you eat" she said "so just choose whatever you like..." and so I chose cheese, pizza, pasta, bread and other non-pork-based ingredients.

G has always wondered about my non-pork eating policy, and I tell her it's because I was so conditioned to not eating pork, that it has stayed with me. This is true. But whenever I'm at her house, I obviously come into contact with non-kosher food and generally take the opportunity of the visit to capitalise on the eating experience. What follows is a short list of interesting stuff...

Assorted biscuits/cookies and sweets/candies.

There's nothing quite like munching on a milk-based biscuit when you're hungry, something in short supply in the Jewish community. Because 6 hours is a long time to wait after having meat, it's just not practical to invent - or at least to stock - lots of milky snacks in the house. You'd just never eat them. But they're so tasty!

At this point I should mention there are two types of things in G's house, organic (which I shall name Nasty Things) and normal (after which shall follow hearty accolades testifying to their Loveliness). As I was sampling the delights of milky biscuits, I found a particularly good tasting treat. I was therefore taken by complete surprise when I put large teeth marks into an inconspicuous looking biscuit and tasted...well, sawdust. What had once greeted my optical system as a lovely treat was wreaking havoc on my taste buds. Dry, devoid of sugar and no milk to be tasted. Eurgh.

The sweets were mostly boiled with a curious sticky outside. They tasted far more like what they were supposed to taste like than the kosher candies for some reason.

I must say, it feels good to be able to just buy/eat something you like, without having to use the adage "if in doubt, do without."

Breads, Cheeses, butters and such.
Certain mass-made breads are absolutely disgusting. Knowing I felt like this, my girlfriend allowed me to purchase a bread item of my choice. I chose a mass-made supermarket bread instead, which was made that very day. Isn't that lovely? Indeed it is. It tasted lovely too.

Butters are pretty much the same, though I confess that the organic Cheddar cheese we bought was a bit too mature for G's liking and I concurred. I also sampled Brie, which is much creamier than its kosher counterpart and tasted only slightly stronger.

Main courses:
Curry and rice. I made the rice myself and it was great. The curry came from a packet in G's fridge. This is unlike any curry I've ever tasted, probably because it had cow's milk inside it and wasn't kosher. Despite coming out of the packet, I thought it was a very rich dish and G concurred. We both managed to finish our plates, though I had made too much rice (that little packet said it could feed two and I didn't believe it, so made more rice to compensate. It could feed two, I was wrong - and the rice suffered, uneaten, to be forever rejected in the garbage heap in G's house. Until trash collection day).

Various Chinese dishes: from the local take-away. First of all, the disparity in prices between kosher and non-kosher food never fails to blow me away. We ordered a fairly standard and small selection of some sort of spicy beef, rice and stir-fry noodles and chicken with assorted vegetables. The food was decent, better than my last non-kosher Chinese experience, but not as good as the kosher stuff. The price? $20. The price of a kosher equivalent? at least $40.

What did I feel when I was eating all the above? Nothing at all, besides my hunger abating. The only time I feel something is when I do something new, like eating my first non-kosher dish...that was a few months back and even then, I hesitated for only a second. How is this? Have I been less indoctrinated than the others out here? Perhaps, but probably not by much. I think my shameless, guiltless eating comes from believing in what I'm doing. I honestly don't believe there is a God out there, so why on earth would I have to worry about what I eat? Therefore eating becomes eating and not the tedious chore it once was, with intricate ingredients checking, hechsher checking, going to the beis-din website and all the shenanigans surrounding milk and meat and the six hour wait...Therefore, it was pretty much the same when I tried the next dish. I was not stopped by a psychological block any longer, it was reduced to merely another food...a new food, with only a momentary doubt...

Yes, that's right. I tried some smoked ham. I hear people wait years until they're able to eat pork, but it's just like any other food. I did it when I was heating something up and G was in another room, so she didn't see and I didn't feel the need to tell her. It tasted like smoked turkey, but chewier and it smelt different. To smell it, I made the ham hover right under my's hard to describe the smell. I thought it would be unlike anything I had smelt before, but it wasn't. They say you don't forget smells, that it leaves the longest lasting memories for your senses...and I knew I had smelt that smell before.

I don't know when, I don't know where, I just know that that smell wasn't a new was rather like finding a lovely old candy you forgot about and is still eatable, or something of the sort.

Have I had ham before? There is a slight chance, considering I was 6 when my parents decided to become frum, but I seriously doubt it as they were brought up to only ever eat kosher ingredients, as was I (I still have childhood memories of rejecting a meal at McDonald's). Perhaps I've taken in it's scent as I was passing by a high street restaurant? Could be. Who knows? It doesn't really matter, does it?

Thursday, 3 April 2008

To Doubt Doubts

This is the post I've been wanting to write for a while, and I was finally spurred into action by GH's post on why OJ isn't true. He says there is no evidence to suggest God is there, or that OJ or TMS is true.

But what if some evidence is there?

I don't consider direct evidence as possible to achieve, as direct evidence to me, would be nothing less than seeing God or something similarly divine, like an angel.

But what about indirect evidence? I'm not talking about the sort of arguments which say "oh, look at nature! look how amazing it is! Obviously it didn't happen by chance..." because there are sound alternative explanations for that which don't involve the divine. Let's take some biblical claims one by one and survey the evidence for them, if any. I'm going to attempt to stay away from absolutist statements, as there's probably lots I don't know about this subect. Comments, insights and facts welcome.

The Sea Crossing
There is evidence to suggest that this actually happened. First, a possible route has been mapped out here, and goes through the Red Sea. At the suggested crossing, sonar shows there is quite a large ridge (pictured), which probably would have been able to take the Children of Israel across to the other side of the sea...Egypt is on the left side of the border, Saudi Arabia on the other side. The ridge is somewhat elevated above the rest of the sea floor and this is the only elevation of the sort in the red sea. The sea floor isn't actually flat as portrayed here, but goes down to incredible distances.

Further, stone tools found in southern Arabia have been found to match those in africa (here) suggesting there was certainly migration across the sea at some point, so we know it's possible. Exprets believe that the first crossing took place before boat technology when those crossing either had nothing to cross with, or rafts at best. Further, through using data on sea flows and ebbs, experts suggest that the Red Sea was always covered with water for the past 2 million years, though of course at different amounts at different times. I don't know enough about sonar and underwater geography to know what this article means (it was drudged up in a google search at some point) but from what I can make of it, it doesnt seem to present any contradictions to this. It looks interesting though.

However. I think I've established (a little disjointedly, yes, but still) beyond reasonable doubt that such a crossing is possible, I present material which suggests the Children of Israel actually did it.

Under-water archaeological discoveries made seem to indicate that Egyptian chariots did venture out into the sea at some point. Below, a chariot wheel found in the Red Sea alongside what I assume (and seems reasonable to do so) is an ancient egyptian drawing of a chariot.

Further, this underwater wheel matches Egyptian chariot wheels found in Egyptian tombs. This wheel was found at the crossing site with many more wheels and human remains, which have since mineralised from resting at the bottom of the sea for so long. This seems to indicate Exodus 14 was correct when it documented the chariot wheels fell off and the Egyptians were drowned.

For those interested in the methodologies used to locate the presumed crossing path, it is available online over here.

Though this is not direct evidence of the divine, it does seem to indicate the bible has some historical truth in it. To what extent this was Divine is something an individual would have to decide for themselves, but I think it is safe to assume that the Children of Israel crossed the sea without this necessarily pointing towards the Divine.

Sinai Mountain and Revelation
The first image is found here, together with a nice little excerpt of the bible.
Based on the crossing route established above, the Children of Israel (CoI) would have emerged on the banks of Saudi Arabia - there are actually pillars dating back to the time of King Solomon on either side of the crossing, one in Egypt and one in Saudi Arabia. I have been led to understand that the pillar in Egypt was partially submerged in water, thus much of the inscriptions were eroded (though the part not submerged did survive) and the pillar on the Saudi side - which remained completely intact - was removed by the Saudi authorities and replaced with a flag pole indicating an archaeological discovery.

This article describes and shows in pictures the "real" mount sinai

Is there anything to it?
Of course, the stories of the bible could have been based around these phenomena...or it could confirm some bible stories, without necessarily implicating the divine...or it could be a truthful exposition which has verified various bible claims and is circumstantial evidence of the divine.

Could it be my predisposition to not believe would make excuses and justifications to that disbelief, even when evidence - possible evidence? - is present?

Further, compounding what science doesn't know - yes, a God of the gaps - creates a real worry for me. I was one of those people who believed evolution, the big bang etc. could have been how God created the earth, as it's an established precept of Orthodoxy that God acts within nature, and there's no reason to assume he wouldn't do so in a natural universe before humans were around. And I similarly opined that the first atom which gave rise to the big bang was created ex-nihilo by God and that life on earth was kicked off by God. Two "gaps" in science - more massive ravines than gaps - in which a presupposed belief of God would fit in very nicely.

Any thoughts?