Evolution: a Moral and Religious Imperative

 Towards the Third Conference on Judaism and Evolution that will take place on December 28-29, 2016 at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies, 4  Avraham Granot st., Jerusalem www.schechter.ac.il/JRC

We read in the second chapter of Breishit that Adam, the first fruit of creation, was fashioned from the adama, the earth. Later in the same chapter we read that the intention was for Adam work the land and protect it. However, if we look at what humans have wrought over the past 50,000 years, it seems that we instead took to heart the verse in the first chapter: “Be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and subdue” or, perhaps, “conquer it.” Humans, unlike other mammals, have the tendency to deplete natural resources beyond their ability to replenish. No other animal does that. When water and food are scarce lions and zebra, elephants and buffalo slow their reproduction and allow nature to take its course and come back to life. Humans, on the other hand tend to find creative ways to out-compete nature and eventually turn the world into one big greenhouse. Is it possible that global warming is just a natural cycle? Yes. But it is painfully clear that our species is not doing much to reign in that potentially dangerous destruction, despite having the technology at hand to slow, even if not to reverse, the process.

What can we learn from evolutionary theory that implores us to behave differently? Can we truly see that by confronting biology and its impact on human behavior we will be more moral humans? I say, “yes!-” a truly emphatic yes!

It starts with simple, even simplistic facts. We were fashioned from the earth, or better, we evolved from the same origins of all that grows from the earth. We know that we share anywhere from 60-98% of or genetic material with plants, mice, zebra and chimps. If we could actually believe that our origins are the same, and that our fates are the same, we would destroy fewer ecosystems, lay waste to fewer forests and truly help natural habitats survive.

Perhaps the moral imperative to help trees and lions isn’t a sufficiently powerful motivator. What of helping our fellow men and women? Biologists teach us that cooperation can outperform competition if we frame the goals and outcomes appropriately. But if we suppose that our way is the only way, not only will critics not accept that way, we will unwittingly turn them in to competitors. Biology teaches us that when faced with cooperators, competitors win; when faced with competition, cooperators fold. This is evolutionary theory 101. We have become so far removed from our biology that we forget that we are subject to the same, or at least similar, biological pressures. To be sure, culture plays a role. But culture evolves according to the same principles of chemistry, physics and biology; just at a faster pace.

Two studies that I have conducted tell a sad tale of the considerations mentioned above. In one it is clear that Israelis, by and large, have little understanding of evolutionary theory. Those educated in secular schools outperform their religious school counterparts by very little. And, if we think about animal evolution we can make the leap to human evolution.

But then we get confused by the difference between genes and memes. We forget that many behavioral characteristics are passed to or offspring genetically. The fact that most parents raise their biological children only increases the power of the gene by adding culture to the mix. In another study I have shown that reading stories about altruism increases people’s sense of moral elevation. People feel good when they hear stories about heroes. Real life stories such as the righteous among the nations elevate us even more. But then, unfortunately, we forget that altruism is a very biological trait, strengthened by mimetic education towards self-sacrifice. At times this may become dangerous; but people feel uplifted by their own cultural altruists.

As Rav Kook wrote: “We will bring all of humanity closer to Its creator, be that creator fleeting and intangible, or be it and explosion of physicality.” I contend that we can understand our greatest competitors and learn how not to condescend to them. By educating students about evolutionary theory we can bring people and peoples closer together.

Rabbi Paul Shrell-Fox, PhD is a lecturer and academic advisor in the MA program at the Schechter institute of Jewish Studies. He also works as a psychologist in private practice where he specializes in ADHD and learning disabilities. His research focuses on evolutionary theory and how evolution impacts the development of Jewish ritual practice