Sunday, July 26, 2015

Presenting "Adam Ha-rishon," according to Arutz 7

Mammal at the time of the early Cretaceous Period
A fossil that had been collecting dust in a museum in Germany was recently "rediscovered" by an American academic leading a field trip. The fossil shows an early snake-like creature, estimated to be 113 million years old, possessing small, vestigial legs. These are legs that, in an earlier epoch, had been larger and were used for walking, but which atrophied over the course of millions of years as the snake elongated and became a slithering creature. Some modern snakes are thought to still bear such vestiges. Boas and pythons have small buds protruding out where their hind legs would otherwise be, which they use to grip during mating.

This isn't the first time such a fossil has been found, so I'm not sure what all the hubbub is about. But that's immaterial to what I wanted to get at here, which is an article posted by the Israel news site Arutz 7, reacting to the recent find: "Proof of the Torah? Snake Fossil With 4 Legs Found." Here's the argument: The Serpent in the Garden of Eden narrative was cursed to crawl on its belly, implying that prior to that it could walk. The 4-legged snake fossil clearly shows that walking snakes (or proto-snakes) were once on Earth, thus "proving" the Torah's account that such a creature existed.

Now, I fully admit to feeling a twinge of excitement when biblical narratives or characters find support in extra-biblical finds, such as seals discovered last December dating to the 10th C. B.C.E., which attest to administrative complexity previously unknown from the time of Kings David and Solomon. I still get a kick out of the famous Deir 'Alla Inscription found in Jordan back in 1967, which explicitly references the "seer" Bala'am ben Be'or.

I love this kind of stuff, anything arcane having to do with Judaism and ancient Israel. But I love it in a fun, nerdy, "extracurricular" sense. It has no impact either way on my religious commitment. I'm not looking to "prove" the Torah. To me, the Torah proves itself, when we succeed in using it to create a "holier" society, one which values life, champions the oppressed, aspires to an ever higher mode of conduct. What does the theoretical existence of a walking, talking snake have to do with whether I deal honestly in my business transactions, or host guests for a Shabbat meal?

Nope, I'm not a literalist. I don't think the Torah was ever meant to be read literally. It's meant to convey teachings, ideals, and the framework for a way of life (i.e. the commandments). Besides, no religious Jews are pure literalists, after all. Otherwise they'd ascribe to God "literal" hands, feet and fingers, human emotions like regret, and so on.

So the idea of a 4-legged snake doesn't particularly excite me, religiously speaking. If not for the fact that there are religious folks out there - Jews and Christians alike - who actually take seriously the idea that this might be a "proof" for the Torah's veracity, I wouldn't bother spending any time discussing it.

But let's go with this idea for a second. The Arutz 7 article states:
According to experts, the fossil was apparently in a stage of adaption, indicating previous versions likely used their legs to walk.
So the author accepts the idea of evolution? Wait, not so fast:
Dr. Nick Longrich of the University of Bath, an author in a new study on the find ... made clear they weren't just "vestigial" evolutionary leftovers.

"They're actually very highly specialized - they have very long, skinny fingers and toes, with little claws on the end... they've stopped using them for walking and they're using them for grasping their prey"
Snake fossil with tiny legs; photo credit - Dr. Dave Martill
First off, who says that in order for a limb or organ to be considered "vestigial" it has to be completely useless? Snake legs were once used for walking, then at a later (smaller) stage to grasp prey, and now (nearly gone) for gripping during mating. This also goes for human vestiges. According to the Wikipedia entry on vestigiality: 
Other organic structures (such as the occipitofrontalis muscle) have lost their original functions (keep the head from falling) but are still useful for other purposes (facial expression). 
The Arutz 7 author then states (bold added): 
Longrich was expecting an in-between species which would suggest an evolution of the snake species, but he was "really blown away" to find a full-fledged snake - just with legs.
Look at the way this is written. By adding the bold phrase (which doesn't appear in the original BBC article he's drawing from), the author makes it sound as if Dr. Longrich was expecting to find evidence of snake evolution, but bang - there's a snake with legs. Therefore it must not have evolved!

But this is a dishonest representation of Dr. Longrich, who is a self-stated evolutionary biologist. In fact in his own bio, he mentions snake evolution specifically: 
I’m interested in the origins of new kinds of organisms, including the origins of birds from dinosaurs, and the evolution of snakes from lizards.
Okay, enough of my unsolicited rescue of the good professor in the face of a religious hijacking. I just want to make one more point relating to the title of this post.

If one wants to accept this 113-million-year-old 4-footed snake as "proof" for the literal reading of the Genesis narrative, aside from the fact that the Serpent also talks, which would require highly specialized anatomical structures not present in a snake (or a donkey for that matter), we also have the problem of timing.

If the biblical Serpent, as the Arutz 7 article suggests, is the "ancestor" of today's snake and dates back to the early Cretaceous, then of course Adam and Eve (who spoke to the snake) would also have to date to the early Cretaceous. Which besides throwing the whole Seder Olam out of whack, is pretty difficult to envision. Humans are included in the order Primates, the first of which didn't evolve until some 50 million years after the fossil in question. There were however mammalian ancestors of primates in the Cretaceous, scurrying under the legs of the T-rex and Triceratops. Who were they? Little furry guys like the one pictured above.

The Arutz 7 article indignantly begins:
"Scientists have long scoffed at the Torah account of how the serpent in the Garden of Eden walked upright..."
Yeah, scientists, stop scoffing at that! Instead (thanks to articles such as this), start scoffing at Adam - and correspondingly the very "image of God" - as being a tail-bearing, insect-eating prehistoric rodent!

Yes, yes, I hear the rejoinders. Who says this fossil is really from 113 million years ago, not just 5700 years ago? Who says the 4-footed snake ever really evolved into the zero-footed snake? Well for one, Arutz 7 does, explicitly referring to the "113-million-year-old oldest ancestor of snake," and describing the snake's legs as "a stage of adaption, indicating previous versions likely used their legs to walk."

Point being, you can't have your evolution and deny it too. It's also a perfect example of the way literalism and the resulting apologetics create far bigger problems than the ones they're attempting to solve. Want all the "scoffing" to end right now? Then speak about our tradition in ways that make sense. Don't belittle the work of scientists or distort their words. Make the choice to understand stories like the Garden of Eden narrative reasonably, i.e. non-literally. It's really that simple!

1 comment:

  1. Well said. It really irritated me that he implied that scientists now have to rethink something that they challenged the Torah about. Scientists never claimed that snakes did not originally have legs. They just claimed that this was not 5775 years ago. Which they have not backed down from.


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