Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Rambam and Darwin - Quite compatible

In an exchange of comments with Ben Avuyah we touched on an interesting subject that is worth a post. Here is the exchange edited to stay on subject:

Ben Avuyah finished a comment with this : The bottom line is that OJ's want to marvel at god's creation in an overal sense that gives them the requisite awe required to sustain belief in odd dietery laws and dress codes. But when it comes to the details, they feel very strongly that you should not draw any conclusions about the designer at all.

To which I responded focussing on the last sentence: Rambam has an interesting take on that. He claims that we have to look at all genetic problems as positive because mutations are necessary for the survival of the species. (I am translating Aristoteleian concepts into modern ones) see Moreh 3:12.

BA: How could he be so possesed of the idea of the necessity of genetic variation so many years before Darwin ??

DG: Here are the words I refer to:
"The first kind of evil is that which is caused to man by the circumstance that he is subject to genesis and destruction, or that he possesses a body. It is on account of the body that some persons happen to have great deformities or paralysis of some of the organs. This evil may be part of the natural constitution of these persons, or may have developed subsequently in consequence of changes in the elements, e.g., through bad air, or thunderstorms or landslips. We have already shown that, in accordance with the divine wisdom, genesis can only take place through destruction, and without the destruction of the individual members of the species the species themselves would not exist permanently". (the last sentence is a general statement why there is death but I use the same idea for genetic mutations.)

DG:Of course he is talking about Galen and his theories but if you take this argument about evil and translate it into contemporary language the philosophical question is answered exactly the same way. That is what I mean that we have to learn from him how to answer substituting contemporary science for the science of his day.

When Rambam is read literally he does not seem to have any relevance to the sciences of our times. However if we look at the method he used to understand the world as he saw it from a theological point of view he is the greatest teacher and his real genius comes to the fore. Rambam when confronted by the question of how can God be seen as good when an innocent human being is suffering for no fault of his own, did not respond with the usual platitudes we hear today. He did not say that that person suffers now to gain later in afterlife, or that our souls transmigrated from an earlier life and is paying for past misdeeds or some other such nonsense. Having understood that when we say God is good we refer to his having given permanence to existence by setting in place laws of nature that insure its long term survivability, this tragedy has to be looked at from that angle. He knew that death of the individual is necessary for the survival of the species so he assumed that a child born with a deformity or an adult that developed an incurable sickness somehow was tied in with a good for the species. He could then accept that God is good even when bad things happen to innocents.

We now understand that genetic mutations which are a major cause of many sicknesses are necessary for the long term survival of humankind. We can use the same insight Rambam used in his time and age to answer the same question with our current understanding of nature.

Rambam addressed here only one facet of Tzaddik vera Lo, the one that deals with natural disasters and tragedies. He addresses separately when bad things are committed by man to each other and man to himself. This is all for other posts.


  1. DG: Very excellent.
    I have never been troubled by the usual sceptic's question of why does an all-powerful G-d allow bad things to happen to people. To me the question is very narccicistic. It implies that we (as individuals) are the most important thing in the universe. That is quite an assumption, especially for a sceptic, and it comes from an infantile notion of G-d that he is some sort of kindly old man. Perhaps the immutible laws of physics are more important than us as individuals (one possibility).