During my 11 years as rabbi at Oxford University, I organized and participated in seven major debates on creation versus evolution that featured some of the world’s leading evolutionary biologists, such as Profs. Richard Dawkins of Oxford and John Maynard Smith of Sussex.
After hearing the arguments of these great masters, I remained a staunch creationist — not because evolution need necessarily conflict with religion. On the contrary, the biblical account of creation supports the notion of God’s having started with more primitive life-forms and slowly ascended in complexity with the eventual creation of humans at creation’s culmination.
Moreover, the six days of creation could theoretically represent not days, but eons, or ages. Rather, my own rejection of evolution, of which I have written extensively in my book "Moses of Oxford," has little to do with religious conviction and everything to do with what I see as an unsound scientific theory.
But my immersion in the subject led me finally to visit, just last week, the Galapagos Islands off the coast of Ecuador, the place where Charles Darwin found so much inspiration for his theory. For Darwin, the Galapagos, largely untouched by human interference and bereft of large predators, served as the perfect laboratory for evolution and natural selection. He pointed to the 1′ varieties of the Galapagos finch, each with a distinctive beak allowing it to better obtain food, as proof that species evolve and adapt to survive in their environment. Likewise, the flightless cormorant became aquatic through millennia of diving after fish and eels, eventually leading its wings to atrophy.
Now, I DO not deny that species can evolve laterally. Finches can develop new beaks through mutation that might make them better suited to their environment. But that is not evolution, which implies vertical ascent rather than horizontal modification. Whether a finch has a straight or a curved beak, it is still a finch.
Likewise, even if Darwin is correct that the Galapagos marine iguana evolved from the land iguana, the two are still extremely similar, as any visitor to the islands will find. But how does this prove that from an iguana, if one adds millions of years, one might end up with, say, a hippopotamus?
It is the absence of transitional links in the fossil record that has always been the strongest refutation of the evolutionary model. Yes, scientists point to the occasional transitional link, but its presence is so minuscule as to be almost negligible.
So, while the Galapagos point to horizontal modification within an existing species, this would be called diversification rather than evolution. After all, even in the human family there is black and white. There is tall and short. But we are all human. Africans may indeed have developed a means to better exist in the hot sun of their continent by having dark pigmentation. But that does not affect their humanity in the slightest, just as the blue eyes and fair skin of Scandinavians do not make them more human.
But it was another aspect of the Galapagos that made me better understand Darwin’s mindset. More than anything else, through evolution Darwin divested nature of any sense of awe, mystery, or wonder. To a creationist, animals and nature are endowed with divine purpose, are miraculous and have sanctity, which is why cruelty to animals is a sin in every religion.
But to Darwin, nature was cruel, brutal, and heartless. Darwin looked around the Galapagos and focused not on the cute baby sea lions that frolicked on the volcanic rocks, but on the dry bones of the dead pups who had been abandoned by mothers with too many mouths to feed. He focused on the land iguanas that shriveled and died the cruel death of starvation because they did not have legs long enough to reach up and eat the Galapagos cactus, which had itself "evolved" into more of a tree so as not to be consumed.
Wherever Darwin looked he found animals that were not awe-inspiring, but awful, not creatures who were miraculous, but malicious, not beings that were wondrous, but woeful. Indeed, in "The Voyage of the Beagle," Darwin speaks of his open contempt for the animals he encountered. Whereas visitors today are dazzled by the Galapagos iguanas, Darwin described them as "a hideous-looking creature, of a dirty black color, stupid, and sluggish." Land iguanas aroused even greater ire on the part of the father of evolution. "Like their brothers the sea-kind, they are ugly animals … they have a singularly stupid appearance… These lizards, when cooked, yield a white meat which is liked by those whose stomachs soar above all prejudices."
And whereas tourists today are dumbstruck by the magnificence of the Galapagos giant tortoise, Darwin simply used them for supper: "The breast-plate roasted … with the flesh on it, is very good."
Who was right? Darwin, with his view of the essential brutality and ruthlessness of nature in which animals all compete against each other in a "survival of the fittest," or the religious view of the essential harmony of nature, emanating as it does from a single source with a common purpose?
I decided to test both theories on a two separate days in the Galapagos. On the first day I went to an island and looked at the landscape through Darwin’s eyes. Sure enough, I saw mercilessness wherever I peered. Large frigate birds were aerial scavengers not above stealing food right out of a chick’s mouth. Even beautiful, elegant-necked wild flamingos walked around freshwater ponds picking at the water in search of the tiny shrimp on which they survive. In short, every animal was in a desperate struggle for survival, each species pitted against the other in a barren landscape of scarce resources.
But the next day I decided to go out and see the islands through a religious lens. I looked at the mother sea lions baking in the hot sun and refusing to budge because their pups were feeding from their milk. I saw the innocent and fluffy chicks of the frigate birds, who sat on their open nests for a full year without moving, their parents scouring whole islands to feed them through the duration of the lengthy period in which they learned to fly. I saw blue-footed boobies so trusting of us — creatures ‘0 times their size — that they allowed us to get within five inches of them to take pictures. In short, I saw that nature can be selfless, trusting, and heartwarming.
We should be honest enough to recognize that modern-day conservation, which protects international treasures like the Galapagos, is based on the religious idea of the sanctity of nature rather than on the Darwinian idea of nature’s capricious and accidental evolution.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach is the host of TLC’s "Shalom in the Home." Its second season begins on Monday, Jan. 8, at 10 p.m. His most recent book is "Parenting with Fire: Lighting Up the Home with Passion and Inspiration." He lives in Englewood.