Creation Myths: How did we get here, and what can we learn from it?

Note: This is the text of a sermon I delivered at Temple Beth Am July 1998.
A Myth is a story about something that happened in the distant past that might or might not be true.  One of the frequent myths that recur in cultures all over the world is  a myth about how the world came to be.
Tonight, I am going to compare and contrast 4 creation myths:
  1. the story of creation in Genesis starting at 1:1 and ending at 2:6;
  2. the story of creation in Genesis starting at 2:6 and ending at ;
  3. the "Big Bang" theory of modern physics; and
  4. the theory of evolution
Since this a religious forum, I am to include a discussion of the moral lessons we can derive from each of these myths.  If this were a scientific forum, I would not do so.

Some terms

Before I launch into my tirade about the creation myths, I want to define a couple of terms.
Theory
A "theory" is an idea which is "falsifiable", i.e. something that can be tested by some prediction that could be true or false. Only falsity has any value - truth could be just a coincidence.  For example, Jean Baptiste Lamarck, a french biologist proposed the theory that acquired traits can become inherited.  We know this theory is false, because we've run an experiment to disprove it.  Jewish boys have been circumcised for 200 generations, and they still need circumcising.  We have falsified the theory of acquired characteristics.  There is a theory of arithmetic, and it is falsifiable: just go through some correct arithmetic operations and demonstrate that 1=2.  The reason why there is no theory of G-d is because science hasn't figured out how to disprove the existance of G-d.
Hypothesis
A "Hypothesis" is also an idea, but it can't be falsified.  Many scientists dream up hypotheses, and then think about them a little and develop them into theories.
Myth
A myth is a story which has been passed down through the ages.  From http://work.ucsd.edu/cgi-bin/http_webster , which in turn is From Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary (1913) (web1913) : Myth \Myth\, n. [Written also mythe.] [Gr. my^qos myth, fable, tale, talk, speech: cf. F. mythe.] 1. A story of great but unknown age which originally embodied a belief regarding some fact or phenomenon of experience, and in which often the forces of nature and of the soul are personified; an ancient legend of a god, a hero, the origin of a race, etc.; a wonder story of prehistoric origin; a popular fable which is, or has been, received as historical. 2. A person or thing existing only in imagination, or whose actual existence is not verifiable.
A scientific Fact
A scientific fact is an idea which is easily measurable, reproducible, and verifiable by experiement.  Examples of scientific facts include the boiling point of water, the speed at which San Francisco is moving away from Salt Lake City, the altitude of Lake Michigan, and the average mass of newborn Jewish baby boys.  The value of Hubble's constant, which I will discuss in a moment, is not a scientific fact, at least not yet.


Each of the four creation myths has

This last point is very important.  Part of the scientific method is testing a theory to see if can be proven false.  If the theory makes some predictions, and those predictions are not born out by experiment, then we know that the theory is wrong.  For example, using "traditional" theories of Chemistry (pre 1930s), we can predict the boiling point of water to be about -150o Celsius (-210o F).  But we know that the boiling point of water is 100o C, that's a scientific fact.  So clearly the "traditional" theory of chemistry is wrong.  Quantum Mechanics predicts that the boiling point of water will be about 100o C.  Does that prove the Quantum Mechanics is correct?  No, it doesn't.  It might be just an intriquing coincidence.

Creation Myth 1: Beresheet.

Time line

 
Time Event
Day 1 G-d Creates heaven and earth, darkness and light
Day 2 G-d separates land and sea
Day 3 G-d creates Grass, herbs, and fruit trees
Day 4 G-d lights the stars, moon and sun
Day 5 G-d creates birds, insects, fish and whales
Day 6 G-d creates land mammals, land invertebrates, land reptiles, and man and woman
Day 7 G-d rests

Evidence for

The Torah says so.  Comparing the state of the universe at the end of the first day, where there nothing but darkness and light, is remarkably similar to the initial conditions of the big bang theory.  Curiously enough, grass, herbs and fruit trees all appear simultaneously in the fossil record, a fact which couldn't possibly have been known to human authors of the Torah.

Evidence Against

Radiological dating suggests that the moon is billions of years old, whereas fruit trees are no older than 65 million years old, originating at about the end of mesozoic era.  The land reptiles are well known in the fossil record back to 225 million years ago.  The Torah, of couse, says nothing about extinctions.

How to falsify this myth

Hard to do.  The myth makes no predictions that we can test.

Creation Myth 2: Genesis 2:4-3:24

 This creation myth has no timelines associated with it.  The book just doesn't say how long these steps take.
Time Event
Initial conditions: dry ground, no plants, no rain
Mist, water
G-d creates man out of clay and animates him
G-d plants the garden of Eden
G-d creates land animals and birds, Adam names them.  Adam also gets his name.
G-d creates woman from one of Adam's ribs

Evidence for

The Torah says so.

Evidence Against

We know from the fossil record that many animals have been around for a very long time.  Humans are completely absent from the fossil record until perhaps 3 to 5 million years ago.  The fossil record stretches back almost a billion years.

How would we falsify the 2nd creation myth?

Hard to do.  The myth makes no predictions that we can test.

Creation Myth 3: The Big Bang Theory

 The Big Bang Theory is the dominant scientific theory about the origin of the universe. According to the big bang theory, the universe was created sometime between 10 billion and 20 billion years ago from a cosmic explosion that hurled matter and in all directions.  There are details that still need to be worked out about the first few seconds of the Universe, but ever since, oh, say, an hour or two after the explosion not much has happened that's of interest to Astrophysicists.  Immediately after the big bang, the universe was filled with subatomic particles called quarks and leptons (Electrons are leptons) and their antiparticle equivalents. By 0.01 second after the big bang some of the quarks had united to form neutrons and protons.  After another 2 seconds the only leptons remaining were electrons and the antiparticles had been annihilated.  After 4 minutes hydrogen and helium nuclei had formed. After a million years the universe was populated with hydrogen and helium atoms, the raw material of stars and galaxies.  In the billions of years that followed, stars were born, grew old, and died. The death throes of a star creates all of the elements heavier than helium, including my favorite element, carbon, and other userful elements such as Nitrogen, Oxygen, Sulfur, Calcium, and Phosphorus.

        In 1927, the Belgian priest Georges Lemaître was the first to propose that the universe began with the explosion of a primeval atom. His proposal came after comparing the red shift in distant nebulas by astronomers to a model of the universe based on Einstein's theory of relativity. Years later, Edwin Hubble found experimental evidence to help justify Lemaître's theory. He found that distant galaxies in every direction are going away from us with speeds proportional to their distance.  The ratio of speed and distance is known as Hubble's constant which is in the range of 55 kilometers per second per megaparsec to 100 Km/sec/Mpc.

    The big bang was initially suggested because it explains why distant galaxies are traveling away from us at great speeds. The theory also predicts the existence of cosmic background radiation (the glow left over from the explosion itself). The Big Bang Theory received its strongest confirmation when this radiation was discovered in 1964 by Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson, who later won the Nobel Prize for the discovery of radiation at an equavalent temperature of 2.7 degrees Kelvin, or -270 degrees Centigrade or -459 degrees Ferenheit..

 Two groups of astronomers trying to measure this fundamental constant using the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) are continuing to report conflicting results. One group, led by astronomer Allan Sandage, measures distances to galaxies using pulsating Cepheid variable stars and supernovae observed in galaxies like the Virgo Cluster spiral galaxy, NGC4639, shown here. This galaxy is the most distant one to which Cepheid-based determinations have been made and was also the site of a well-studied 1990 supernova. Their results favor a relatively small Hubble constant (slow expansion rate) of about 55 kilometers per second per megaparsec which means that galaxies one megaparsec (3 million lightyears) distant appear to recede from us at a speed of 55 kilometers per second. A substantially faster expansion rate (larger Hubble constant) is being reported by astronomer Wendy Freedman and collaborators, also based on HST data. The value of Hubble's constant was recently the subject of a popular public debate titled "The Scale of the Universe 1996: The Value of Hubble's Constant".   Parsec (pc): 3.26 light years (or 3.086 x 1016 m).; also kiloparsec (kpc) = 1000 parsecs and megaparsec (Mpc) = 1,000,000 parsecs = 3.086x1022  m.  Our local cluster of galaxies is about a Megaparsec in diameter.
 

Evidence in favor of the theory

Red shifts

In every direction we look, we see glowing hydrogen atoms.  Hydrogen has a very distinctive spectral signature, with good agreement between what we observe and what is predicted by Quantum mechanics, which I discussed last July.  However, everywhere we look, the hydrogen is reder than it ought to be.  This means that the hydrogen is moving away from us.  Stars in our local galaxy are virtually at rest.  Stars in distant galaxies are moving away from us at many millions of kilometers per hour.

Background radiation

A lot of the energy left over from the explosion is still around in the form of heat.  Heat in a vacuum can only exist in the form of electromagnetic radiation.  This radiation, called "blackbody radiation" has very well defined characteristics, again easily predicted using Quantum Mechanics.  The observations easily match what we observe in the lab (At Harvey Mudd College, the experiment is done in the second year) and the predictions of the theory.

Evidence in opposition to the theory

The following do not disprove the big bang theory but do suggest things to think about or resolve before accepting it completely.

Superclusters

 The distribution of galaxies is not uniform, they tend to occur in larger structures called "superclusters" or "galactic clusters",  Our galaxy is about 9x1020 m in diameter, while our local cluster is about 30 times that size.  It isn't clear why superclusters form.

The second law of Thermodynamics

The "Big Bang", the most widely accepted theory of the beginning of the universe, states that everything developed from a small dense cloud of subatomic particles and radiation which exploded, forming hydrogen (and some helium) gas. Where did this energy/matter come from? How reasonable is it to assume it came into being from nothing? And even if it did come into being, what would cause it to explode?
We know from common experience that explosions are destructive and lead to disorder. How reasonable is it to assume that a "big bang" explosion produced the opposite effect - increasing "information", order and the formation of useful structures, such as stars and planets, and eventually people?

How would we falsify the big bang theory?

If we found a significant number of blue shifted stars and galaxies, that would suggest that instead of expanding, all of the universe is moving randomly, like a big cloud of gas.  If the night time sky were bright instead of dark, that would mean that there is much more electromagnetic radiation around and it would be much harder to explain the existance of heavy elements, like Carbon.
There are two wrinkles on the "big bang" theory: the expanding forever theory and the expansion will stop eventually theory.  But those theories are really about how the universe will end, not about how the universe would begin.
 

Creation Myth 4: The theory of evolution

The Theory of  Evolution as proposed by Darwin and Wallace has 6 parts to it:
  1. Variation occurs.  Darwin did not understand a theory of genetics, and had no knowlege of mutations.  Evolution theory isn't interested in why variation occurs, the fact that it does is sufficient.
  2. Excess progeny.  All species produce more offspring than are needed to perpetuate themselves.
  3. Resources are limited.  This is intuitively obvious if you think about the last point.  Our planet has only so much mass, and if growth continues unchecked, the number of organisms will exceed the mass of the planet with remarkable rapidity.
  4. Competition occurs.  The individuals of the species compete with one another for the limited resources.  In recent years, biologists have discovered variations on this theme where families, hives, packs, nations compete instead of individuals.  Nevertheless, competition occurs because the carrying capacity of any ecosystem is limited, but growth is relentless.
  5. Natural selection. In the struggle between excess progeny for the limited resources,  some individuals will be successful in gathering enough resources to survive to reproductive age and  produce offspring of their own. Most individuals will not survive to reproductive age and will have no offspring.
  6. Allele frequency.  Those Alleles in individuals which survive to reproduce will be present in higher concentrations in subsequent generations than the Alleles in individuals which do not survive.

Evidence in favor of the theory

Sex

Sexual reproduction involves several processes that recombine genetic information. In fact, it is probably the vast opportunities for genetic recombination that has made sexual reproduction so successful a reproductive strategy. This is the reason natural selection has favored sexual  reproduction to the extent that it is present in some form in almost all major groups of organisms. Even corn and daffodils reproduce sexually.

The moths in Britain

A classic example of natural selection is the peppered moth  (Biston betularia) changing its predominant color in response to environmental pollution from in industrial era of England. Here, the predominance of white moths was shifted to dark moths, allowing for camouflage against predatory birds, as the trees darkened. Before the population shift occurred both light and dark moths were present. The environment allowed one shade to flourish.

Evidence in opposition to the theory

 Speciation

Although humans are very similar to Chimpanzees, humans are not chimps.  We're different species.  The theory of evolution really doesn't tell us how speciation occurs.  The assumption is that microscopic evolution, which we have seen, will lead to speciation in the long run.  But we haven't really observed this phenomenon.
This doesn't disprove the theory, however, because it may be that speciation will occur given enough time.  Of course, if one is willing to wait long enough, then maybe acquired traits can become inherited?  So, the question changes into a question of how does one do scientific inference: coming to a generalization based on a large number of observations.
Incidentally, this problem is the scientific version of "Which came first, the chicken or the egg?".

How would we falsify the theory?

The Jewish boys

Earlier I pointed out that Jewish boys have circumcised since the time of Abraham.  Does that have any bearing on the theory of evolution?  Yes, it does.  If acquired traits became inherited, then some other mechanism other than random chance governs how species change.  But Jewish boys have yet to inherit the trait, even after 200 generates; therefore acquired traits are probably not inherited.  Of course, science has advanced to the point where we now have a theoretical understanding of how genetics works.  So we no longer run experiments to test the Lamark theory.
Except on little Jewish boys.

The universe is not full of Elephants

We know from the fossil record that Elephants have been around for at least 50 million years.  But let me assume for sake of discussion that competition for resources does not occur and that the population of elephants has increased at the rate of 1% for the past 10,000 years, since the end of the last ice age.  If a mere 10,000 elephants survived the ice age, and if the elephant population increased at a rate 1% a year, today we would see 2x1047 elephants, weighing 16x1050 Kgs.  By way of comparison, the mass of the earth is "only" 6x1024 Kgs.  So, clearly, some sort of dynamic equalibrium has been reached long ago.
You can run these kinds of calculations yourself.  To get some good numbers to start with, see http://www.esmerel.com/circle/numeracy/mathfact.html. See also my calculations on elephants.
 
 

The Controversies

One Creation myth or two?

The two creation myths in Gensis are very different. There is much talmudic discussion on how to resolve the differences into one story.  In my opinion, it is far easier to think about the story in terms of two stories, with two morals.  The fact that the myths aren't true doesn't change the fundemental truth about the Torah.  The fundemental truth about the Torah is that it is a message from G-d.  There are people using powerful computers to carefully analyze the text of the Torah.  These people are wasting their time.  The text, as it is written, is the message from G-d.  If there are two stories there, it is because G-d wants two stories.  Why are there two stories?  That is Talmud!

The Genesis creation myth or the scientific myth?

Scientists generally are comfortable talking about things they don't know.  Hubble's constant is currently known within a range of 55 to 100, or a factor two.  We are confident that Hubble's constant does have a value; we're just still trying to figure out what the value is.  A lot of the attacks on the big bang theory which come from the creation science web pages get caught up comparing the precision to which we know Hubbles constant with the precision to which we know the speed of the light.  We know the value of Hubbles constant to within a a factor of two.  Last time I bothered to look, we knew the value of the speed of light to 8 signifigant figures; 20 million times more precisely.  Both the Speed of Light and Hubble's constant are fundemental values of the universe.  The fact that we don't know these values as precisely as we would like to does not invalidate them.
Does a belief in the scientific myths mean that the creation myths are false?  In the strict scientific sense, yes.  But as I have said earlier, reality is more complicated that mere science.  Clearly, the creation myths are much more poetic than the scientific theories.

Social Darwinism

If you believe that competition improves the breed, then is it reasonable to act altruistically, or would it be better for the species in the long run to be selfish?  There is a school of thought, called social darwinism, which claims that  Darwin's theories require humans to behave selfishly.  If a person can't get their life together and survive, then the race is better off without them.  Judaism has been vehemently opposed to social darwinism since Abraham argued with God over the fate of Sodom and Gemorrah.  Jews have been around as a people for 4000 years.  The Syrians, the Babylonians, the Greeks, the Romans, the Spanish Inquisition, the Nazis have all had their day in the sun.  We're still here.
I find it curious that the same class of people who originally opposed Darwin's theories 150 years ago are now more likely to be social darwinists than other classes; namely wealthy establishment conservatives.
I find social darwinism morally repugnant, but that's my own view.  A better argument is that preserving many different genotypes makes the race stronger, because it is easier and faster to create variation through interbreeding than by waiting for mutations.  If that means that the wealthy have to support the poor, then the long term survival of the species makes the sacrifice worthwhile.

Malthus

If you have bacteria or mold in a bottle of milk, eventually they will digest all of the milk sugars and then starve to death. If you are lucky, you'll have a bottle of cheese but more likely you'll have a bottle of spoiled milk. We are very much like those little molds and bacteria.   If my calculations are correct and assuming that the historical annual growth rate of 3% continues, then density of people will reach 1 person/square meter sometime early in the 22nd century; probably in the lifetime of my grandchildren.  This rather depressing thought is called a Mathusian crisis, after an English economist, Malthus, who lived in the 18th century.  Certainly, from the point of view of a vast universe, we're all a bunch of hydrocarbons that do this weird thing called life. That's unusual, but then the universe is full of unusual things.  So life is rare and odd and otherwise unremarkable.

However, I don't like that view. We have something those bacteria do not have: we have understanding and awareness. I like the idea that G-d created us last (saved the best for last) or else created us first (so we could help with everything else).  I like being special. We can choose to change our reproductive behavior.  There is some evidence that the birthrate in American is dropping, especially among the middle class and the wealthy.  The birthrate in Eastern Europe is actually lower than the deathrate: if present trends continue, Europe will have an interesting problem: a shortage of labor, starting in about 10 years from now.
 

Summary

 

 
Theory Beresheet Genesis 2:4-3:24 Big Bang theory Theory of Evolution
Internet resources http://www.breslov.com/bible/
Genesis1.htm#1
  http://www.breslov.com/ref/
Genesis2.htm#4
Cosmology and What Happened Before the Big Bang!
A hindu response
A fundementalist Christian response
 Evolution 111 at Lander University
 http://interface.cac.psu.edu/origins/
Vaishnava Theory of Evolution
How to falsify the theories  These theories are not falsifiable because they make no predictions Background radiation is not isotropic. 
Protons in atomic nucleii decay 
Blue shifted stars
All animals and plants now in existance are found in the fossil record at all levels 
Fierce competitors found in small ecosystems, tame competitors found in large ecosystems
Evidence in favor of What we know about the prerequisites for life support this ordering No mention of the sabbath, clearly a reflection of hectic modern life! We see red shifted stars and the farther away they are, the more red shifted they are. 
The relationship seems to be linear.
We observe microscopic evolution 
We understand that resources are limited and the consequences of exponential growth.
Evidence in opposition to  The Torah lumps together things that fly: insects, birds, and bats; but we know that these creatures are very different from one another. A world view where all of the plants and animals require human care and are present for human benefit; but we know that the plants and animals would get along fine without us. There is a theory that there is a point in the universe where  matter is being created continously. 
There is the question of whether the original starting conditions wouldn't create a "black hole" which wouldn't explode.
 Test your faith
The speciation problem
Timeline 7 days about 5759 years ago Unknown but a few thousand years ago A few hours about 10-20 billion years ago. Ongoing, starting about 1 billion years ago
Moral lesson We should be humble because all of the other animals and plants were here before us. 
Men and women are partners in the process of creation.
G-d has placed us here to take care of the planet.  We are entitled to use the wealth of this planet. None - if we kill ourselves, it is no great loss. None - might makes right, survival justifies all.  "Social Darwinism"

The Bottom Line: What do I think?



In preparing this discussion, I ran it past several of my friends and acquantences and asked them their opinion.  Interestingly enough, my friends who are not Jewish asked me about which of the four myths I believe to be true.  Now, I found it rather interesting that the non-Jews were interested in my beliefs, but the Jews were much more interested in the facts, conclusions and arguments.  I believe that this difference is due to something which we are not commanded to do.  We Jews are not aware of what we are not commanded to do nor not commanded not to do (We are aware of 613 things we are commanded to do).  We are not commanded to believe in G-d.  It is possible to be an agnostic Jew, or even an atheistic Jew.  It is also possible to be an immoral Jew, I myself am an immoral Jew.  It is even possible to be an immoral, atheistic Jew although I suspect at that point there's not much left to talk about.  So "What do I think?" is really a somewhat irrelevent answer.

My daughter tells me that she doesn't like it when I tell her a question is meaningless or irrelevent.  So I will tell you my answer.

There is an idea, which probably is Greek in origin, that there can be only truth.  Certainly, it is true that this lecturn is made of wood, that these brass artworks are made of brass, and that there are currently X people present in this room.  However, not all truths are like that.  The statement that I made earlier about my morality is only partly true.

I am a man.  I am a father.  I am a child.  I a vertebrate.  I am a bipedal tetrapod (now, there's an oxymoron!).  I am 40 years old.  I have myopia.  I have athletes foot.  All of these statements are true statements.  So it is with many things.  The expectation that just "because many things have a single truth, all things must have a single truth" is naive.

My daughter would then say "Big deal - what's the right answer?".  Does this sound like a teen ager to you?

So my answer is that all of these myths are right.  That doesn't sound very satisfying, does it?  But consider that each of these myths has a lesson for us.

  1.  The first creation story tells us that the world was here before we humans were, and we are interlopers.  The world would carry on just fine if we weren't here.
  2. The second creation story tells us that we are entitled to a portion of the wealth that our little planet provides.  While we should not waste any resources, we are allowed to use them.
  3. The Big Bang theory should give us a tremendous sense of humility and awe.  The Universe is so very vast, and we are so small and insignificant.  At Yom Kippur, we said that compared to G-d, we are as dust.  Actually, that was an overstatement.
  4. The theory of evolution shows G-d's hand at every turn; steering the course of events in the direction G-d wanted the world to go.  I can easily imagine a vast intelligence who created us, eventually, in an effort to find somebody to talk to.
My wife aduces the interesting idea that Genesis has two creation stories instead of one to support the ideal that Jews are suppose to discuss, argue, debate, and disagree.  There is no such thing as an approved Jewish dogma, and we really don't have any kind of heirarchy of authority to pass questions and decisions up and down a chain of command.
 

Another thought.

This is the third sermon I have prepared looking at biblical topics from the point of view of an engineer looking at topics of Jewish thought (The other two are comparing Quantum Mechanics and Cabalah and a Management Audit of parsheh Noach, which is both the Noah story and the Tower of Babel story) .  Why am I doing this?  If you answered because that's the kind of person I am, then you are right, but that's not the answer I am looking for.
At Yom Kippur, Rabbi Jonathan Singer touched on topics of Judaism and modernity.  Rabbi Jonathan is thinking about Modernity from the point of view of a spiritual man.  I am thinking about religion from the point of view a modern technoweenie.  The symmetry of our thinking is striking.  The Rabbi and I are both trying to maintain the human spirit in this brave new world we find ourselves in.  We are going in different directions along the same path, but it is my prediction that we will meet somewhere in the middle.

 It is my passionate opinion that G-d has given us big brains for a reason. It is up to us to use our big brains to help ensure our own survival. Thank you and Shabbat Shalom