Implications of the origin of non-species

I’ve been reflecting a little more on some issues I raised in a reply to Merv on Eddie’s thread. It builds on the ongoing consideration of the Aristotelian idea of formal causation, but the involves more global implications of the philosophical divide between realism and nominalism – broadly, whether there are genuine universal “types” or just multitudes of individual things that we humans lump together for convenience. 

The implications I’m considering are primarily for all the commonest kinds of theistic evolutionist: those who accept mainstream Darwinian theory as God’s means of creating life, whether or not in a directed way, and whether or not he planned mankind or merely greeted with delight some more contingent “rational” creature on which he chose to place his image (whatever that might mean). So you can see I’m thinking quite generally here – the common factor in a wide range of positions is the tendency to combine science and religion and leave philosophy out of the frame as unimportant. The Christian biology sympathiser – a familar figure to you?

Let’s begin by saying that Darwin’s Origin of the Species was a misnomer, as the book starts by arguing the arbitrariness of the term “species”, showing how there is no real agreement on its meaning as compared to sub-species, varieties, etc. This, of course, is in preparation for his account of gradualist transformation by the accumulation of tiny variations, still the core claim of Darwinism. Philosophically he argues for, or presupposes, nominalism, for the creatures we see in life or as fossils are merely random points in a continuum, not representatives of a real type, with its own actual nature.

In modern biology, cladism represents this idea better than traditional taxonomy. The latter describes the celebrated “nested hierarchy”, in which a raven is a particular kind of corvid, which is a kind of bird, vertebrate and so on, and a finch is a bird but not a corvid or a raven. However clades, strictly speaking, are not heirarchies but continua. Depending on the level under consideration (ultimately including the whole tree, bush or net of life) the raven and the finch may belong on the same continuum. There is an assumed series of infinitesimally graded forms one could trace between them, corresponding to their genealogy. This gradualist, nominalist, theme is accentuated by new discoveries like horizontal gene transfer, which is a kind of natural trans-speciesism – though it inconveniently messes up cladistics as a reliable means of tracing ancestry.

Stephen Jay Gould’s punctuated equilibria may seem to represent a counter to this nominalism, but that is not so. Gould was unusually well-informed philosophically (compared to certain self-appointed spokesmen for evolution now), and clearly considered his punc eek as an accelerated gradualism: see his references to the human tendency to reduce continua to categories in this piece (well worth reading anyway as a sound rebuttal of the familiar scientistic myth of science v religion).

The consequence of all this is that there is no such thing as the genus “raven”, but only of interbreeding individual organisms sufficiently similar, at this point in space-time, to warrant a label of convenience. If we were God, able to see every individual of the raven clade across the world and in time, together with all its genetic variation, what use would the label be? How could there be a raven “nature” (or “essence”) – a raven “universal”?

Now, to parrot Darwin, there is a grandeur in the view that God’s creative activity encompasses infinite variation rather than any finite number of specific categories. But there would be significant consequences, if this were true. As I hinted to Merv in my comment, the biological category “man” would be meaningless. One sees Christian anthropologists discussing whether the word “human” should apply to H. sapiens, to genus Homo or whatever, but it’s not just a question of which “box” to put ones biological specimens in, nor even to consider who is susceptible to sin and eligible for salvation. The problem is that the word “human” means nothing biologically – there is no dividing line.

One might want to say that biology is not everything, but that God chose mankind on a basis not strictly biological for his blessing. But do you see the problem? for God to choose mankind, there has to be a mankind to choose. According to Darwinism, the gene composition of the race has been changing continuously over time – we are not Cro-Magnon man. So what is it that gives us any solidarity with him, compared to Neanderthal, Denisovian or other varieties with which we (or rather,”they”) maybe didn’t interbreed?

Come to that, what gives me human solidarity with you, or with other races? Biology may have combated racism (having previously fostered it catastrophically in Haeckel etc) by showing that we are biologically one species. But in the absence of the real existence of the universal called “species”, what does that even mean? I am me. You are you. And we are competing to reproduce our genes.

Furthermore, if there are no universal natures, how can “human nature” exist? Original sin – any sin – or even universal morality or universal psychology – are meaningless. I can’t judge a chimp for cannibalism – how can I judge Hannibal Lector, whose genotype is different from mine? How can Jesus represent, or stand surety for, humanity as a whole? How can God judge the quick and the dead?

This is more than theological – if there is no universal human “essence”, I must assess humanness by some particular arbitrary quality. The old nominalists used to set posers like how many grains of sand you had to remove from a heap before it ceased to be a heap. Brought up to date, one could ask how many genes you have to replace for an elephant to be a mammoth, or a man a monster? It’s not theoretical – why are Downs syndrome children routinely aborted? Because in some way, they’re considered not sufficiently human, whether because their chromosome number doesn’t match, or because they are deemed to be sub-human with respect to intellect or physical health (though paradoxically they can join the actor’s union and appear on TV).

Or perhaps the general argument is that humanness really means something like “rational consciousness”, so that embryos are not human (sometimes – unless they’re wanted, in which case you can be convicted of their homicide). That’s a parallel to the TE idea that God was on the lookout for evolution to produce a quality – intelligence – rather than a nature, humanity.

The big question, then, is “How can Christian truth be true if there are no true natural kinds?” That isn’t actually meant as a rhetorical question, but an intellectual challenge. If one wants to hold Darwinian gradualism and Christianity at the same time, one needs to make them fit coherently. Over to you on that.

This inevitably has a bearing on how you do science. The discoverer of Downs Trisomy 21, Jerome Lejeune, had a very clear view of human nature:

After fertilization has taken place a new human being has come into being. [It] is no longer a matter of taste or opinion…it is plain experimental evidence. Each individual has a very neat beginning, at conception.
 – Jerome Lejeune

Lejeune denied, therefore, that personhood was a metaphysical conception, but a scientific one. I think he was wrong, but only because like many scientists – none more so than Darwin – he was blind to his own metaphysical commitments. It’s fair to say that all Darwin’s actual observations were compatible with realism: it was his speculation about the capabilities of natural selection that took him, probably unwittingly, into nominalism and raised the big metaphysical issues.

His major model – livestock breeding – actually shows severe constraints on variation, as was pointed out to him by scientific opponents. That has not changed – after 150 years no new species has been produced experimentally by random mutation and selection.

He admitted that the fossil record overwhelmingly showed stasis and sudden change, not gradation, and that remains the case too. A few gradual transitions are seen in the lowest taxa: otherwise the picture is of top-down diversification, always abrupt. Punctuated equilibria, as a gradualist theory, speculates on the insensitivity of the fossil record – the data fits saltation just as well.

Various genetic studies also suggest gradual variation (often reversible) at the micro-evolutionary scale (perhaps up to the genus level), but more sudden transitions and longer periods of stasis at higher taxa.

More recent examples supporting the non-existence of “forms” have also sometimes been found wanting: for example the classic example of a ring species, the herring gull/lesser black backed gull sequence, on close examination revealed a very different picture.

My point is that there is a necessary metaphysical choice, since in all science, except for the doctrinaire meta-theories where everything turns out to have been predicted by the theory, the data will be ambiguous. But metaphysical commitments will, in many cases, guide what you look for, and Christian faith is at least as entitled to its metaphysical agenda as Darwin’s agnosticism was. If the fossil record and so on render nominalism less likely and real natural forms more likely, will we like Darwin put the palaeontological evidence on hold, or will we instead doubt the theory? If holding to the theory leads to rewriting your theology in a major way (which, as I’ve exhaustively shown, leads to incoherence), is that a necessary price to pay, or the over-egging of a metaphysical preference?

As for me, I believe there are species, and they actually originated in the Logos of God.

The aliens are nominalist Darwinians: "Why did they only draw these two?"

The aliens are nominalist Darwinians: “Why did they only draw these two?”


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About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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82 Responses to Implications of the origin of non-species

  1. Lou Jost says:

    One tiny, hopefully uncontroversial comment about your “The problem is that the word “human” means nothing biologically – there is no dividing line.”

    AT A GIVEN MOMENT IN TIME, most species are sharply divided from other species by reproductive isolation. Individuals of the same species interbreed in nature and produce fertile offspring. Individuals of different species usually do not.

    There are plenty of clusters of hybridizing “species” to dirty up the picture, but many mammals in nature really do show this sharp division at the moment. This includes humans, at the moment. Though apparently it was not so clear when the Denisovians and Neandertals were around.

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


      I was exploring several implications in my piece. One is that God does not view things at a given moment of time (you can substitute an Einsteinian metaphor meaning “nature” if you like), so that the discontinuity of species now is a limitation of human perception – that was the whole point of Darwin’s gradualism. Indeed, it’s the point of studing evolution: one might as well say that fixity of species is a valid truth because it’s the observation that leads us to classify species as real entities; Darwin in essence said that that perception is as illusory in the long term as Newtonian physics at cosmic level.

      Secondly, agreeing with you that hybridisation, etc can be seen as muddying the issue (for example, I’m pretty sure that Thomas Aquinas would have done some work on explaining mules in his system, I believe along the lines of their infertility showing the aberration of their natural ability to reproduce)), I wanted to point out that the gradualist view of macro-evolution entails a metaphysical choice, and may well have arisen from one, albeit unconsciously in Darwin’s case, who wasn’t the greatest metaphysician in the pack.

      However, there is work in the evolutionary field that gives the possibility of quite sudden transitions, hybridisation actually being one of them (cf James Shapiro). Those don’t neccessarily involve pure saltation, but do involve speciation events (but bear in mind I’m using “species” in a philophical sense here, not necessarily indicating a biological level). So I’m suggesting that whilst (as Gould believed of punc eek/i>) the period of stasis involves profound genetic change, there might be an actual point at which the fundamental nature (assuming form to be a real entity) of a taxon changes.

      Conversely true gradualism remains an assumption based on the uniformity of micro- and macro-evolution since Darwin. So, writing for Christians, I was suggesting (a) that if they support true gradualism, they have some metaphysical and theological work to do – which is a straightforward reserach proposition and (b) if they believe in natures, including the reality, from an eternal viewpoint, of human nature they might wish to look more seriously at some of the newer, non-gradualistic, mechanisms of evolution as the horse to back.

      Yet there would be no underlying incompatibility with the idea of a guided evolutionary process: given that genetic information is part of “form” (but not all – which is another issue for gradualism), one can envisage the accumulation of genetic information as preparatory for the eventual “quantum” shift of form by whatever process it is that may turn out to initiate observed the top-down process of change.

      Most of this reply will be irrelevant to you if you dismiss formal causation, divine involvement and/or the possibility of non-gradualism in speciation, but I’m clarifying for the wider readership here.

  2. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


    A further line of thought prompted by your post. In our experience, as you say, the vast majority of species appear fixed. On the principle of uniformity, that’s likely to have been true at most times in the past too. It’s as if species tend to shun the boundaries where change occurs and cluster around some norm. Since micro-evolutionary genetic change has presumably continued over the history of H sapiens, and we are genetically very different from Cro-Magnon, that “norm” relates to morphology rather than genotype. Wide genetic variation within the species does not affect the observation that there is a form called “man”, whereas the oft-quoted small percentage difference from chimps (in themselves possessing a much wider variation than us, I believe) doesn’t prevent the clear division into “them” and “us”.

    Natural selection was first proposed (by Blyth) as an agent of stability, rather than change, and there’s a good body of evidence that that is its major role today (cf Koonin’s 2009 summary of current evolutionary theory – which I note on reviewing it is also very skeptical of gradualism). We also find multiple error correction mechanisms in cells. This all sits well with the palaeontological observation of predominant stasis, and suggests the reality of forms/natures, Darwin notwithstanding. Large scale evolution seems to be trans-form-ation, rather than de-form-ation.

    Regardless of the argument as to whether theology or metaphysics ought to drive science, it would seem to be a useful prediction from much of the existing evidence that there are genuine forms, and that they should be demonstrable by scientific investigation – but that one would almost certainly have to look beyond genetics, and certainly would have to suspend belief in gradualism to be motivated to do the research.

    • Lou Jost says:

      Coincidentally I have to face these issues in my work today. Unfortunately I am not working with mammals or birds, but a much messier group. Fourteen years ago I discovered a fantastic evolutionary radiation of the orchid genus Teagueia on a remote mountain in the Andes (where I live). I found four new species of these (all very distinct from each other) in one square meter of moss. It was an amazing experience. My students and I went on to discover about 30 new species in this genus (which had only six species in the whole world before these discoveries) on various mountaintops in the area. It’s an evolutionary radiation maybe even more spectacular than that of Darwin’s finches, for sheer number of species.

      So now, my task this month is to describe some of these new species, which means I have to decide how best to divide up these forms into meaningful units. To make these decisions I have both morphological and genetic data. But it is still really hard! This radiation is very recent, as dated by fossil-calibrated genetic differentiation. The oldest of these species diverged around 2 million years ago and are very distinctive, but the most recently diverged forms (perhaps just a hundred thousand years old) are quite similar to each other, and on one particular mountain a pair of “species” appear to have even “gone backwards” and re-joined though hybridization.

      It is the sort of messy pattern we often see in nature when we look closely at recently-evolved species, the sort of thing we’d expect from “gradual” ongoing evolution to produce. “Gradual” depends on one’s perspective, of course. Even some forms of saltational speciation (for example fertile hybrids with some special selective advantage over their parents, or polyploid speciation) are going to be messy and gradual-looking, until eventually reproductive isolation gives selection, drift, and mutation time to build major differences.

      Anyway, this is an enjoyable task, as I get to see firsthand an ongoing, rich speciation process.

      • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

        The joy of the unknown Lou! I knew a guy who’d done similar work on cichlids in Africa – zillions of different types, and a taxonomic nightmare. He was a philosophical “realist” (if he’d have used that term as a mere zoologist) and came to the conclusion that they were more the same thing in different guise than separate taxa.

        Not so bizarre when you consider those epigenetic changes I mentioned in the Incredible Hulk piece.

        Any thoughts on how your orchids diverged if batches of them live in the same moss? Or did they migrate from their various isolated mountain fitness peaks after they’d done so?

      • Lou Jost says:

        Those cichlids are sort of the worst-case taxa; highly plastic morphology, huge numbers of very young species, and to top it off, they are hard to observe.

        My orchids don’t seem to have migrated much. On the contrary, most are known only from tiny areas. There are two sets of mountains, divided by a small valley. The two sets are only about 20 km apart, with what looks like identical climates and geology, but the two sides of the valley don’t share a single species of this radiation! And it seems from the phylogenetic tree that this has been the case for most of their history, with only one or two successful jumps across the valley over the last 2 million years.

        And unlike Darwin’s finches and the famous Scalesia plant radiation that Darwin discovered on the Galapagos, there are many species on each small mountain. One mountain has about 16 species of these things! All new to science, too. It is bizarre. My friends and I started a conservation foundation and it now owns this special mountain, so the species are protected.

        One possible mechanism of divergence is slight random variation in flower color or fragrance that begins to attract different pollinators, which may have more restricted habitat preferences than the orchids. (Pollination in orchids is very specialized.) If pollination by Pollinator X was more likely at higher elevations, and more likely by Pollinator Y at lower elevations, then variations that favored Pollinator X would become more common at higher elevations, and vice-versa. Over time, if the effect was strong enough (if exchange of genes between high-elevation and low-elevation populations is low enough), this process could lead to reproductive isolation and speciation, especially if hybrids of the two types are not as attractive to pollinators as pure forms. But this is just one possible mechanism; we don’t really know, and that makes it interesting.

        I’ve been working hard on the general theory of how much genetic interchange is enough to tie two populations together. I discovered that the standard population genetics theory on this is mathematically mistaken! I’ve derived what I think is the correct theory, at least in the neutral case (Jost 2008. Molecular Ecology 17: 4015-4026). So you see, I am an equal-opportunity skeptic.

        Here’s a link to some pictures of them and the mountains:
        That page has links to more info about them if you are interested.

        • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

          Interesting – will chase links later today (after work!).

          I’d have thought that any pollinator that picky about its food-plant would have been just as specialised itself – so you’d have a kind of paper-chase of coordinated evolution, fuelled by some other mechanism altogether. But hey – they’re your orchids, so what would I know?

          I have heard that orchids seem to have a particular propensity to adapt their form dramatically – in itself suggesting to me that “random variation” in their case means something specially facilitated (back to Shapiro), and therefore dubiously random. One might anticipate that only particular parameters are “allowed” to vary, as in the immune system.

          I’m not surprised the population genetics numbers don’t work – yours is a real case, not an abstraction.

          In terms of the original discussion on “natures”, even Aristotle needed to see these as a “nested hierarchy” too: orchids’ unique propensity to diversify would be, at some higher level, part of their form.

          In terms of the (somewhat separate) discussion on directed evolution, final causation might envisage providing for multiple similar, but separate, food chains in the same environment. However they got there, a huge variety of species are living happily together without direct competition, which is far less red in tooth and claw than Malthus would have envisaged.

          • Lou Jost says:

            “I’d have thought that any pollinator that picky about its food-plant would have been just as specialised itself – so you’d have a kind of paper-chase of coordinated evolution, fuelled by some other mechanism altogether.”

            Actually pollinators of most orchids are only being tricked and abused by the orchids. They don’t get any benefit from pollinating them. The genus I study most, Lepanthes, has flowers that imitate the genitals of a female fungus gnat (each species of Lepanthes imitating a different species of gnat). The males come to the flowers and try to mate with it. No benefit at all to the pollinator. Not only does he waste time at the flower, but he actually ejaculates, so he loses energy and nutrients.

            Nature is generally like that. It really looks more opportunistic than orchestrated.

            “I’m not surprised the population genetics numbers don’t work – yours is a real case, not an abstraction.”

            I didn’t describe that very well. I meant that even the textbook conclusions based on the abstraction of population genetics were wrong!

            • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

              Sorry – Sunday morning brainstorm. I was, of course, aware that insects copulate with orchids rather than feeding from them.

              There’s still a rather interesting interdependence: how do the intermediate variations of Lepanthes not specific to a species of fungus gnat reproduce? One would think that there’s as much of a mating barrier between a gnat and a deformed orchid as there is between a gnat and a deformed female gnat: selection would favour stasis.

              Or do they do through a more generic phase when they attract two species of gnat? And if that’s advantageous, why evolve further to exclude the first species, given that they’re in the same habitat?

              Or did the gnats evolve first and the orchids follow them? All in a few 100K years you say? Neat.

              • Lou Jost says:

                We don’t know for sure the answers to most of these questions, Jon. But yes, under stable conditions, selection would favor maintaining the trick that works. Stasis might not be the best word, though, because the gnat may be under pressure to be better at discriminating orchids from female gnats, and orchids would be under string pressure to keep fooling the gnat, so they may both evolve in lock-step.

                However, the ranges of both the flies and the orchids must change dramatically over time, as climate changes. This could shake up the stasis. But since neither orchid nor gnat leave fossil records, this is not an ideal system in which to figure these things out.

                You commented on the speed of this evolution. The rate of diversification of these Teagueia species looks to be about ten times faster than previously-studied local plant radiations, so something special seems to be going on.

  3. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    Incidentally, Lou, when I were a lad, there were two stereotypic lives of adventure available that didn’t involve being in the armed forces.

    The first was being a missionary in Africa, and teaching the natives with a view to be eaten by cannibals.

    The second was being an explorer in the Amazon, and hunting rare orchids with a view to being swallowed whole by a snake.

    I didn’t know what orchids were, but they sounded exotic. Me, I wanted to be an archaeologist, as less adventurous. But you seem to be living the (second) dream to the letter, minus the romantic end, I hope and trust!

    My friend Pete Harris started out as a missionary in Africa, and then became a conservationist, with a centre in Brazil (persuading the people to love their own environment more). That’s just a general plug for the last part of his post, which I shall be putting up later.

    • Lou Jost says:

      Nice that we can agree on some of our youthful fantasies at least! My real-life fantasy hasn’t been ended (yet) by giant snakes (though I did once meet an anaconda that had just swallowed a big fat wild pig, still visible as a giant bulge in the snake), nor have I ever encountered cannibals. But I have been sequestered by headhunters, almost as exciting! I don’t think I was in real danger of anything except a long internment, though. I actually liked that they were so protective of their territory. We had gotten permission from the tribal leaders to explore for orchids, but the local people in this spot weren’t on good terms with their leaders and didn’t respect the permission. They also suspected we were really oil geologists wanting to open up their land to oil exploration. So their concern was understandable.

      Another time, after we had gotten permission from a former-headhunter tribe deep in the foothills of the Amazon (so remote we had to fly in by light STOL plane and land on a tiny grass runway between their huts), some of the older tribesmen apparently still didn’t like visitors, and said something in their language to my young tribesman guide as we left the airstrip for a week-long trek through the forest. All day my guide refused to tell me what the man said. Finally towards evening he told me the man said he would come hunt us down at our campsite at night and kill us. But nothing happened. And we discovered several new orchids! Here is my old report:
      and the descriptions of the new species:

      • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

        It gets confusing conversing across 2 websites as well as 3 continents: on BioLogos I was referring to this remark:

        Nature is generally like that. It really looks more opportunistic than orchestrated.

        Doesn’t that imply evolution as an ad hoc response to unexpected events?

  4. Lou Jost says:

    Oh, that’s what you meant! Yes, that’s right.

  5. Avatar photo Merv Bitikofer says:

    Thanks for the links to the photos, Lou. I’m sure the beautiful looking terrain conceals much discomfort and physical exertion on your part to traverse it with care.

    I don’t know as much as either you or Jon about orchid evolution but I do have a question on one of your comments above. If the orchids are opportunistically mimicking the females, and the gnats continue “servicing” the orchids in this manner with no apparent return, wouldn’t this endanger gnat survival and therefore finally the gnat-dependent orchids? I’m just thinking back to Dawkins’ explication of the fig trees and fig wasps, where even though the female wasps might pick the “wrong” fig and prolong the tree genetics at the expense of their own, — still the other wasps would happen upon the “right” figs for their own interests. So there was a kind of stasis in which both species overall could remain symbiotic.

    Could it be that even though energy is wasted by many male gnats that perhaps some benefit is conferred? Perhaps the flowers signal where the male gnats can be found, providing at least a marked venue for those males who will win the lottery.

    Anyway — thanks for sharing something of your work here. I’ve read several Far-side collections if that helps convince you of my credentials in these matters.

    • Lou Jost says:

      I love the Far Side,– good credential. Your question is a good one, but the fig/wasp story is very different from this one, in that the gnats can get along well (maybe even better) without the orchids. But we don’t really know much about this system. It does seem like males seek females, not the reverse, so orchids that attract only males would not serve as a singles bar for females. Most likely, this is an arms race, with pressure on the male to better distinguish real females from orchids, and pressure on the orchids to refine their mimicry.

      • Avatar photo Merv Bitikofer says:

        It is interesting how often the “arms race” metaphor applies … leading to towering trees seeking sunlight above their neighbors, etc. Or as Bill Nye commented about the real arms race: had it not been for the competition between two nearly balanced major super powers in this world, we might never have made the effort to explore space. Of course it remains to be seen where that might or might not go and whether it will be a good thing in the end. (I tend to think positively of it.)

        So I wonder how much orchid beauty and variety is out there now via this very mechanism.

        Being a decidedly non-militaristic Anabaptist myself, it leaves me much for meditation.

        • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


          You’ve heard my rants against loaded polemic language like “puppetmaster God” etc. “Arms race” as a concept seems to come out of a particular historical context, like “struggle for survival”, and I wonder whether such metaphors may not sometimes blind us rather than enlighten us (no disrespect to Lou’s use of it as the common term).

          The US and USSR were very consciously scared stiff that the other side wanted to kill them, and were prepared to get in first (or bluff that they would). But I never met a tree trying to kill its neighbours: perhaps they’re Anabaptist trees, which just love light so much that they stretch themselves to see, and so encourage their brother-trees to reach for the sun too.

          How that works for orchids and gnats I’m not sure. But removing the military metaphor still leaves an assumption of adaptationism, on which I have a post to follow at some stage.

  6. Avatar photo Merv Bitikofer says:

    Point well taken on the shortcomings of that metaphor. (Or as TOF so colorfully put it — bad metaphor! bad metaphor! Go to your room.) …leaving the question… but what truth (if any) was revealed in the comparison?

    I’m all ears for the “kinder gentler” metaphors as well. One of the reasons I feel challenged to at least consider harsher phrases is that ancient biblical authors were not squeamish about seeing God behind even the calamities and struggles –or that God could/did make use of evil to His own purposes. We might stop short of saying that God actually caused such evil, though Biblical writers sometimes didn’t hesitate even there. So I have no problem thinking of woody plants in competition for that clear sunlight up in the heights resulting in magnificently big trees. What an ingenious process to create variety!

    I know this borders, perhaps dangerously, on creation “unfolding itself” with alleged freedoms seldom mentioned in theological history, and I am aware of and influenced by your polemics about this recent turn in theology among trendy Christian thinkers these days. That’s why I hang out here mostly as a listening beneficiary. Anabaptists these days are not strong Aquinas scholars –perhaps for understandable reasons. But many of us are ready to rectify the deficiency and revisit some of what we fled from during the reformation.

  7. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    Merv, I’m good with competition in nature – stags do it in the rut with great enthusiasm. I’m just cautious in anthropomorphising “Nature”, especially in a unidimensional way. I’d want to get a few trees better than I do before second guessing their psychology.

    I have to say that most Baptists or Brethren (or whatever I get classified as) aren’t Aquinas scholars either – I noticed the parallels with Reformed thinking a year or two ago and got interested in the way he looks at things (which in many respects, is more logically than many).

    I suppose I’d be happy if these guys really believed creation was unfolding itself, because that would suggest God had folded it up, and it was acting out its created nature. Etienne Gilson points out that the word “evolution” means “unfolding”, but Darwinian evolution – less plausibly – means self-creation, changing its own nature, like a book writing itself. That’s what I’m grappling with in this post.

  8. Lou Jost says:

    We get a lot of insight into what’s really driving evolution by looking at the “nasty” vs “nice” spectrum. There are in fact many plants that try to kill each other. Ferns come to mind; many have toxic secretions that kill other species. Your common Bracken Fern is one of these.

    And then there are the many mammals that practice systematic infanticide. Lions are a classic example. When a new male wins dominance in a pride, it almost always kills all the existing young cubs. This is bad for the species but good for the killer, because now the females will go directly into estrus and make babies that carry his genes rather than his predecessor’s. It teaches an important lesson about evolution.

    • Avatar photo Merv Bitikofer says:

      As long as we’re careful what sort of lessons we try to draw from this, I think I agree. I would just be careful of trying to use words like “pitiless” or “cruel” –you didn’t use those exact words above, but they are what is often associated– when describing nature; because that too may be an unwarranted anthropomorphisation (I did my best to spell something that probably isn’t even a word!)

      You said (or repeated) something a while ago, Lou, that stuck with me. It was along the lines of … “just because we know of the law of gravity doesn’t mean we must all crawl around on our bellies.” And I think you may have been giving this as a reply in a very similar context. Anyway — it is a good one. Lest anyone be tempted to use evolution to justify cruelty.

      I would also go on to say that one should not call nature pitiless or indifferent or cruel since those (even ‘pitiless’) are words applied only to responsible agents (i.e. humans). We don’t think of a hammer as cruel even if it is injuring somebody or even being used as a murder weapon. The wielder may be cruel, pitiless, or indifferent; but not the hammer. It is just an object. I know you would defend mammals (even the non-human varieties) as being clearly far-removed from inanimate objects like hammers so that we might ascribe cruelty to them just as we see emotions in the faces of our pets. But we don’t think of animals in the wild as responsible agents that should be capable of making better choices. (Yes –I guess they will shoot a bear that has killed a person, but I gather that’s because they want to prevent a repeat performance and not because of moral culpability demanding retribution.)

      So I make a distinction between an object, plant, or non-human animal that by their very natures are not capable of something like pity (and so technically are ‘pitiless’) and a human who can more truly be pitiless because the other option (mercy) was at least a possibility and they chose to reject it … in Christian parlance: sin. This is another area where scientific insight is of limited (or no) use; as all it can help us see is whatever nature we happen to share in common with lions, ferns, or hammers.

      • Lou Jost says:

        Yes, Merv, we agree on most of what you just said. The point of the lion example wasn’t about cruelty but rather about the unit of selection. Selection favors characteristics that benefit the individual (or its close kin), not necessarily the species. There would be more lions around if males didn’t kill those cubs.

      • Lou Jost says:

        PS Merv, thanks for remembering my line about is/ought!

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

      It teaches an important lesson about evolution.

      Sure thing – but not the only lesson. The long-tailed tits I mentioned above will, when their nests are predated, assist in feeding those nearby – sometimes there will be half a dozen adults feeding one brood. And the energy costs of feeding a brood are very high – the adults are demonstrably disadvantaged themselves.

      Easy to construct a just so story – those birds are likely to have some genes in common, being in the same vicinity, so by a circuitous route there might be an adaptive advantage. Or there might not – how would you measure it and distinguish “selfish adaptive advantage” from “altruistic self-sacrifice”? Or even from a non-adaptive instinct to feed chicks wherever they may be found, related or not? Does the data inform the theory, or vice-versa?

      Other birds like (European) robins find a better advantage in attempting another nest. Why is that good for robins, but not tits? And your lions, in turn, prefer the Ottoman Royal Family option (in itself unusual amongst humans, as step-children are glad to find). Why is that not what all species, even all species of large cats, do?

      Additionally long-tailed tits have one of the best-engineered nests of any British bird. How many evolutionary steps did that take? And yet they’ve not directed that effort into nest-building strategies that would lower the predation rate from 70%, but into feeding other birds’ kids. There are as many lessons as variables in all that.

      • Lou Jost says:

        Yes, nature is very complicated, and simple rules have lots of exceptions. Usually we can learn as much from the exceptions as from the regular cases. For example, most social insects share many more genes with each other than non-social insects.

        The kid-killing is pretty common among carnivores.

        I don’t know about Long-tailed Tits. Since they do not help others unless they lose their own brood, they are not sacrificing their own breeding success that season to help others. The flocks do include last years’ family members. The actual evolutionary regularity is based on inclusive fitness; in the case of unrelated lions this fine point doesn’t matter, but most apparent exceptions to the simplified rule turn out to be explained by the full rule.

        • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

          Another one you may not know is the pied flycatcher, which we have round here but which I’ve never seen (annoyingly as I’ve wanted to since I was five). Males will sometimes (in one experiment 21%) adopt the brood of a widowed female. I happen to have seen that behaviour (on TV), but they’re not alone:

          But if adoption is simply a mistake, natural selection ought to have weeded it out by now. That hasn’t happened. And adoption is not just a quirk among human beings and the occasional eccentric raccoon. From gulls, geese and bats to seals, coyotes and dolphins, all kinds of creatures have been known to take in and raise another animal’s young. According to Eva Jablonka, an evolutionary biologist at Tel-Aviv University who describes the behavior in the book Animal Traditions, adoption “is certainly more common than previously thought.” She and her coauthor, zoologist Eytan Avital, report that several hundred bird and mammal species at least occasionally adopt. And while in some cases there seem to be practical advantages for the animals involved–a chance to gain parenting experience, for example–“adoption remains a poorly understood behavior,” says Jablonka.


          Now, is the altruistic appearance of this simply a lack of understanding of an adaptive mechanism for genetic survival, or is the “obvious” case of the lion just jumping to a conclusion favourable to the “everything is for one’s own progeny” theory? Supposing that behaviour is entirely non-adaptive? Supposing that there’s an unknown principle of servinbg the greater good? It will always be possible, in some way, to construct a story to explain any behaviour selfishly – if it can be done for Mother Theresa, flycatchers or raccoons are no problem.

          Indeed the paper on the pied flycatcher conjectured that the males might benefit by getting a few offspring of their own from the deal – yet they found not a shed of evidence for it.

          • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

            Checking out these things, though, is always fascinating. From the “Lion Aid” Charity website:

            It was originally proposed that male lions kill cubs to bring the females back into estrus. This has been disproven, but the original thinking was that if a male lion coalition takes over a pride of females, they cannot sit around and wait until the cubs are grown and the females then become receptive again. Better to kill the cubs that are not theirs, and start a new generation that is theirs – as male coalitions have a limited time with the prides. Male lions do kill cubs when they take over a pride, but it is not as prevalent as some would have us think.

            I assume there is research to back up their oestrus claim. Is the “oestrus” explanation’s prevalence a mere mistake or a just-so story with survival value to writers about lions, or about the evolutionary struggle?

            But if oestrus indeed doesn’t occur, Mr Lion will have to wait for his own brood anyway, and the survival value of killing his step-cubs that much more doubtful.

            And how does one find an adaptive explanation for those parents that kill their own offspring, such as female pigs (not mention lower animals like fish etc)?

  9. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    Sorry to keep adding to this – not labouring a point, but dscovering new stuff. Here’s another interesting thing: after a pride takeover and infanticide, average time for females to come to oestrus is 7o days or so, whereas after other kinds of cub-deaths it’s about a fortnight.

    Nomadic males, it seems, habitually try to kill the cubs of any females they chance upon, but not with a view to settling with the female – and if they happened to mate at the time, she would of course be infertile.

    Ergo, it seems that the behaviour to be explained is less the killing of others’ cubs (which might reflect just general aggression, as all the missionaries not already killed by cannibals found)), but the sparing of the lion’s own (which has obvious survival value).

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

      …And how does this all fit with the finding that lions in large prides are actually polygynandrous, ie all the males mate with all the females (genetic diversity is touted as the advantage here, as opposed to the genetic exclusivity of infanticidal males).

      Prides themselves are genetically diverse – a group of nomadic males may gradually form, for example, and then take over a pride. Whether or not they kill the existing cubs, any cubs born from then on will quite possibly have a genetically unrelated father. In other words, the pride’s social ties will outweigh any tendency Mr Lion has to insist on his own genes survival.

      • Lou Jost says:

        All will still benefit by killing the existing cubs (and not killing their own). There is an advantage to having multiple males in a pride, to better resist invasions. There might be data on that.

        • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


          One of the sources I found for the above said the one thing you can be certain of in lion behaviour is that it’ll be unpredictable.

          Sometimes this behaviour, sometimes not. My point is that to build “selective advantage” cases with so many confounding variables can’t be more than just-so stories. Even if you could reduce the variables, it would only be by constraining lion behaviour and observing an unreal situation.

          So you suggest multiple unrelated males are an advantage to resist invasion: I can reply that pride invasions occur in the first place because they are an advantage to prevent inbreeding, and defensive males are therefore disadvantageous. Or maybe the outsider lions simply aren’t getting enough sex (another straightforward reason for bumping off your mate’s cubs – and one that echoes human step-families and doesn’t involve near-clairvoyant powers to natural selection).

          At that point I defy anyone – even evolution – to sort out which mix of complex behaviours was visible retrospectively to selection.

          They could equally be explained by other, simpler, non-adaptive mechanisms, or even by Jablonka’s cultural inheritence. After all, there is precious little evidence that simple genetics has any role at all in cultural behaviours.

          • Lou Jost says:

            Jon, many of these are testable hypotheses, though undeniably very hard to test in practice.

            If there was a genetic basis for the infanticide behavior (and we could test that), we could show by mathematical deduction that such a gene or genes would have to spread in the population if the cost to their bearers was small enough (and this could be measured, with immense patience).

            More later or tomorrow, I have classes all day today…

            • Lou Jost says:

              Got to add one thing before I go: there don’t have to be specific infanticide genes….it could well be that infanticide is caused by extending the generalized high aggression during pride takeovers. A lot of the infanticide apparently takes place long after the takeover, killing cubs that were not even born when the takeover happened.

              Again, testable.

              • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

                “These are testable hypothesies” – is the whole point, Lou. Once they are tested (and all other hypotheses excluded, it being complex phenomena under discussion), they become part of science. Until then, they’re still just-so stories which assume both adaptation and a particular application of it.

                So it would not be enough to show that adaption might explain it.

                “For whatever is not deduc’d from the phænomena, is to be called an hypothesis; and hypotheses, whether metaphysical or physical, whether of occult qualities or
                mechanical, have no place in experimental philosophy. In this philosophy particular propositions are inferr’d from the phænomena, and afterwards render’d general by induction. (Newton)

              • Lou Jost says:

                I agree completely that these stories should not be regarded as fact if they haven’t been tested. I disagree when people imply that these kinds of stories are just unverifiable speculations.

  10. Lou Jost says:

    Hard to keep up with you, Jon!

    “Easy to construct a just so story – those birds are likely to have some genes in common, being in the same vicinity, so by a circuitous route there might be an adaptive advantage. Or there might not – how would you measure it and distinguish “selfish adaptive advantage” from “altruistic self-sacrifice”? Or even from a non-adaptive instinct to feed chicks wherever they may be found, related or not? Does the data inform the theory, or vice-versa?”

    This casual dismissal of “just -so” stories is unfair; they are often reasonably precise quantitative hypotheses that could, in principle, be tested. And technology is increasingly allowing us to test them. We can now determine paternity with genetic tests, and we can measure the proportions of shared genes. The inclusive fitness can be measured, and we can test whether certain behaviors increase or decrease it. Yes, there are many complicating factors. But evolutionary theory is able to make testable predictions about broad patterns.

    About animal adoption, evolved responses to juvenile begging ought to be very strong, and if the juvenile doing the begging is almost always yours, there would be little pressure to evolve the ability to discriminate between your offspring and others. You’ll surely say this “mistaken identity” or “hijacked maternal instinct” theory is another just-so story, but it makes a suite of testable predictions:
    1. Adoption should generally be a rare accident, unless the juveniles of the species later help the parent in some way. And indeed, overwhelmingly, adoption is exceptional in the animal kingdom.
    1. In places where the mother is regularly in contact with lots of offspring that are not related to her, she should evolve the ability to discriminate. Penguin colonies, for example.
    2. In extreme environments, where resources are very scarce, adoption should be rarer. I don’t know how the data falls on this one.
    I bet more than 99.99% of the breeding attempts of animals (all species taken together) are directed at their own offspring.

    About the lion data, I don’t have special expertise in this so I too can only look stuff up on the web. Apparently females care for their cubs for 1.5-2 yrs, and do not go into estrus during that period. When their cubs are killed or chased away by invading males, they become sexually active within a few weeks, though they initially have low fertility. In ten incidents of male takeover of prides that were observed by biologists Packer and Pusey (1983), cubs from previous matings survived in only one of those prides. The conclusion of infanticide in that paper has been rightly criticized by others, since lion cub mortality is high anyway, so the disappearance could have been a coincidence. However, these authors do a more proper comparison and add additional observations in the 2008 book “Infanticide: Comparative and Evolutionary Perspectives” available in Google Books; see p 32-34. It is not clear to me what disproof the Lion Aid Charity is referring to. They do say “Male lions do kill cubs when they take over a pride, but it is not as prevalent as some would have us think.” The comment about prevalence may be referring to geographic prevalence, since pride takeovers are apparently rare in less-optimal habitats outside the Serengeti /Ngorogoro.

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


      With a bit of internet trawling and slightly competitive posting, we’ve seen that there is an awful lot of conjecture and alternative explanation (not to mention conflicting accounts) in the lion story, especially once actual research gets examined.

      And yet in the popular accounts (featuring real scientists etc) such as this authoritative BBC piece, it’s presented as if a universal pinciple, done and dusted. “If animals kill others’ young, you can bet it’s because natural selection favours eliminating as much competition as possible.”

      Yet how many of the advantages of infanticide that article relays have actually been demonstrated (given your own hesitation about how pratical that would be) and how many are mere conjectures to support the proposition? And why that proposition, rather than some other – exactly the same question, really, as why Kipling should have had his elephant’s trunk stretched by a crocodile in the Limpopo rather than its lengthening from sneezing too hard, for example. Presumably there’s some sociological reason for Kipling (it’s at least a testable hypothesis), but we don’t even have to look in the case of the lions – the preservation of ones own genes at any cost in the bloody Malthusian struggle.

      A bit removed from the discussion of esential natures, but interesting, nevertheless.

  11. Avatar photo Merv Bitikofer says:

    This discussion nicely highlights what you’ve illuminated in a previous column, Jon, about worldviews we bring to the table.

    I suggest that the (meta)narratives we have and hold to are “trans-scientific” in that we overlay them onto our observations and data. In some ways we probably want to feel that they flow from the data, but these exchanges should give us serious reflection to do about this very question. Some available “data” (and I have to use scare quotes here because as this discussion shows, the very kind of data made available to us has already been shaped by someone’s narrative) may conform more easily to one or other narrative, but are we ready to acknowledge that our narratives are not and never were *entirely* born from data? Overtly religious people take this step perhaps somewhat more easily than those who shun religion.

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


      It’s very easy to get nihilistic in such considerations and see the possibility of real truth disappear in your presuppositions: very post-modern to say there is only subjective truth. I’m less pessimistic than that, but I do believe the presuppositions are at least as important as “data”.

      I had some (all too brief) teaching on preaching from Rev Dick Lucas, one of the best British preachers, many years ago. He stressed that the “framework” you bring to the Bible will control what you get out of it – and that’s true of anything.

      So critical examination of the framework is vital: and yet, sadly for the “objective” scientistic worldview, the data can’t be the only thing you bring to bear, because it will be interpreted by the presuppositions. One of the best, tests, though, is how closely your presuppositions match the prevailing zeitgeist – if you agree with the cultural mainstream, be afraid!

      On this, I suppose, hinges Kuhn’s stuff about paradigms. “Who will deliver me from this body of death??”

  12. Lou Jost says:

    I just read an article today about a research project that tested a “just-so” story about the evolution of uric acid. They used standard phylogenetic tree-making methods to reconstruct the ancestral genome for uricase. That’s normal technology nowadays, but what was neat about this is that the researchers then actually constructed this hypothesized ancient genome and made ancient uricase and tested its properties to see if it fit the narrative. How amazing is that!

    I think people here are way too pessimistic about these evolutionary explanations. First, the theory of natural selection is pretty solid, as I argued endlessly with Roger on BioLogos. If a new gene increases fitness by a quantifiable amount, a mathematical deduction tells us how the expected gene frequencies should change over time in a stable environment. It is pretty direct. The tricky part is the accounting: isolating the fitness effect of a single gene in a complex genome. But when this is possible, the rest follows, at least for plants and many animals. (Higher animals introduce some complications due to the role that culture plays in reproductive success.)

    Going back to those interesting lions, there are many ways to test the evolutionary explanation for male infanticide, even without identifying the genes involved. The evolutionary explanation makes many very detailed predictions. For example, male infanticide of very young non-related cubs should evolve most often in animals that can go into estrus quickly after losing their offspring. It shouldn’t evolve in animals that have tight seasonal reproductive cycles, as long as each year’s babies are gone by breeding time the next year. (I added the qualification “very young” above because a larger cub is an ecological competitor for the male, and this might be another, independent reason for male aggression.) Also, the prediction doesn’t depend on the animal being carnivorous, though herbivores might have trouble killing babies. There are probably lots of other predictions we could make. If these details turn out to separate the animals that show infanticide from those that do not, it would support (though not prove) the evolutionary explanation.

    There must also be some brakes on the evolution of infanticide. If males were completely polygamous, they can’t always be purposely hunting and killing every cub they find or the species would go extinct. But this raises some interesting group-selection issues and gets us way off-topic.

  13. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    The tricky part is the accounting: isolating the fitness effect of a single gene in a complex genome. But when this is possible, the rest follows, at least for plants and many animals. (Higher animals introduce some complications due to the role that culture plays in reproductive success.)

    There are some simplifying assumptions there, aren’t there?
    (1) That a single gene is a real, rather than a theoretical, entity. Yet most traits are produced by multiple stretches of DNA at different operating levels, all interacting; each stretch of DNA codes for multiple traits, and is subject to alternative splicing, so that even synonymous codons code for different arrays of proteins.
    (2) That function is a real entity rather than a derived mathematical quantity inferred from theoretical assumptions about patterns of gene conservation said to indicate selection – which has been shown not always to be true (or more accurately, is impossible to verify by comparison with actual phenotypic “fitness”, for which there can be no reliable measure in most cases – particularly, as you say, in higher animals).
    (3) That the complex genome can be somehow factored out. It is the complex genome, in toto, that does the job. Not to mention, of course, non-genomic factors now being understood for the first time.

    Bear in mind I have never been saying that there is no such thing as adaptive change, but that it is entirely unwarranted to observe a complex trait (eg lion infanticide), assume it must be adaptive, assume its adaptiveness must be genetic, construct a plausible genetic adaptive scenario and then call it science, and then peddle it to the public as such. That might have been barely acceptable when adaptation was the only game in town and everything was believed to derive from 1 gene = 1 protein = 1 trait. But now there are many other kinds of explanations possible – quantitatively near-neutral mutations being considered the biggest player.

    Why should it be possible to isolate a single cause-effect trait from a complex organised system full of interacting feedback loops of all kinds? Why should anyone believe that results obtained in the attempt have any bearing on living reality?

    Let’s use the analogy of a much simpler system than a lion, or a lion population: anthropogenic global warming. It’s all based on simple physics, after all. Suppose I am convinced that it is a reality, and am worried how I may be specifically contributing to the problem with 5 small aluminium smelting works I own around the world. I consult one expert, who says: “There’s absolutely no way of telling – but I would limit your emissions as much as possible on general principles. $20, please.”

    I consult a second, who says, “Of course it’s possible to give you a specific answer, using mathematical modelling. We just have to make some simplifying assumptions – for example, that your five factories are actually just one big one placed at the geometric centre of a figure drawn round them, and that the actual warming around your virtual factory will be equal to the average calculated global figure. After that it’s plain sailing. I’ll draw up a finance proposal.”

    Where do you think I’d spend my money?

  14. Lou Jost says:

    You are passing over the kind of test that I described in my last comment: checking to see how the detailed pattern of occurrence of male infanticide is distributed over species, relative to the pattern predicted by evolutionary theory. If the pattern is confirmed, this answers your question “Why should anyone believe that results obtained in the attempt have any bearing on living reality?” If this pattern is correctly predicted, and if the pattern is unlikely on alternative explanations, then the evolutionary explanation is supported (not proven, of course), even if the effect is due to multiple genes. You are certainly right that the behavior, if it has a genetic basis, would likely be a multi-gene effect, but this does not affect the validity of the explanation, only our ability to isolate it.

    I do agree that more care needs to be taken when presenting these things to the public as if they are completely proven. I object to your doing the reverse: implying to the public that because these things are complicated, we can’t say anything.

  15. Hanan says:

    From Dennis’s latest post on BioLogos:

    “As with all groups of fossil species, determining precise relationships is challenging. As we have pointed out previously in this series, the line between “species” is a fuzzy one, where separation is achieved slowly over time. Widely-separated species are easy to identify as distinct, but as one collects more and more data, the “gaps” start to be filled in, making distinctions more difficult.”

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

      Hi Hanan

      Yeah – the argument that Lou and I were having: the (morphological) distinctions become more difficult, but do they become non-existent? If “natures” or “essences” exist, and relate to species level – which is the most obvious suggestion, really, then all those species already found, and any more that turn up, could be points on a continuum, but they could also be points of transition between species. So far, there is a pretty finite number of hominin species whether one is a lumper or splitter, and though some are rare, H erectus and H neanderthalis, for example, are represented by many individuals (as H sapiens is identifiably such from the earliest times to now).

      But that discussion is something of an aside, because the correlation of essential natures (a metaphysical concept) with biological categories like morphology or genetics is an approximation. After all guys like Aristotle, who came up with the idea of forms, used “dogs” as an example in full knowledge that they varied a lot through breeding.

      The OP assumed God as Creator (easy to forget when Lou turns everything into an “evidence-for-creationism” issue), and asked whether God created only a continuum of individuals or universals – including the substantial form “man”.

      • Lou Jost says:

        “Lou turns everything into an “evidence-for-creationism” issue”
        If that is really what you think, I must be a terrible communicator or you are not reading my comments in good faith (or both). I have not been arguing about evidence for creationism here, but rather evidence for your views on evolution.

        • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

          I’ve probably misunderstood you. But you introduced Creationism, hinting that my views tended towards it, and disputing about biological gradualism on a thread that was intended to examine the metaphysical question of nominalism and realism.

          The Creationist is looking to show that man was created from dust in 4000BC, and is unconnected genealogically with what went before. I, however, was interested in the philosophical question of whether there is objectively such a thing as man at all (or any biological category … or any universal category whatsoever, come to that), to which the biological question is relevant, but tangential.

          If universals exist, then one might indeed expect to see that reflected in some way biologically – and biological stasis and distinct speciation events might be relevant to that, as too might be phyletic gradualism. But that’s a question to be related to the philosophical issue in this context, and the fossil record can’t deal with that – especially when it is not yet conclusive.

          “Gradualism seems very plausible” is not an answer to the question “Are there universals?”, even if it might provide some evidence against the special creation of man from dust. If universals don’t exist, then although the biologist may not feel his work to be affected, there are nevertheless profound implications – as Darwin’s apparent failure to make up his mind shows. He logically supposes nominalism, but happily tosses universals about when it suits him, which is inadmissable.

          Maybe he was, like Dennis Venema, “just a biologist doing his job.” But biology itself does not stand alone when evolution is held to be responsible for all that we are, including (if the evo psychs are to be believed), our morality, our religion and all that makes us human – whatever “human” means if nominalism is true.

          Not that long ago, the non-existence of universals was used by a good many, on the basis of evolution, to justify a different set of moral principles governing black and white: to many, “primitives” were at best naive children to be patronised, and at worst animals to be denied human rights. “The gulf between this thoughtful mind of civilised man and the thoughtless animal soul of the savage is enormous — greater than the gulf that separates the latter from the soul of the dog. ” “The value of the life of these lower savages is like that of the anthropoid apes, or very little higher. All recent travelers who have carefully observed them in their native lands, and studied their bodily structure and psychic life, agree in this opinion.”- Ernst Haeckel, 1904.

          It was, after two world wars and apartheid, a gut sense of the “brotherhood of man” – a metaphysical universal – rather than any objective biological criteria, that made “racism” a modern anathema, at least in the liberal west.

          For the theistic evolutionist (for whom the piece was, as I stated up-front, written) such questions cannot be irrelevant theologically, either. It is simply not enough for a TE to join the palaeontological or genetic dots, conclude that phyletic gradualism is the best explanation, and not then go on to try and account for what it does mean to be human.

          • Lou Jost says:

            I was trying to point out that your argument about gaps in the fossil record was not very good, and was the same kind of argument that creationists give. I know you are not a straight-up young-earth creationist.

            You note that the debate between nominalism vs realism can have empirical implications, and those implications are the ones I discussed, since you brought them up.

            Evolution and religion have both been used by racists and slavers to support their beliefs. The bible condones particularly brutal forms of slavery, including sex slaves. In fact it COMMANDS these things of the Israelites. It also directly justifies racial prejudice by means of its origins myths.

            The difference between us is that Haeckel’s view is demonstrably wrong, even by our own theory of evolution. The Bible, however, can’t contain mistakes, according to you guys.

            • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

              Haeckel’s views were demonstrably wrong in 1904, but not only were they not so demonstrated, but they were quoted almost verbatim in standard English zoology texts, and as he was the foremost German biologist influenced European thinking, including political thinking, for half a century. His error, like those of non-Darwinian racists at the time, was to deal wrongly with universals.

              The reason I cited him, in particular, was because he claimed his re-alignment, or dismissal, of universals was scientific, whereas it was unconsciously philosophical and metaphysical.

              Your diatribe against the Bible is quite irrelevant to the topic of the thread.

              • Lou Jost says:

                If Haeckel’s comment is a relevant mark against science’s treatment of universals, the similar biblical ones I mentioned show that science is not alone in making these same mistakes. Where was the human universality in those verses, or during the Israelites’ god-ordered scorched-earth wars? I won’t belabor this, since you all are familiar with them. Science can repudiate Haeckel, or Darwin, or anyone else who makes mistakes, but you guys don’t have the guts to say your bible is wrong.

            • Hanan says:

              >The bible condones particularly brutal forms of slavery, including sex slaves.

              It does? Where?

  16. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    I say “Darwin”, and “Haeckel” as examples of individuals failing to take universals seriously enough, the latter in the name of evolution. You say “science’s treatment”, “science’s mistakes” and oppose it to “biblical”, as if these two people (a) personified science (b) spoke only as scientists, and not also as human beings and (c) as if these men’s philosophical errors in some strange way lead to a connection with the Bible.

    It’s almost as if you still haven’t got past the nineteenth century, White and science and religion as opposite poles. If you’ve failed to get even that from Ted Davis’s posts on Boyle, then further discussion on it is a waste of time.

    • Lou Jost says:

      “Not that long ago, the non-existence of universals was used by a good many, on the basis of evolution, to justify a different set of moral principles governing black and white.”

      Your argument wasn’t just about these two men.

      And of course there is a connection to the bible, since that book makes the same and worse errors about universals. Yet you refuse to admit that it contains central errors, even as you chastise 19th century thinkers for their failure to repudiate Haeckel’s errors.

  17. Lou Jost says:

    Hanan, you asked me where the bible condones sex slaves and brutality towards slaves.

    Here is what Moses, giver of the ten commandments, says in Numbers 31:10-18 (New American Standard Bible):

    10 Then they burned all their cities where they lived and all their camps with fire. 11 They took all the spoil and all the prey, both of man and of beast. 12 They brought the captives and the prey and the spoil to Moses, and to Eleazar the priest and to the congregation of the sons of Israel, to the camp at the plains of Moab, which are by the Jordan opposite Jericho.

    13 Moses and Eleazar the priest and all the leaders of the congregation went out to meet them outside the camp. 14 Moses was angry with the officers of the army, the captains of thousands and the captains of hundreds, who had come from service in the war. 15 And Moses said to them, “Have you spared all the women? 16 Behold, these caused the sons of Israel, through the counsel of Balaam, to trespass against the Lord in the matter of Peor, so the plague was among the congregation of the Lord. 17 Now therefore, kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman who has known man intimately. 18 But all the girls who have not known man intimately, spare for yourselves. [End of extract]

    Here are some more of this god’s rules of warfare for taking sex slaves (Deuteronomy 20:10-14):

    As you approach a town to attack it, first offer its people terms for peace. If they accept your terms and open the gates to you, then all the people inside will serve you in forced labor. But if they refuse to make peace and prepare to fight, you must attack the town. When the LORD your God hands it over to you, kill every man in the town. But you may keep for yourselves all the women, children, livestock, and other plunder. You may enjoy the spoils of your enemies that the LORD your God has given you. [End of extract]

    Here’s more from Deut. 21:10-14

    When thou goest forth to war against thine enemies, and the LORD thy God hath delivered them into thine hands, and thou hast taken them captive, And seest among the captives a beautiful woman, and hast a desire unto her, that thou wouldest have her to thy wife; Then thou shalt bring her home to thine house; and she shall shave her head, and pare her nails; And she shall put the raiment of her captivity from off her, and shall remain in thine house, and bewail her father and her mother a full month: and after that thou shalt go in unto her, and be her husband, and she shall be thy wife. And it shall be, if thou have no delight in her, then thou shalt let her go whither she will; but thou shalt not sell her at all for money, thou shalt not make merchandise of her, because thou hast humbled her. [End of extract]

    Here is a direct quote from your god about slavery in Leviticus 25:39-46, clearly condoning slavery as long as the slave is not Hebrew (where are those universals, Jon?)

    39 “If your brother becomes poor beside you and sells himself to you, you shall not make him serve as a slave: 40 he shall be with you as a hired worker and as a sojourner. He shall serve with you until the year of the jubilee. 41 Then he shall go out from you, he and his children with him, and go back to his own clan and return to the possession of his fathers. 42 For they are my servants,[e] whom I brought out of the land of Egypt; they shall not be sold as slaves. 43 You shall not rule over him ruthlessly but shall fear your God. 44 As for your male and female slaves whom you may have: you may buy male and female slaves from among the nations that are around you. 45 You may also buy from among the strangers who sojourn with you and their clans that are with you, who have been born in your land, and they may be your property. 46 You may bequeath them to your sons after you to inherit as a possession forever. You may make slaves of them, but over your brothers the people of Israel you shall not rule, one over another ruthlessly. [End of extract]

    Here are your god’s direct brutal guidelines for how to treat a slave, straight from his own mouth in Exodus 21:20-21:

    When a man strikes his male or female slave with a rod so hard that the slave dies under his hand, he shall be punished. If, however, the slave survives for a day or two, he is not to be punished, since the slave is his own property. [End of extract]

    • Hanan says:

      I was expecting those exact versus, so here goes. I will leave all apologetics aside as much as I can and stick with the laws and context only.

      >18 But all the girls who have not known man intimately, spare for yourselves.

      The Torah, nowhere allows for the taking of women as sex slaves. What it does allow, (and yes, today it would still be considered rape) is that IF you see a woman in war that you want, you MUST marry her first. No ring. No sex. So the “war brides” of Median HAD to have become the wife first with all privileges owed to them. Also, don’t forget the exact verses you quote tell you are not allow to sell her off. A true sex slave would have been able to be sold off to anyone.

      And don’t forget, the whole episode with the Medianite women ended with an Israelite man taking himself a little delight from the Medianite women. If sex slavery was allowed, he would not have been killed.

      There is nothing in whole OT that can be interpreted as allowing for sex slaves as we know it. So much emphasis is put on purity of relations, marriage and no prostitutes that you simply can’t call any of this (though wrong in our time) as sex slaves.

      [as a side note. The word “humbled her” is very difficult to translate it into English from Hebrew, so we will keep as is. Anyways, my opinion on the text is this. Everywhere in the OT that is says “humbled” someone is always in a negative context of someone wronging another person – and it is not always in relation to sex (see Hagar’s treatment of her mistress Sarah). By using the word “humbled,” I think the law is basically saying this: “Ya, you battled their nation and put everyone to the sword. You saw a pretty girl you wanted so here is the guidelines of first taking her as a wife. BUT, this whole ordeal you are putting her through, is wrong.” Hence, the law accuses the soldier of having humbled her ]


      You said BRUTAL form of slavery as if it was juxtaposed to some other firm of less brutal slavery. Now, I am not going to beat around the bush. The Torah allows for slavery. It doesn’t command you HAVE to take slaves but sets guidelines as to how to treat them.

      >When a man strikes his male or female slave with a rod so hard that the slave dies under his hand, he shall be punished.

      If Brutal slavery was allowed for, why even punish the slave holder? Brutality would simply allow for anything to be done with a slave. (they were even commanded to rest on the Sabbath as the Israelites were and refugee slaves were never permitted to be returned to their master, instead to be set free). Clearly, there was guidelines as to what you can do with your slaves. So yes, slavery was allowed. Brutality? I think not. Just today I was reading the story of David in Ziklag trying to get his people back from the Amelikites. On the way David meets an Egyptian who says he was a slave of the Amelikites and was left for dead by the Amelikites after he became sick. Now, is this perhaps a subtle dig at the Amelikites for their treatment of a slave by the author? Perhaps.

      Hey, I don’t like the slavery as much as you, but calling it brutal? In context to what?

      • Lou Jost says:

        Hanan, thanks for the reply. I think you are making strained rationalizations for verses that are quite clear.

        Brutal slavery: the bible clearly says that it is not wrong to beat a slave so badly that he is temporarily incapacitated. That is brutal to me; is it not to you? You say that if brutality were really allowed, there would be no limits, even on murdering the slave. But brutality admits of degrees, and the bible is quite precise about the degree of brutality allowed here. And the degree allowed is VERY brutal by anyone’s standards today. If you use the argument that this was considered not brutal then, you are contradicting the idea of universal morality that most Christians defend.

        Sex slaves: I think your distinctions and rationalizations are weak here, and in some cases they are flatly contradicted by the text. You describe the situation as “You saw a pretty girl you wanted so here is the guidelines of first taking her as a wife. BUT, this whole ordeal you are putting her through, is wrong.” No, in some cases your god ORDERS the Israelites to take the virgins captive and have sex with them, after first killing their parents and brothers and married sisters. It is not even optional; there is no indication at all that it is wrong. Even you admit it is rape. Permanent, repeated rape by the man who probably killed the woman’s family. With no escape allowed. This is sex slavery. The fact that she has to marry the guy (against her will) does not make this any better. A master feeds and houses slaves as well as wives, so the fact that she has “privileges” is not an effective distinction here; “consent” is the relevant distinction. The bit about not being able to sell her can also be interpreted as a prohibition against selling damaged goods, though I agree that the translations are variable and this is ambiguous.

        I’ve read a lot by Christians trying to justify these verses (which of course have a simple explanation on the secular interpretation of the bible). These justifications invariably severely distort the text, or worse. William Lane Craig’s justification for your god’s order to bash babies’ heads is typical of the crazy loops Christians go through to defend the indefensible: he said the Israelites were doing the kids a favor by killing them, since they would go straight to heaven, whereas if they had lived they might have sinned and went to hell. Sorry, but that’s just sick, and it is also inconsistent with his opposition to abortion. But I digress….

        • Lou Jost says:

          I wonder what Christians would say if these same verses were in the holy book of some other religion. Actually, very similar verses are in the Islamic sacred literature, and are roundly criticized by Christians and atheists alike. Some Muslims use the facade of marriage even today to justify child prostitution. They have temporary marriage ceremonies first, and that makes it alright.

          At least in this situation, the child has some hope of a future free of sexual torment, and the sex may sometimes be consensual. In your god’s version of this, it was not consensual and the torment was for life, yet here you are justifying it because the guy has to marry her. Religion can twist even good people’s minds.

        • Hanan says:

          >I think your distinctions and rationalizations are weak here, and in some cases they are flatly contradicted by the text.

          Nothing has been contradicted. Absolutely nothing. The reason I gave my opinion, is because the end of the law is clearly interesting, in that it puts a moral judgment on the soldier. Now, it can’t be said she is damaged goods because a woman that has been with another man is not forbidden to another man. So the the fact that it says the soldier has humbled her goes along way to say that all the ordeal he put her through – while TECHNICALLY permitted – is still not the ideal.

          Now, the question of slave slavery is rather interesting because I notice what you do. What you have done is broaden the scope as well as the concept of “consent.” You say because the initial marriage was against her consent, everything AFTER that, is constant rape and the woman is in eternal torment. But I think you make some fallacies here and this is due to us living NOW. First, a woman back then with no family or husband was basically dead. So from HER stand point, while the initial shock of being forced to marry, could have worn off since the husband provided for her and gave her children (in those days, that meant EVERYTHING). Second, if you are able to stretch the idea of no consent in marriage = some eternal torment, that means that EVERY women, – whether war bride or not – was a sex slave. Since rarely would a women be given a voice to whom she wanted to marry. Marriages were arranged. Do you really want to follow this logical conclusion.

          You have to compare apples to apples. Don’t compare what the luxery women have today vs what you would have liked women to have back then.

          [also, more than one scholar has noted that the ordeal requires a month of total separation before he can even wed or touch her along with basically making the woman look grotesque to the man. Opinions exist that this is deliberate. That any lust that was the driving factor in him taking her would eventually disappear.]


          >the bible clearly says that it is not wrong to beat a slave so badly that he is temporarily incapacitated. That is brutal to me; is it not to you?

          It is. But it also says a slave is set free if you knock out a tooth. Now, do you think it makes sense that you can beat a slave to a bloody pulp and he remains a slave, but if you knock out one small tooth he is set free?

          Now, you also for some reason say the bible clearly says it is not wrong to beat a slave that he is incapacitated. Where do you get that from the passage. The passage is about the punishment of the slave owner. If he dies, then the slave is avenged (nakom inakem which means avenged in hebrew). It doesn’t say it is alright. Nor does it say you are allowed to be ruthless as you translated. All translations I have contain the word “rigour.” Don’t treat your brother with rigour (the implication is with the foreign slave you are), but that is a long way from ruthlessness.

          Also, let’s not forget that the same law book that says you are allowed to take a slave reminds them to not oppress the stranger amongst them with the justification being that they too were once slaves.

          There is very little mention of foreign slaves in the OT. The three off the top of my head are Abraham’s slave, and nobody every considers that ruthless treatment; the Gibeonites that in Joshua’s time basically became water bearers and wood cuters (quite brutal and ruthless); and lastly the Canaanites in Solomons days that were forced to work for building the temple as a tax.

          Again, do I like all this? No. But to claim ruthlessness and that the OT delibertaly encourages (or just plain OK) with brutality is reading INTO the text something that is not there. Like anything, you have to keep it in context to the rest of the text AND the time frame.

          • Lou Jost says:

            Wow. This is why religious people scare me…

            First the slave brutality. The verse plainly says that the owner is not to be punished for even very severe, incapacitating beatings. In other words, it is not wrong. Remember this is a legal system in which it is a capital offense for a child to curse his parents, or to gather firewood on the sabbath, and it was a grave offense to wear clothes made of two different kinds of threads mixed together. Yet it explicitly says there is no penalty for beating a slave unconscious:
            “When a man strikes his male or female slave with a rod so hard that the slave dies under his hand, he shall be punished. If, however, the slave survives for a day or two, he is not to be punished, since the slave is his own property.”

            I’m left almost speechless by your justification of your god’s ordering his people to force young girls into lifelong sexual servitude. Contrary to what you say, these were direct orders. Your justification is of the same sort as WL Craig’s justification for child-killing. Kids are better off dead than in hell. Young girls are better off being forced to sleep with the killers of their parents than being left alone in the world. It is clear you are in apologetic mode and will find excuses for even the most horrible commands imaginable. I wish one or more of you would have the guts or the humanity to say “This is disgusting, this is wrong, a loving god wouldn’t give such orders”?

            • Hanan says:

              >First the slave brutality. The verse plainly says that the owner is not to be punished for even very severe, incapacitating beatings. In other words, it is not wrong.

              Wrong. The verse is about the slave owner basically being put to death. You can argue with me against science, but you can’t argue with the me in dealing with Hebrew. Nakom Yinakem is used for when innocent blood is shed and the the victim is avenged. Meaning, the slave owner is susceptible to death. The second part is simply saying that he is NOT susceptible to death because he did NOT mean for him to be killed.

              Last time. I does NOT say it is OK to beat the slave up.
              The passage is about death penalty for the slave owner. Meaning, a court can punish him for the beating. But most likely, the slave would simply set free.

              [as a side, I would try to find Rabbi Joshua Berman’s work on Ancient legal codes and how every legal code was ACTUALLY implemented. Ancient legal codes were more of “common law.” He brings evidence from Hammurabi codes and shows that none of actual judicial decisions that have been found ever followed the letter of the law that you would assume they should have followed. ]

              >I’m left almost speechless by your justification of your god’s ordering his people to force young girls into lifelong sexual servitude.

              Lou, you appreciate nuanced and critically looking at the evidence when it comes to biology so I don’t understand why you are not doing the same here. You have literally ignored everything I said. Your arguments end up being appeals to emotions and nothing more. Given that, are you willing to condemn every single marriage in the ANE that was arranged and did not allow for consent? Also, are you absolutely sure, given the world back then that a woman would be better off alone when her entire tribe has been decimated? Take off your 21st helmet and put on your bronze age one.

              You know what? Forget God. Why are we even talking about God here? Judge the policy on its own merit and nothing more, right. Given the reality and the brutality of the age what do you say about these rules and what it would have meant to them.

            • Hanan says:

              >Contrary to what you say, these were direct orders

              Contrary to what? I never said they were not direct orders….or better yet, direct guidelines. But at least, I, am actually reading the verses in their context. In ALL it’s context.

              >Young girls are better off being forced to sleep with the killers of their parents than being left alone in the world.

              Well, first of all, I don’t know why you assume that the killer of the parents is going to go out of his way to marry the girl. But whatever, since women back then were married off in what we call their teens today, I girl is basically dead. without someone else to take care of her. There was no UN back then. It was all sand and sand and sand. The law was basically aimed at two things. Suspending ALL battlefield rape. Reading about the horrors in Syria how women are routinely raped, goes to show that there is some worth to this law, especially in those days. And second, allowing for another start for these girls.

              Again, I think you make two large fallacies that I have already posted above.

              • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


                I didn’t welcome the introduction of this subject – I’m not an apologist, and the Hump is not an apologetics site. But Lou insisted on pursuing it anyway, and you have rightly called him out on his ignorance from a Jewish perspective.

                I really didn’t want to have to point out the serious work done on the distinctions between law-codes and morality (your rabbis knew it from the start, and you quote modern Jewish scholars on the matter too – I could also cite those like Chris Wright on the Christian side. His dictum on approaching ancient laws is a good one: “Who stands to benefit? Whose power is being limited?”

                Lou’s anti-religious polemic blinds him also to researching the work of both secular and religious scholars on the ANE law codes and their relationship to the Hebrew torah.

                BioLogos’ own John Walton is a notable example ( whose work on this I’ve been refrencing for over 20 years), comparing the content and intent of all the extant Law codes from Sumerian, Babylonian, Middle Assyrian, and Old Hittite sources.

                Unlike the sadly un-read Gnus (it has to be said, not just at street-level but in their “best” spokesmen), ancient historians of all persuasions are appreciative of the underlying ethics of all these ancient codes and realistic in trying to understand the contexts from which they came.

                The Christian and Jewish scholars are actually very careful in their comparisons and contrasts, discerning what is actually significantly different in the torah, and what is necessaily carried over from their pre-existing societal norms, rather than, as you rightly say, making a crude appeal to culturally-conditioned modern emotions.

                I’d just add that those appeals are made, despite denials, on the basis of an assumed universal morality: “If God had been truly moral, he’d have seen things my way.”

                If we (stupidly) went along with the agenda of ignoring the whole sociological and theological setting of the Mosaic law, and the work done from the earliest times to Jesus and beyond in teasing out the ethical universals implicit in a culturally-set law code, we’d still have to ask this question: “Why is what seems self-evidently right to me better than what seemed self-evidently right to the Hebrews or to Hammurabi?”

                That question is unanswerable without admitting moral universals, and then one has to discover what kind of thing they are through philosophy… but that would bring us back to the point of the post, and hackneyed Gnu polemics takes less thought.

                Sorry Lou, but you wouldn’t drop the issue when asked.

              • Lou Jost says:

                I can accept your translation advice about the slave-beating; I am sure you know more about the Hebrew than I do. But even under the most generous interpretation, your god had the chance to protect the well-being of non-Hebrew slaves here, or say that slavery itself was wrong, but he didn’t. That was my original point, that he condoned brutal slavery (by not prohibiting it when it came up).

                I am sickened by your continued defense of your god’s orders of ethical cleansing, massacres of young children, and widespread lifelong rape of young girls. I can’t believe that you, who like to talk about universal human morals, are arguing that killing a girl’s family and taking her as a forced sex partner for life would not be as awful then as it is now.

                And these excuses you give!!! In other situations you have this god tweaking the evolution of entire species, or at least setting things up so that they will achieve particular ends. This god didn’t have to let those non-Hebrews occupy the “promised land”. He could have persuaded them to move peacefully. He could have ensured that they never existed. He could have moved the promised land somewhere else. He could have said “Raise the children of your vanquished as if they were your own, and treat them kindly”. He could have done any number of things (you are always quick to remind us that he is omnipotent, when it is convenient to your argument).

                Instead he chose these horrors. And you defend this. I’ve lost all my respect for you as humans. If your god said it, it must be good and right, no matter how horrible. That is sick.

                You’ll be glad to know that I won’t comment on this website again.

  18. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    So, Lou

    We now see you using some kind of essential, universal, ethic to judge both Haeckel in the 19th century, arriving at his ethics scientifically (he was wrong, but we now know better, you say), and the Pentateuch in the 2nd millennium BC, arriving at its ethics religiously.

    Both were not just “different”, apparently, but “wrong” even in their day, compared to some standard that you’re using (though exactly what it is you haven’t stated).

    So where does that universal ethic exist? Where does it come from? And what makes it universal if it was apparently unknown or suppressed in the ancient world, in the recent German past and – taking Merv’s example from Haiti in the new post – in other parts of the world now?

    Is it a material entity, or an immaterial entity? Or are you denying it to be a universal because they don’t exist, in which case presumably it’s just an opinion?

    • Lou Jost says:

      Actually I was just answering Hanan’s question, though obviously I do think these things are wrong. In Haeckel’s case, his statement that you quoted is factually wrong. We don’t need to get into the ethics. In the bible’s case, I think those things are wrong because I know how I would suffer if those things were done to me. But I don’t claim ethics is universal (though some aspects of it might be); that seems to be the Christian claim. My bringing up these things is more a refutation of the combination of the common Christian claims that (1) there is a clear, universal, timeless ethic that applies to all humans and that comes from your god, and (2) the bible is an authoritative record of that god’s doings or wishes.

  19. Hanan says:

    I guess I have to reply to Lou here:

    >I am sickened by your continued defense of your god’s orders of ethical cleansing, massacres of young children, and widespread lifelong rape of young girls.

    Let’s break this up.

    >of your god’s orders of ethical cleansing

    We never discussed this

    >massacres of young children,

    We never discussed this.

    >and widespread lifelong rape of young girls.

    There is NO lifelong rape of young girls. Please respond to my challenge. If THIS is lifelong rape of young girls than by definition you have to say ALL marriages in the ancient world were lifelong rape of young girls since marriages were arranged and girls were not really given a choice. On principle I am going to take your logic to its conclusion. Are you saying ALL ancient marriages were lifelong rapes?

    >I can’t believe that you, who like to talk about universal human morals, are arguing that killing a girl’s family and taking her as a forced sex partner for life would not be as awful then as it is now.

    You are assuming the soldier killed the parents and then stayed around to look for that specific daughter. In reality wars were a lot messier and no soldier knew who belonged t who. But that is irrelevant. And I am not going to beat around the bush. I am saying exactly THAT. In days with young girls being basically raped and then killed, the likelihood of her being taken as a WIFE (by the way, I notice you keep changing it. You first call it a sex slave now you loosen up and say a sex partner. I think this is because you realize your interpretation is wrong) is the best shot for HER to have a somewhat normal life. No rabbi or priest is condoning anyone to do that today. Why is that? Because the reality of the planet is long changed.

    >He could have ensured that they never existed.

    Um….ya. ok.

    >And you defend this.

    No. You are lying. I never defended killing of innocents. Never. For some reason you clumped me int Craig. I have deliberately stuck with your two initial complaints and nothing more. For some reason you think of me as someone that believes the Torah is transmitted by God himself including every single rule in there. Sorry to burst your bubble.

    Do you remember me asking you to leave the “God” part OUT of the equation and simply look at the policy itself?

    >He could have done any number of things (you are always quick to remind us that he is omnipotent, when it is convenient to your argument).

    I will just tackle this for argument’s sake. By your standard God could have simply given everyone a nice disposition and that’s it. Remove all moral choice and create a world full of angels. So lets leave all this nonsense aside. From a biblical perspective [and keep it at that if you can], God cares for one thing. Moral behavior. The Canaanites certainly had every right to exist in that land. It was THEIR land. So why SHOULD he ensure they never existed? They are a people like anyone else. The story goes, they LOST their land because of their immorality. This is something God says to Abraham in the beginning and something Moses warns the Israelites in the end. He tells them not to think they are so good as to think they are entitled to the land. They are getting the land because the Canaanites are immoral and have lost it.

    To call a spade a spade, the Israelites are basically God’s flood, if you get my drift.

  20. Hanan says:

    >Raise the children of your vanquished as if they were your own, and treat them kindly.

    Good point. But let’s once again remove the “God” issue out of the equation and just judge the policy on it’s own merit. If this is such a great idea, why DIDN’T people in the ANE simply do this out of their own accord?

  21. Lou Jost says:

    I will try to make these my last comments.
    You ask me to leave god out of it, but my point was to show that your religion doesn’t give universal rights to people (and you apparently agree, since you are constantly saying “things were different back then”). Then I tried to show that either your bible contains much that is not divinely inspired, or your god is not benevolent. You chose to excuse his horrendous commands.

    About life-long rape: you yourself said it was rape. Why do you think it eventually becomes ok? Do I think all arranged marriages are evil? Well, I don’t think they are good, but the horrible acts ordered by god in the present case go far beyond arranged marriages. And by the way, as the Israelites went around murdering all the non-virgins (on god’s orders), it is not implausible that one of the men who went to a virgin’s home and murdered her mother and siblings would also be the one who claimed her. But I could of course be wrong about that part.

    “You first call it a sex slave now you loosen up and say a sex partner. I think this is because you realize your interpretation is wrong.” No, I just don’t want the discussion to turn into an argument about definitions. To me, an involuntary captive for life, forced into involuntary sex, is a sex slave. You apparently have a different definition.

    “No rabbi or priest is condoning anyone to do that today. Why is that? Because the reality of the planet is long changed.” So much for your universal morals.

    “No. You are lying. I never defended killing of innocents. Never. For some reason you clumped me int Craig.” The slaughter of innocents was part of the same god-given order that commanded the taking of virgins. Maybe you do disagree with that part of the order. If so, I apologize for my rage. But you seem to be making Craig-like gyrations to defend the other part of the order as something which was actually good, under the circumstances —but you ignore the fact that your god is the one who set up those circumstances.

    “To call a spade a spade, the Israelites are basically God’s flood, if you get my drift.”

    Well put. That kind of thinking has always been used by both your and other religions to justify massacres and war horrors. What gods you all have!

  22. Hanan says:

    >About life-long rape: you yourself said it was rape.

    Yes, but I made it conditional. I said TODAY. I can’t compare today to 3000 years ago. I have to compare 3000 years ago to 3000 years ago.

    >but the horrible acts ordered by god in the present case go far beyond arranged marriages.

    For all practical consideration of what we would consider “rape” today, there is no difference. A man going to the father and purchasing his daughter without consent is still – according to you – going to create a lifelong rape victim. Like I said, I think the number one thing this law was created for was eliminate ALL war time rape against women by over active male soldiers. I know you won’t appreciate this, but if you look at those entire verses together, it IS interesting (in my opinion) that it starts out with stating that if the soldier sees a woman of beauty…… and basically ends with her being made to look ugly. Judging this policy on it’s own, I think it is rather brilliant on the part of the law to basically turn the reason behind taking the women (her looks) upside down. If he was just aroused for her due to her beauty than I believe the law is trying to undo that.

    >(on god’s orders)

    If you are talking about Median, then it was Moses’ orders. Remember, Median is the one that provoked Israel, not the other way around. God ordered them to retaliate, not to kill everyone. Now, you can say Israel is using a sledgehammer to pound in a nail, but let’s get the facts correct at least.

    >…argument about definitions. To me, an involuntary captive for life, forced into involuntary sex, is a sex slave. You apparently have a different definition.

    As a scientist, I would think definitions would be critical for you. And again, by your broad definition of a sex slave, every women in the ANE (and probably other parts of the world for most of humanity) was a sex slave.

    >but you ignore the fact that your god is the one who set up those circumstances.

    I don’t know what that means. It seems to me the God of the bible simply reacts the circumstances humans make. He didn’t set up Midian attacking Israel. He didn’t set up Amalek attacking Israel. He certainly didn’t set up the Canaanites sacrificing their children to their God and committing acts of immorality to the point God says “Enough”

    >Well put. That kind of thinking has always been used by both your and other religions to justify massacres and war horrors. What gods you all have!

    I agree. It’s a dangerous theological view to have. But if we are taking the bible on its own terms, then lets at least agree that God never simply demolishes people for his entertainment. He judges everyone accordingly. And I guess if there IS a God, one can ask if He has the Moral right (or duty) to take care of the world he created.

    Also, if you want to be historical about it, scholars say the whole “genocide” of the Canaanite never happened, so you can rest at ease knowing the Israelites didn’t actually do it.

    >So much for your universal morals.

    I think you are misunderstanding what is meant when people say “universal morals.” See Jon’s response above.

  23. Lou Jost says:

    “He certainly didn’t set up the Canaanites sacrificing their children to their God and committing acts of immorality to the point God says “Enough””

    That’s a good one. The solution to the sacrifice of children is to kill them all, adults and children, except for the virgins!

    The omnipotent god of the OT did set all of those horror stories up, either by choice or by inaction. He could have used persuasion or made more land or kept the Midianites from settling there, or he could have had the foresight to tweak or front-load or pre-ordain events (as you guys say he does to make evolution produce what he planned) to avoid having to order (through Moses or directly) his people to commit atrocities.

    He does seem to enjoy setting up sadistic catastrophes to make a point. The plagues of Egypt show that he is capable of mind control and does not always let free will operate. He “hardened Pharaoh’s heart” just as Pharaoh was about to let them leave, giving him an excuse to kill more innocent kids to show his power…

    I’ve said enough. I’m not capable of being calm and rational while people (who I am sure are decent in every other aspect of their lives) are justifying these horrors and atrocities. Better for me to leave before I say something I regret.

    • Lou Jost says:

      “Also, if you want to be historical about it, scholars say the whole “genocide” of the Canaanite never happened, so you can rest at ease knowing the Israelites didn’t actually do it.”

      Actually, this is the solution I offered earlier–the OT is a set of origin myths, not histories. Then there is no need to defend a god who ordered atrocities, because these orders never happened.

    • Hanan says:

      >The solution to the sacrifice of children is to kill them all, adults and children, except for the virgins!

      It’s a fair point. From the POV of God, does He have a right or moral right to pronounce judgment upon his creations?

      >He could have…

      Well, how does free moral choice enter your equation? I mean, forget the Israelites, even if they were in another part of the land they could have done it to someone else. And why just this? Why can’t God persuade the child kidnapper to not kidnap right? This could go on forever.

      >He “hardened Pharaoh’s heart” just as Pharaoh was about to let them leave, giving him an excuse to kill more innocent kids to show his power…

      Well to be fair, Pharaoh hardened his own heart in the beginning. It was only later (I believe after the 5th time) that God stepped in as punishment against the nation (not the individual). Yes, it is troubling. I don’t have a good answer.

  24. Avatar photo GD says:

    I too have contemplated the various writings in the OT that speak of “God hardening the heart of Pharaoh”, and various other such statements that make it appear that God more or less forced people to do what is wrong – at times some writings may even appear to teach Israel to commit immoral and evil acts. The starting point for me is to ask how language may have been used in those days, and how much we place our current meaning into these statements. I am familiar with expressions of older generations in the Orthodox tradition, who would describe acts of horror (during WWII and the partisan wars against communism in Europe), and often end with expressions such as an appeal to God, or even “God’s will be done”, and similar phrases. No-one said that God caused a murderer to kill helpless people, or God caused the Germans to kill a section of a village if they hid Jews; it was their custom at that time to appeal to God in any and all circumstances.

    However this does not directly address the basic question, “Why would God allow these acts, and since He is all powerful, He should create a better world than the one we have.”

    I think that such a question requires a deeper discussion, regarding the nature of humanity, and the interplay between human freedom and law. For example, if we contemplate a world in which God ensured only good acts were permitted, than the response from atheists would be that we had become automatons and puppets. This is incorrect as Biblical teachings show this is the end result, or God’s purpose, for the Creation. A reasoned discussion however would take a great deal of space and I cannot do the subject matter justice in this short response – when I have written on this subject (notes and poetry) I am often brought back to Adam and Eve being given a choice within a paradise setting, and yet the wrong choice was made, to take the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil. When this is considered as poetic teachings, we may understand the matter at various levels, including ones that cause us to reflect on what it is to be human, as well as perhaps a deeper appreciation of the attributes of God that are revealed in and by Christ.

    I suggest that the way the matter of Theodicy is expressed shows a simplistic outlook by atheists, and some Christians could be advised to think far more deeply into the matters.

  25. Hanan says:

    >However this does not directly address the basic question, “Why would God allow these acts, and since He is all powerful, He should create a better world than the one we have.”

    But that isn’t REALLY what Lou is asking. Lou is asking (rightfully) how could got ORDER these things to happen? There is a difference between man’s moral choices being taken to their ultimate extremes (both for good and bad) by their own volition vs. God saying “Go slaughter those people for me.” The only thing that can be said is, that from the text, the Israelites attempted to do it, but ultimately failed. And, more important, they never attempted again. There is no second wave of mass killings of Canaanites. They ended up living together (though not really well), and there is no hint from God that they should continue on the killing.

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

      Hanan – while we’re imputing motives to Lou, let me suggest that he’s not so much asking why God did such a thing, but implying that he didn’t (because he doesn’t exist), that therefore the Israelites put the words in his mouth to justify a wicked act, and therefore demonstrated that religion is evil, as well as baseless.

      And that since the genocide didn’t actually happen in the end, religion is doubly wrong because it can’t even carry out the evils it puts in God’s non-existent mouth successfully.

      To which there is no answer worth attempting unless and until one admits the possibility that there is a God, that he did say what he’s purported to have said, and then make a serious and sober enquiry into why he would… which was, of course, the very situation Israel itself found itself in.

      And they may well have reflected on the words their forefather Abraham said to God in pleading for the cities of the plain: “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?” To which answer was (implicitly), “Yes, I shall – but I shall do right as the righteous God and just Judge of the earth should, and not as a mere man subject to my judgement would.”

      Or as the prophet put it: “Woe to those who quarrel with their Maker, those who are nothing but potsherds among the potsherds on the ground. Does the clay say to the potter, ‘What are you making?’ Does your work say, ‘The potter has no hands’?

      Those who know their maker have no quarrel with him – those who don’t will always find good reasons for doing so.

    • Avatar photo GD says:

      I think I may take greater care when reading the accounts in the OT regarding the fighting when Israel entered the Promised Land – for example, in Judges 11:10-20 we are given an account that shows Israel initially tried peaceful means, but these were rejected. The main message is that if peace was rejected by the various tribes, God had authorised conquest by force, and this message was delivered to Israel in military terms used in those days.

      It would be prudent to also read the language Moses used when discussing the lack of faith and steadfastness of Israel as they were delivered from Egypt. Moses more or less said to them their choice was that of life as Israel, or death. The main point is how Moses and Joshua could create a distinct nation that was the result of the promise to Abraham.

      One may ask, “Why didn’t God influence the other tribes so that they would accept a peaceful co-existence with Israel?” After all, this was not even a Nation with an established record of military might. The threat to these pagan tribes was, I suggest, more of a religious one and not a military one. In this light, I can understand the language employed by Moses and the Prophets, and the NT shows a larger context for these events.

      • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

        One may ask, “Why didn’t God influence the other tribes so that they would accept a peaceful co-existence with Israel?”

        That’s another interesting point, sociologically as it were. The people who ask such questions as an accusation of God tend to be the kind of people who don’t believe God can (or should) “interfere” in the world anyway. It would be inappropriate for him, say, to create a mammoth de novo, or even from a pre-existing type; but he ought to be tweaking history.

        The more serious questioner has a couple of options: the theistic personalist sees God as a morally-responsible-being-within-creation, like us only more so. He then adopts (usually) the free will defence – in some way it would be more morally wrong for God to interfere than to let human sin, or whatever, play out.

        The classical theist, when being consistent, says that God’s truth, goodness, righteousness and justice are only analogous to human morality: they are absolutes within him, of which our moral sense is a pale and derived reflection. To be Creator of all is to be accountable to none not as a matter of brute power, but as a matter of truth, goodness, righteousness, justice etc.

        And so when it says in 1 Samuel 3: “So Samuel told him everything, hiding nothing from him. Then Eli said, ‘He is the LORD; let him do what is good in his eyes,'” Eli is not expressing resignation to an arbitrary or capricious judgement, but the apprehension of profound truth that only Yahweh can judge rightly, or to put it the other way round that what Yahweh does will be right, because he is righteousness itself.

        So I maintain that throughout the Bible, the judgements of God and the responses of even his people appear incompatible, and the universal biblical position is not to attempt theodicy, but to judge that God is God, that he reigns in all things, and that religion consists essentially of obedience to his will.

        In Christ (and even before that, in the covenants) we have both the assurance that God’s goodness is reality, and the eschatological promise that when we see him face to face, that reality will become clear.

        • Avatar photo GD says:

          I would add to your comment Jon, the difference between the Sacred and the human condition. I am more then puzzled by the lack of discussion of this important point, as it ties in to revelation (of the Sacred). The OT is primarily concerned with the attempt by God’s prophets to teach Israel this distinction. With Christ we have the complete revelation, that includes the attributes of God and also His purpose, which is fulfilled in Christ, in terms of how we may live in the Faith, in good works (thus fulfilling the intent and spirit of the Law), reaching its ultimate act (of Christ) which is to forgive our enemies and the forgiveness of our sins. I cannot see how anyone (from whatever tradition) could possibly understand these fundamental truths unless we all understand what is Sacred and Holy.

          • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

            Absolutely. And holiness has everything to do with the separateness of God (despite his immanence in nature).

            Exodus aims at, and ends in, the living God coming to dwell amongst his redeemed people (like a return to the Eden situation); but then Leviticus immediately sets out to show just how hard it will be for them to be in a fit state to dwell with him. As my theologian friend pointed out, all those “obsessional” regulations were more than anything a daily reminder of God’s unapproachable holiness compared to human uncleanness. I don’t see them reflected in any other ANE literature – except perhaps instructions for priests in pagan temples.

            Without perceiving that sense of the holy how can one understand the significance of the torn veil of the temple in the gospel at the moment of the Lord’s death?

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