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Thought for the Day: Critters That the Torah Considers As Not Coming from Parents

Subtitle: The role of observational science in halacha.

The task to prove that all odd numbers are prime is given to a group of scientists.  The mathematician says, "3 is prime, 5 is prime; by induction all odd numbers are prime."  The physicist says, "1, 3, 5, 7 are prime.  9 is not prime... hmm... 11, 13 are prime.  Seems that 9 is an outlier/experimental error."  The chemist says, "1, 3, 5, 7, 9, 11... all prime, so I guess all odd numbers are prime."  The biologist says, "1 is prime, 2 is prime, 3 is prime, 4 is prime.  What's the question?"

I bring this up for a few reasons.  First, a physicist always looks for opportunities to show disdain for the fact that people include biology as science; we look at them as observers and classifiers.  Important, but hardly science.  (I know I'm going to get in trouble for this...)  Secondly, though, look at the way the task was framed: prove all odd numbers are prime.  The task should have been: determine if all odd numbers are prime.  It is an all too common trap for scientists; proving something "known" to be true instead of determining with proof the truth (or not) of a proposition.  Third -- and this pains the physicist in me, but true is true -- the biologist is clearly using a different definition of of the word prime (and maybe even "number") than the rest of the group.

Chazal say that certain animals do not פרה ורבה/"reproduce"; they just come from themselves.  Enlightened thinkers delight in using the fact that we "know" that there is no such thing as spontaneous reproduction and so it just goes to show that the ancients did the best they could, but we know better.  Uh huh.  Let's examine that.

Yoreh Dei'ah 94:15 says the birds (עופות) that grow on trees and hang from their beaks are forbidden because they are bugs.  Many people skip that siman because they have never heard of birds (or bugs, for that matter) that grow from trees by their beak so they have no idea what the Shulchan Aruch means.  R' Dovid Cohen of the CRC consulted university professor type ornithologists concerning this animal he had seen described in old book and wondered if they had any ideas.  They answered without hesitation, "Oh yes, that's the barnacle goose.  They thought they grew on trees in the middle ages, as documented in their bestiaries.  Really they lay their eggs in the arctic so no one ever saw the eggs until modern times."

So what was the Shulchan Aruch thinking?  It is not a mistake in the Shulchan Aruch, it is a mistake for those of you who don't understand what the Shulchan Aruch is.  The Shulchan Aruch is a brief handbook for the medieval household to look up halacha.  People wanted to know if they could eat barnacle geese.  The Shulchan Aruch said, "First of all, we don't have a tradition for them; so no.  But anyway, if they really grow from trees, then they are not what the Torah calls birds, they are what the Torah calls bugs."

Now that we have this principle that we need to be very careful when translating Torah concepts into modern terminology, lets look further.  The specific kind of bugs (שרץ) is also know as one that doesn't פרה ורבה.  Let's look a bit further into that.  If it grew from a tree, that's called "doesn't reproduce (the usual way)" -- even if it started as an egg from a mother bug and fertilized by a father bug.  Why?  Because the tree offered more than a haven; it was an integral participant in the development of the bug.  Other bugs, such as lice (which the gemara also says do not פרה ורבה) grow from nits whose gestation depends on the external environment.  They are part of a whole class of bugs that "overwinter".  That is, they decide based on the environment how fast to develop and when to emerge.

Moral: don't start arguing without first thoroughly thinking through the issue and understanding the terms and premise(s) of the topic.

One last parting shot at biologists: A respected college biology text book says (and, yes, this is a real quote):
People used to believe in spontaneous generation.  We now know after countless experiments that life never comes from non-life (except once millions of years ago when it happened once).


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