Creation Myths: How did we get here, and what can we learn from it?
Note: This is the text of a sermon
I delivered at Temple Beth Am
A Myth is a story about something that happened in the distant past that
might or might not be true. One of the frequent myths that recur
in cultures all over the world is a myth about how the world came
Tonight, I am going to compare and contrast 4 creation myths:
Since this a religious forum, I am to include a discussion of the moral
lessons we can derive from each of these myths. If this were a scientific
forum, I would not do so.
the story of creation in Genesis starting at 1:1 and ending at 2:6;
the story of creation in Genesis starting at 2:6 and ending at 3:20;
the "Big Bang" theory of modern physics; and
the theory of evolution
This last point is very important. Part of the scientific method
is testing a theory to see if can be proven false. If the theory
makes some predictions, and those predictions are not born out by
then we know that the theory is wrong. For example, using
theories of Chemistry (pre 1930s), we can predict the boiling point of
water to be about -150o Celsius (-210o F).
But we know that the boiling point of water is 100o C,
a scientific fact. So clearly the "traditional" theory of chemistry
is wrong. Quantum Mechanics predicts that the boiling point of water
will be about 100o C. Does that prove the Quantum
is correct? No, it doesn't. It might be just an intriguing
coincidence. However, if quantum mechanics predicted that the
boiling point of water was 102±1 ºC, then we would know that quantum
mechanics was wrong, because it disagrees with the experiment.
Before I launch into my tirade about the creation myths, I want to define
a couple of terms.
A "theory" is an idea which is "falsifiable", i.e. something that can be
tested by some prediction that could be true or false. Only falsity has
any value - truth could be just a coincidence. For example, Jean
Baptiste Lamarck, a french biologist proposed the theory that acquired
traits can become inherited. We know this theory is false, because
we've run an experiment to disprove it. Jewish boys have been circumcised
for 200 generations, and they still need circumcising. We have falsified
the theory of acquired characteristics. There is a theory of arithmetic,
and it is falsifiable: just go through some correct arithmetic operations
and demonstrate that 1=2. The reason why there is no theory of G-d
is because science hasn't figured out how to disprove the existence of
A "Hypothesis" is also an idea, but it can't be falsified. Many scientists
dream up hypotheses, and then think about them a little and develop them
A myth is a story which has been passed down through the ages. From
, which in turn is From Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary (1913)
(web1913) : Myth \Myth\, n. [Written also mythe.] [Gr. my^qos myth, fable,
tale, talk, speech: cf. F. mythe.] 1. A story of great but unknown
age which originally embodied a belief regarding some fact or phenomenon
of experience, and in which often the forces of nature and of the soul
are personified; an ancient legend of a god, a hero, the origin of a race,
etc.; a wonder story of prehistoric origin; a popular fable which is, or
has been, received as historical. 2. A person or thing existing
only in imagination, or whose actual existence is not verifiable.
A scientific Fact
A scientific fact is an idea which is easily measurable, reproducible,
and verifiable by experiment. Examples of scientific facts include
the boiling point of water, the speed at which San Francisco is moving
away from Salt Lake City, the altitude of Lake Michigan, and the average
mass of newborn Jewish baby boys. The value of Hubble's constant,
which I will discuss in a moment, is not a scientific fact, at least not
Each of the four creation myths has
a time line, which is a starting time (so many years ago) and the length
of the story (elapsed time).
Evidence in favor of the myth
Evidence which suggests that the myth is false
Discussion of how to falsify the myth
Creation Myth 1: Beresheet.
||G-d Creates heaven and earth, darkness and light
||G-d separates land and sea
||G-d creates Grass, herbs, and fruit trees
||G-d lights the stars, moon and sun
||G-d creates birds, insects, fish and whales
||G-d creates land mammals, land invertebrates, land reptiles, and man
The Torah says so. Comparing the state of the universe at the end
of the first day, where there nothing but darkness and light, is remarkably
similar to the initial conditions of the big bang theory. Curiously
enough, grass, herbs and fruit trees all appear simultaneously in the fossil
record in the Cretaceous period, a fact which couldn't possibly have been known to human authors
of the Torah.
Radiological dating suggests that the moon is billions of years old,
fruit trees are no older than 65 million years old, originating at about
the end of Mesozoic era. The land reptiles are well known in the
fossil record back to 225 million years ago. The Torah, of course,
says nothing about extinctions. However, there is absolutely no doubt,
among paleontologists, that not one but many mass extinction events
happened. Of course, individual species come and go all of the time.
How to falsify this myth
Hard to do. The myth makes no predictions that we can test.
Creation Myth 2: Genesis 2:4-3:24
This creation myth has no timelines associated with it. The
book just doesn't say how long these steps take.
|Initial conditions: dry ground, no plants, no rain
|G-d creates man out of clay and animates him
|G-d plants the garden of Eden
|G-d creates land animals and birds, Adam names them. Adam also
gets his name.
|G-d creates woman from one of Adam's ribs
The Torah says so.
We know from the fossil record that many animals have been around for a
very long time. Humans are completely absent from the fossil record
until perhaps 3 to 5 million years ago. The fossil record stretches
back almost a billion years.
How would we falsify the 2nd creation myth?
Hard to do. The myth makes no predictions that we can test.
Creation Myth 3: The Big Bang Theory
The Big Bang Theory is the dominant scientific theory about the origin
of the universe. According to the big bang theory, the universe was created
sometime between 10 billion and 20 billion years ago from a cosmic explosion
that hurled matter and in all directions. There are details that
still need to be worked out about the first few seconds of the Universe,
but ever since, oh, say, an hour or two after the explosion not much has
happened that's of interest to Astrophysicists. Immediately after
the big bang, the universe was filled with subatomic particles called quarks
and leptons (Electrons are leptons) and their antiparticle equivalents.
By 0.01 second after the big bang some of the quarks had united to form
neutrons and protons. After another 2 seconds the only leptons remaining
were electrons and the antiparticles had been annihilated. After
4 minutes hydrogen and helium nuclei had formed. After a million years
the universe was populated with hydrogen and helium atoms, the raw material
of stars and galaxies. In the billions of years that followed, stars
were born, grew old, and died. The death throes of a star creates all of
the elements heavier than helium, including my favorite element, carbon,
and other userful elements such as Nitrogen, Oxygen, Sulfur, Calcium, and
In 1927, the Belgian priest
Georges Lemaître was the first to propose that the universe began
with the explosion of a primeval atom. His proposal came after comparing
the red shift in distant nebulas by astronomers to a model of the universe
based on Einstein's theory of relativity. Years later, Edwin Hubble found
experimental evidence to help justify Lemaître's theory. He found
that distant galaxies in every direction are going away from us with speeds
proportional to their distance. The ratio of speed and distance is
known as Hubble's constant which is in the range of 55 kilometers per second
per megaparsec to 100 Km/sec/Mpc.
The big bang was initially suggested because it explains
why distant galaxies are traveling away from us at great speeds. The theory
also predicts the existence of cosmic background radiation (the glow left
over from the explosion itself). The Big Bang Theory received its strongest
confirmation when this radiation was discovered in 1964 by Arno Penzias
and Robert Wilson, who later won the Nobel Prize for the discovery of radiation
at an equavalent temperature of 2.7 degrees Kelvin, or -270 degrees Centigrade
or -459 degrees Ferenheit..
groups of astronomers trying to measure this fundamental constant using
the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) are continuing to report conflicting results.
group, led by astronomer Allan Sandage, measures distances to galaxies
using pulsating Cepheid variable stars and supernovae observed in galaxies
like the Virgo Cluster spiral galaxy, NGC4639, shown
here. This galaxy is the most distant one to which Cepheid-based determinations
have been made and was also the site of a well-studied 1990 supernova.
Their results favor a relatively small Hubble constant (slow expansion
rate) of about 55 kilometers per second per megaparsec which means that
galaxies one megaparsec (3 million lightyears) distant appear to recede
from us at a speed of 55 kilometers per second. A substantially faster
expansion rate (larger Hubble constant) is being reported by astronomer
Wendy Freedman and collaborators, also based on HST data. The value of
Hubble's constant was recently the subject of a popular public debate titled
Scale of the Universe 1996: The Value of Hubble's Constant".
Parsec (pc): 3.26 light years (or 3.086 x 1016 m).; also kiloparsec
(kpc) = 1000 parsecs and megaparsec (Mpc) = 1,000,000 parsecs = 3.086x1022
m. Our local cluster of galaxies is about a Megaparsec in diameter.
Evidence in favor of the theory
In every direction we look, we see glowing hydrogen atoms. Hydrogen
has a very distinctive spectral signature, with good agreement between
what we observe and what is predicted by Quantum mechanics, which I
discussed last July. However, everywhere we look, the hydrogen
is reder than it ought to be. This means that the hydrogen is moving
away from us. Stars in our local galaxy are virtually at rest.
Stars in distant galaxies are moving away from us at many millions of kilometers
A lot of the energy left over from the explosion is still around in the
form of heat. Heat in a vacuum can only exist in the form of electromagnetic
radiation. This radiation, called "blackbody radiation" has very
well defined characteristics, again easily predicted using Quantum Mechanics.
The observations easily match what we observe in the lab (At Harvey
Mudd College, the experiment is done in the second year) and the predictions
of the theory.
Evidence in opposition to the theory
The following do not disprove the big bang theory but do suggest things
to think about or resolve before accepting it completely.
The distribution of galaxies is not uniform, they tend to occur in
larger structures called "superclusters" or "galactic clusters",
Our galaxy is about 9x1020 m in diameter, while our local cluster
is about 30 times that size. It isn't clear why superclusters form.
The second law of Thermodynamics
The "Big Bang", the most widely accepted theory of the beginning of the
universe, states that everything developed from a small dense cloud of
subatomic particles and radiation which exploded, forming hydrogen (and
some helium) gas. Where did this energy/matter come from? How reasonable
is it to assume it came into being from nothing? And even if it did come
into being, what would cause it to explode?
We know from common experience that explosions are destructive and
lead to disorder. How reasonable is it to assume that a "big bang" explosion
produced the opposite effect - increasing "information", order and the
formation of useful structures, such as stars and planets, and eventually
How would we falsify the big bang theory?
If we found a significant number of blue shifted stars and galaxies, that
would suggest that instead of expanding, all of the universe is moving
randomly, like a big cloud of gas. If the night time sky were bright
instead of dark, that would mean that there is much more electromagnetic
radiation around and it would be much harder to explain the existance of
heavy elements, like Carbon.
There are two wrinkles on the "big bang" theory: the expanding forever
theory and the expansion will stop eventually theory. But those theories
are really about how the universe will end, not about how the universe
Creation Myth 4: The theory of evolution
The Theory of Evolution as proposed by Darwin and Wallace has 6 parts
Variation occurs. Darwin did not understand a theory of genetics,
and had no knowlege of mutations. Evolution theory isn't interested
in why variation occurs, the fact that it does is sufficient.
Excess progeny. All species produce more offspring than are needed
to perpetuate themselves.
Resources are limited. This is intuitively obvious if you think about
the last point. Our planet has only so much mass, and if growth continues
unchecked, the number of organisms will exceed the mass of the planet with
Competition occurs. The individuals of the species compete with one
another for the limited resources. In recent years, biologists have
discovered variations on this theme where families, hives, packs, nations
compete instead of individuals. Nevertheless, competition occurs
because the carrying capacity of any ecosystem is limited, but growth is
Natural selection. In the struggle between excess progeny for the limited
resources, some individuals will be successful in gathering enough
resources to survive to reproductive age and produce offspring of
their own. Most individuals will not survive to reproductive age and will
have no offspring.
Allele frequency. Those Alleles in individuals which survive to reproduce
will be present in higher concentrations in subsequent generations than
the Alleles in individuals which do not survive.
Evidence in favor of the theory
Sexual reproduction involves several processes that recombine genetic information.
In fact, it is probably the vast opportunities for genetic recombination
that has made sexual reproduction so successful a reproductive strategy.
This is the reason natural selection has favored sexual reproduction
to the extent that it is present in some form in almost all major groups
of organisms. Even corn and daffodils reproduce sexually.
The moths in Britain
A classic example of natural selection is the
peppered moth (Biston betularia) changing its predominant
color in response to environmental pollution from in industrial era of
England. Here, the predominance of white moths was shifted to dark moths,
allowing for camouflage against predatory birds, as the trees darkened.
Before the population shift occurred both light and dark moths were present.
The environment allowed one shade to flourish.
Evidence in opposition to the theory
Although humans are very similar to Chimpanzees, humans are not chimps.
We're different species. The theory of evolution really doesn't tell
us how speciation occurs. The assumption is that microscopic evolution,
which we have seen, will lead to speciation in the long run. But
we haven't really observed this phenomenon.
This doesn't disprove the theory, however, because it may be that speciation
will occur given enough time. Of course, if one is willing to wait
long enough, then maybe acquired traits can become inherited? So,
the question changes into a question of how does one do scientific inference:
coming to a generalization based on a large number of observations.
Incidentally, this problem is the scientific version of "Which came
first, the chicken or the egg?".
How would we falsify the theory?
The Jewish boys
Earlier I pointed out that Jewish boys have circumcised since the time
of Abraham. Does that have any bearing on the theory of evolution?
Yes, it does. If acquired traits became inherited, then some other
mechanism other than random chance governs how species change. But
Jewish boys have yet to inherit the trait, even after 200 generates; therefore
acquired traits are probably not inherited. Of course, science has
advanced to the point where we now have a theoretical understanding of
how genetics works. So we no longer run experiments to test the Lamark
Except on little Jewish boys.
The universe is not full of Elephants
We know from the fossil record that Elephants have been around for at least
50 million years. But let me assume for sake of discussion that competition
for resources does not occur and that the population of elephants has increased
at the rate of 1% for the past 10,000 years, since the end of the last
ice age. If a mere 10,000 elephants survived the ice age, and if
the elephant population increased at a rate 1% a year, today we would see
2x1047 elephants, weighing 16x1050 Kgs. By
way of comparison, the mass of the earth is "only" 6x1024 Kgs.
So, clearly, some sort of dynamic equalibrium has been reached long ago.
You can run these kinds of calculations yourself. To get some
good numbers to start with, see http://www.esmerel.com/circle/numeracy/mathfact.html.
See also my calculations on elephants.
One Creation myth or two?
The two creation myths in Gensis are very different. There is much talmudic
discussion on how to resolve the differences into one story. In my
opinion, it is far easier to think about the story in terms of two stories,
with two morals. The fact that the myths aren't true doesn't change
the fundemental truth about the Torah. The fundemental truth about
the Torah is that it is a message from G-d. There are people using
powerful computers to carefully analyze the text of the Torah. These
people are wasting their time. The text, as it is written, is the
message from G-d. If there are two stories there, it is because G-d
wants two stories. Why are there two stories? That is
The Genesis creation myth or the scientific myth?
Scientists generally are comfortable talking about things they don't
know. Hubble's constant is currently known within a range of 55 to
100, or a factor two. We are confident that Hubble's constant does
have a value; we're just still trying to figure out what the value is.
A lot of the attacks on the big bang theory which come from the creation
science web pages get caught up comparing the precision to which we know
Hubbles constant with the precision to which we know the speed of the light.
We know the value of Hubbles constant to within a a factor of two.
Last time I bothered to look, we knew the value of the speed of light to
8 signifigant figures; 20 million times more precisely. Both the
Speed of Light and Hubble's constant are fundemental values of the universe.
The fact that we don't know these values as precisely as we would like
to does not invalidate them.
Does a belief in the scientific myths mean that the creation myths
are false? In the strict scientific sense, yes. But as I have
said earlier, reality is more complicated that mere science. Clearly,
the creation myths are much more poetic than the scientific theories.
If you believe that competition improves the breed, then is it reasonable
to act altruistically, or would it be better for the species in the long
run to be selfish? There is a school of thought, called social
darwinism, which claims that Darwin's theories require humans
to behave selfishly. If a person can't get their life together and
survive, then the race is better off without them. Judaism has been
vehemently opposed to social darwinism since Abraham argued with God over
the fate of Sodom and Gemorrah. Jews have been around as a people
for 4000 years. The Syrians, the Babylonians, the Greeks, the Romans,
the Spanish Inquisition, the Nazis have all had their day in the sun.
We're still here.
I find it curious that the same class of people who originally opposed
Darwin's theories 150 years ago are now more likely to be social darwinists
than other classes; namely wealthy establishment conservatives.
I find social darwinism morally repugnant, but that's my own view.
A better argument is that preserving many different genotypes makes the
race stronger, because it is easier and faster to create variation through
interbreeding than by waiting for mutations. If that means that the
wealthy have to support the poor, then the long term survival of the species
makes the sacrifice worthwhile.
If you have bacteria or mold in a bottle of milk, eventually they will
digest all of the milk sugars and then starve to death. If you are lucky,
you'll have a bottle of cheese but more likely you'll have a bottle of
spoiled milk. We are very much like those little molds and bacteria.
If my calculations are correct and assuming that the historical annual
growth rate of 3% continues, then density of people will reach 1 person/square
meter sometime early in the 22nd century; probably in the lifetime of my
grandchildren. This rather depressing thought is called a Mathusian
crisis, after an English economist, Malthus,
who lived in the 18th century. Certainly, from the point of view
of a vast universe, we're all a bunch of hydrocarbons that do this weird
thing called life. That's unusual, but then the universe is full of unusual
things. So life is rare and odd and otherwise unremarkable.
However, I don't like that view. We have something those bacteria do
not have: we have understanding and awareness. I like the idea that G-d
created us last (saved the best for last) or else created us first (so
we could help with everything else). I like being special. We can
choose to change our reproductive behavior. There is some evidence
that the birthrate in American is dropping, especially among the middle
class and the wealthy. The birthrate in Eastern Europe is actually
lower than the deathrate: if present trends continue, Europe will have
an interesting problem: a shortage of labor, starting in about 10 years
||Big Bang theory
||Theory of Evolution
What Happened Before the Big Bang!
111 at Lander University
Theory of Evolution
|How to falsify the theories
|| These theories are not falsifiable because they make
||Background radiation is not isotropic.
Protons in atomic nucleii decay
Blue shifted stars
|All animals and plants now in existance are found in the fossil record
at all levels
Fierce competitors found in small ecosystems, tame competitors found
in large ecosystems
|Evidence in favor of
||What we know about the prerequisites for life support this ordering
||No mention of the sabbath, clearly a reflection of hectic modern life!
||We see red shifted stars and the farther away they are, the more red
shifted they are.
The relationship seems to be linear.
|We observe microscopic evolution
We understand that resources are limited and the consequences of exponential
|Evidence in opposition to
|| The Torah lumps together things that fly: insects, birds, and
bats; but we know that these creatures are very different from one another.
||A world view where all of the plants and animals require human care
and are present for human benefit; but we know that the plants and animals
would get along fine without us.
||There is a theory that there is a point in the universe where
matter is being created continously.
There is the question of whether the original starting conditions wouldn't
create a "black hole" which wouldn't explode.
| Test your
The speciation problem
||7 days about 5759 years ago
||Unknown but a few thousand years ago
||A few hours about 10-20 billion years ago.
||Ongoing, starting about 1 billion years ago
||We should be humble because all of the other animals and plants were
here before us.
Men and women are partners in the process of creation.
|G-d has placed us here to take care of the planet. We are entitled
to use the wealth of this planet.
||None - if we kill ourselves, it is no great loss.
||None - might makes right, survival justifies all. "Social Darwinism"
The Bottom Line: What do I think?
In preparing this discussion, I ran it past several of my friends and
acquantences and asked them their opinion. Interestingly enough,
my friends who are not Jewish asked me about which of the four myths I
believe to be true. Now, I found it rather interesting that the non-Jews
were interested in my beliefs, but the Jews were much more interested in
the facts, conclusions and arguments. I believe that this difference
is due to something which we are not commanded to do. We Jews are
not aware of what we are not commanded to do nor not commanded not to do
(We are aware of 613 things we are commanded to do). We are not commanded
to believe in G-d. It is possible to be an agnostic Jew, or even
an atheistic Jew. It is also possible to be an immoral Jew, I myself
am an immoral Jew. It is even possible to be an immoral, atheistic
Jew although I suspect at that point there's not much left to talk about.
So "What do I think?" is really a somewhat irrelevent answer.
My daughter tells me that she doesn't like it when I tell her a question
is meaningless or irrelevent. So I will tell you my answer.
There is an idea, which probably is Greek in origin, that there can
be only truth. Certainly, it is true that this lecturn is made of
wood, that these brass artworks are made of brass, and that there are currently
X people present in this room. However, not all truths are like that.
The statement that I made earlier about my morality is only partly true.
I am a man. I am a father. I am a child. I a vertebrate.
I am a bipedal tetrapod (now, there's an oxymoron!). I am
40 years old. I have myopia. I have athletes foot. All
of these statements are true statements. So it is with many things.
The expectation that just "because many things have a single truth, all
things must have a single truth" is naive.
My daughter would then say "Big deal - what's the right answer?".
Does this sound like a teen ager to you?
So my answer is that all of these myths are right. That doesn't
sound very satisfying, does it? But consider that each of these myths
has a lesson for us.
My wife aduces the interesting idea that Genesis has two creation stories
instead of one to support the ideal that Jews are suppose to discuss, argue,
debate, and disagree. There is no such thing as an approved Jewish
dogma, and we really don't have any kind of heirarchy of authority to pass
questions and decisions up and down a chain of command.
The first creation story tells us that the world was here before
we humans were, and we are interlopers. The world would carry on
just fine if we weren't here.
The second creation story tells us that we are entitled to a portion of
the wealth that our little planet provides. While we should not waste
any resources, we are allowed to use them.
The Big Bang theory should give us a tremendous sense of humility and awe.
The Universe is so very vast, and we are so small and insignificant.
At Yom Kippur, we said that compared to G-d, we are as dust. Actually,
that was an overstatement.
The theory of evolution shows G-d's hand at every turn; steering the course
of events in the direction G-d wanted the world to go. I can easily
imagine a vast intelligence who created us, eventually, in an effort to
find somebody to talk to.
This is the third sermon I have prepared looking at biblical topics from
the point of view of an engineer looking at topics of Jewish thought (The
other two are comparing Quantum Mechanics and Cabalah
and a Management Audit of parsheh Noach, which is both the Noah
story and the Tower of Babel story) . Why am I doing this?
If you answered because that's the kind of person I am, then you are right,
but that's not the answer I am looking for.
At Yom Kippur, Rabbi Jonathan Singer touched on topics of Judaism and
modernity. Rabbi Jonathan is thinking about Modernity from the point
of view of a spiritual man. I am thinking about religion from the
point of view a modern technoweenie. The symmetry of our thinking
is striking. The Rabbi and I are both trying to maintain the human
spirit in this brave new world we find ourselves in. We are going
in different directions along the same path, but it is my prediction that
we will meet somewhere in the middle.
It is my passionate opinion that G-d has given us big brains for
a reason. It is up to us to use our big brains to help ensure our own survival.
Thank you and Shabbat Shalom
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