Monday, November 30, 2009

Bats as birds

Earlier in this blog, I argued that modern anti-Biblical readers have been too hard on James Ussher--who, after all, put in quite a remarkable effort. Now, I'd like to argue that they've been too hard on the writer of Leviticus.

Leviticus 11:13-19:
These are the birds you are to detest and not eat because they are detestable: the eagle, the vulture, the black vulture, the red kite, any kind of black kite, any kind of raven, the horned owl, the screech owl, the gull, any kind of hawk, the little owl, the cormorant, the great owl, the white owl, the desert owl, the osprey, the stork, any kind of heron, the hoopoe and the bat.

Hold up. The bat? Doesn't God know that bats aren't birds? Ha ha. This Judeo-Christian God is pretty ignorant of his own creations.

But I find the passage quite acceptable, on two related grounds. The first is purely translational. If the Hebrew word we translate as "bird" meant "all flying things bigger than an insect," bats would quite properly be included. (In a similar vein, the Greek word we translate as "hand" [χείρ] included the wrist. So most depictions of Christ's crucifixion show the nails through his palms, even though the Romans normally put the nails between the radius and the ulna, which could support more weight. Whether the wrist is actually part of the hand is a linguistic issue, not a biological one.)

I don't know Hebrew, and I don't know what the original text of Leviticus says. But regardless, I see nothing inherently wrong with having viewed bats as birds (or whales as fish*). In our post-Linnaean world, such categories seem decidedly strange. But historically people have categorized things in many ways for linguistic purposes. The resulting words are likely to serve their purposes as long as everyone agrees on their meanings.

By today's definitions, and for today's purposes, a bat is not a bird. A whale is not a fish. A wrist is not a hand. And a man is in truth an ape. But I won't criticize those who once had other definitions for other purposes. Questions of definition, like whether Pluto is a planet, are not questions of natural fact.

*Every translation I've seen of Jonah 1:17 says Jonah was swallowed by a big fish, not a whale. The story is often told with him being swallowed by a whale, however, and I can't see that it loses much from that.

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Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The Origin

One hundred fifty years ago today, a book was published called On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or The Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life, by a British naturalist named Charles Darwin. It sold out on its publication date, and overnight, it changed the way we view our place in the universe.

I've often wondered how much difference it would have made if Darwin hadn't written this book--or, for that matter, if he had never come up with the theory. After all, he's hardly the only one who came up with a theory of evolution by natural selection. Indeed, the theory was first presented coherently as a joint paper by Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace, in 1858.

The situation with Wallace is especially interesting to me, because of the extreme coincidence. There are many cases in the history of science in which two people came up with nearly identical theories or discoveries at the same time, independently. But Wallace not only came up with the idea without Darwin's help, he sent a letter to Darwin explaining the idea and asking what he thought of it--not knowing that Darwin had already worked it out. What are the odds of that?

So could Wallace have pushed forth the theory as Darwin did? Coincidentally, I ran across Wallace's own answer last night, quoted in an essay by Thomas Henry Huxley:
I have felt all my life, and still feel, the most sincere satisfaction that Mr. Darwin had been at work long before me and that it was not left for me to attempt to write the 'Origin of Species.' I have long since measured my own strength, and know well that it would be quite unequal to that task.

It's hard for me to imagine anyone better suited to this essential task than Charles Darwin was. The world is different now because he wrote.