Picking at Threads, Part 1 – Science
A Background of Science
Before tackling anything about the history of Judaism, YHWH or Israel, I first need to address what we know about the history of our Earth and humanity in general. For it is in this context and only this context that we can understand the origins of religions, including Judaism, Christianity and other bible based sects.
The Earth’s Beginnings
The Earth is 4.5 billion years old, just a little younger than the solar system itself. It, along with the rest of the planets, asteroids, comets, moons and even the Sun itself, formed from the remnants of a dead star. You see stars don’t live forever. Under tremendous heat and pressure, they fuse hydrogen into helium (nuclear fusion) creating astronomical (literally) amounts of energy. When the hydrogen is consumed, it begins fusing helium as well, into carbon and oxygen. The process continues, fusing lighter elements into heavier elements until the star collapses under its own gravity and explodes, creating a supernova. At this point it becomes either a white dwarf, neutron star or black hole depending on its size, while those heavier elements that were created in this process are ejected into space.
Over millions of years, the gases and dust created from supernovae coalesce and clump together along with hydrogen, creating areas of stronger gravitational pull, attracting yet more gas and dust into a hot, concentrated area called a proto-star. Once the pressure and heat reach a sufficient point, fusion begins and we have a baby star, surrounded by an accretion disk of dust and gas that eventually becomes planets, asteroids, moons and comets.
This process occurred in our solar system about 4.5 billion years ago. We know this number by using what we know of radioactivity. The behavior of the elements that make up the universe is consistent and allows us to make predictions and calculations. One of these behaviors is a regular and predictable rate of “decay”. Some elements are more stable than others. Stable elements “stay together” longer. Unstable elements lose protons and electrons from their nuclei and become other elements. For example, certain Uranium isotopes decay, changing into other elements, which further decay all the way to an isotope of lead. Elements literally decay into other elements as they lose nucleic particles. Along with this decay also comes energy, which allows radioactive decay to produce nuclear energy. This nuclear energy is used to power electric grids and unfortunately weapons.
Elements decay at regular rates known as a “half-life”, because it is a measurement of how long it takes for half of a quantity of an element to decay. Half-lives of elements all differ. But we can use these known periods of time to determine the age of rocks and living material by measuring the amount of a particular element versus the amount of the elements it is known to decay to. Carbon-14 is perhaps the most well-known element that is used for dating materials. However, Carbon-14’s half life is only a bit under 6000 years, which means samples that are too old don’t have enough Carbon-14 left to get accurate measurements. It turns out there is a limit on C14 dating of about 60,000 years. In material older than that there’s simply not enough C14 left to obtain a reliable age. But that’s fine, as we can make measurements of other elements that decay at much slower rates, such as with Potassium/Argon dating which is better or dating materials billions of years old. One of the ways we know we can rely on radiometric dating is precisely because we have multiple elements we can check. When we calculate the age of materials using multiple dating methods (different elements), they agree.
The science behind radioactive decay and radiometric dating is very well-known and established. It’s not debated in the scientific community. It is an accepted, reliable method of dating because we have so many ways of measuring that cover many different time spans (thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, millions, billions of years). Occasionally there are those whose beliefs are compromised by the findings of radiometric dating. These people often attempt to show that radiometric dating is unreliable, but doing so is tantamount to claiming that the Earth is flat (more on that later). The science behind it is well understood, demonstrated and capable of making predictions. To say that it is unreliable would require proving that all of the science that supports radiometric dating is also unreliable, which would be quite the onerous task. But for those who are motivated by preserving long-held beliefs, it is a task they attempt, though unsuccessfully.
The Origin of Biodiversity
One of the most exciting aspects of radiometric dating is being able to tell how long ago certain species of creatures lived by dating their fossils. Using these techniques we find that there were bacterial mats almost 3.8 billion years ago, not too long after the Earth formed. We find fossils of arthropods such as Anomalocaris, a swimming, armless, lobster-ish creature, at about 500 million years ago (known as the Cambrian era). Mosses, land-dwelling arthropods and primitive plants are found in rocks about 420 million years ago. Fish fossils are very common in strata up to 320 million years ago (Devonian era), including one remarkable find that shows a fish that was capable of lifting itself onto land (a species called tiktaalik, shown in the photo at the top of this post). In still newer rocks we find amphibians, then later reptiles and many more land dwelling creatures including an interesting class of creatures called therapsids, or reptiles that had many mammal-like features. The dinosaurs ruled from 250 million years ago to 65 million years ago when a major extinction event wiped them out. With the dinosaurs out of the way, mammals had the rule of the roost.
What I’m getting at here is that radiometric dating has given us a window to the past, showing us that life has gotten increasingly more complex and diverse as time has passed. There are no rabbit fossils in rocks that are 500 million years old, nor are there trilobites found in 10,000 year old strata. What I am speaking of here is, of course, Darwin’s Theory of Evolution.
I’d like to quickly address the word “theory”. For many people, a theory is simply a guess that kinda makes sense. But this is not how the word is classically used in science. A scientific theory is a hypothesis about the universe that has been tested, supported by evidence, makes predictions and has not been “falsified”. Falsify means to find evidence that disproves a hypothesis. For example, the Flat Earth hypothesis is falsified by the fact that ships do not fall off the Earth or reach a wall (firmament) when they reach the edge. There are many scientific principles that are still referred to as “theory”, yet we depend on them every day. From “quantum theory” to the “theory of relativity”. These aren’t just guesses out of thin air, they are currently the best explanations we have for the behavior of the universe as we see it. They have been tested, confirmed and have made accurate predictions. So don’t let the word “theory” influence your acceptance of the evidence, and remember the next time you use GPS that without the “Theory of Relativity”, it would be inaccurate.
Another point worth noting is that Evolution does not explain the origin of the first life itself. It explains how species develop over time. The origin of the first life itself remains an unanswered question and we happen to live in an exciting time where this question may soon be answered. But this gap in our knowledge does not mean we must necessarily fill it with a supernatural explanation. Just remember that less than 1,000 years ago we explained many medical conditions by appealing to supernatural causes such as demons and curses that were later found to have natural causes.
Evolution is very well supported by evidence. Everything from the fossil record to species population distribution to DNA has been found to support and even give more credence to Evolution. At this point, the only way that Evolution doesn’t make sense is if you do not understand it or wish to understand it, which is the case for a great many people. Just as with radiometric dating, Evolution is not a hotly debated and contested theory among scientists. The only people who contest Evolution are those whose religious beliefs would be contradicted by its acceptance.
Evolution is all about replicating genes, aka, reproduction. Evolution favors those organisms that are more effective at replicating their own genes and passing them on. As a simple example, imagine you have two small creatures. One of these has a small patch of light-sensitive cells while the other does not. The light-sensitive creature can tell which direction the sun is and that is, perhaps, where their food might be. Or perhaps this organism can detect when a predator is nearby and thus be able to get away. In either case, the organism with the light-sensitive cells has a tremendous advantage over the one that does not. This one will likely reproduce much more and it will pass on those same genes that result in the light-sensitive patch. This means that over time, light-sensitive animals will out-compete the others and before long will be the dominant variation. This is called “Natural Selection”, because nature itself is selecting which organisms are more successful.
However, what if they live in a cave where there is no light? Would a light-sensitive patch be an advantage in this environment? Of course not. Therefore, any organism that is light-sensitive would not have an advantage over the others and they wouldn’t be any more successful at passing on those genes. In fact, this is exactly what we see with species of cave dwelling organisms where eyesight is of no use. Cave fish, for example, do not have fully functioning eyes even though the basic structure for them is there. They also have very little coloration, as camouflage and visual attractiveness to mates is non-existent in an environment where there is no light.
So evolution and natural selection is also about environment. This includes sunlight, temperature, atmosphere, marine or land, other organisms, competitors, predators, prey, food sources, geographical isolation and many other factors. This means that what is successful in one place at one time, such as giant insects in the Carboniferous era, may not be as successful in other places at other times where and when the conditions are much different.
The earliest upright walking ancestor that we know of is australopithecus afarensis, the species of the organism whose best known specimen is the one we call “Lucy”. These creatures were very ape-like, but they were not among any species that exists today. We can tell by their hip bones that they walked upright. They lived about 3.2 million years ago and were likely succeeded by something very much like homo habilis, then homo ergaster or homo erectus, followed by homo heidelbergensis, then home sapiens. We’re actually rather fortunate that the hominid fossil record is as good as it is. The actual evolutionary path of humans is not entirely known, but the hominid fossil record shows exactly the sort of gradual progress from afarensis to homo sapiens that evolution predicts we should see. We do know that modern humans have been around for about 200,000 years or so.
Evolution of Human Behaviors
The fact that humans are evolved creatures has some implications. Namely, that we are not perfect. We have flaws both physical and mental (which happen to be the same thing, really) that benefit us yet are detrimental to us at the same time. Consider the person who takes comfort in high calorie, high carbohydrate foods when they are stressed. While these foods may offer comfort in the short-term (in the form of a dopamine rush), in the long-term they can be harmful and even shorten your life due to obesity or heart conditions. Some of our evolutionary flaws operate in the same way (and this dietary problem is itself an evolutionary issue). For example, in our ancient animal past if you heard a rustling in the grass nearby, it was a benefit to assume that it was something dangerous and to run away. Those who did not make this assumption and stuck around may have been eaten. What this means is that those cautious creatures who had a tendency to assume there was something dangerous nearby had a higher survival rate. Over time, our ancient ancestors became “agency detectors”. In other words, our genetic makeup produced in us a tendency to find “agency” behind many events even if there was none. We assumed that when things happened, something living, intelligent and possibly malevolent was causing them. The rustle in the brush, the shadow, the dream you had last night, the sickness your relative has or even thunder and lightning. We began to attribute some intelligent entity as the immediate cause of those events.
We also obtained benefit from more animal-like behaviors such as killing those who threatened us, stealing what we needed for survival, mating with many mates, even without their consent, prejudice against other tribes, hoarding, accumulating “wealth” in the form of stored foods, weapons or even mates and investing energy in attracting mates by trying to impress them. These traits live on in modern humans but they have been suppressed to some degree, some more than others. We aren’t all murderous thieves, after all. But why not?
Gradually we became a very social species and these ancient behaviors became detrimental when we were required to work together. We realized as our populations grew and as tribes and bands got larger, that our chances of survival were much better if we worked together, protecting each other, trading with each other and exchanging knowledge and ideas. Human progress would simply have not been possible without these positive attributes as well as the willingness to suppress our more primitive urges. To put it another way, we developed morals. However, our moral development has not yet progressed to a point where it has completely overcome those more primitive, violent and selfish behaviors.
The Evolution of Language
Biological species are not the only examples of Evolution. Languages, legends, myths and even religions also exhibit strikingly similar evolutionary development as they cross the boundaries of cultures, places and time.
One can see this (or even hear or say it) in the Romance languages; those languages that have derived from Latin. Italian, Spanish, French, Portuguese and Romanian, along with their numerous dialects, are considered Romance languages, while even English, which is largely Germanic, retains a large Latin vocabulary. As Latin spread throughout Western Europe and as time passed, the local variety of Latin slowly changed over time. These deviant “Vulgar” Latin dialects eventually became separate languages with very similar grammatical structures based on Latin. But let’s take a look at a few words among these languages and how they have subtly changed. The following are lists of the same word written in English, Latin, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese and French.
- teeth – dentis, dente, diente, dente, dent
- death – mortis, morte, muerte, morte, mort
- eye – oculus, occhio, ojo, olho, oeil
- teacher – magister, maestro, maestro, mestre, maitre
We even see the Latin influence of these words in later (and modern) English words such as dental, mortuary, binoculars and magistrate.
But language evolves in more ways than just vocabulary. The evolution of written language can also be demonstrated. If you take a look at the possible correspondences in several ancient languages as shown here https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Proto-Sinaitic_script, you can see how written language gradually changed from pictograms to less detailed pictograms, to forms that are obviously more efficient to write yet convey the same or similar meaning. Supporting these relationships is the fact that the age of the writings where these alphabets were used corresponds very well to the progression from pictograms and hieroglyphs to Proto-Sinaitic, to Paleo-Hebrew and Phoenician and on to Aramaic, Hebrew, Greek and eventually even influencing Latin, which is the very alphabet you are reading now. It’s like a family tree of written language.
Tens of thousands of years ago, we didn’t really know any of this. We didn’t know the Earth was a sphere, let alone a planet that orbits the sun. We had no clue how it formed. Life seemed static to us, as if it had always been the way we see it. We humans seemed special, as if this world had been made for us. Yet we are a curious species. We don’t like not knowing things, so we seek answers. It is this curiosity and willingness to think creatively that enabled us to survive a ruthless world and even in inhospitable environments. It also led to the development of science and evidence based reasoning that has brought our species so far in such a small amount of time. Yet it was also this curiosity, our desire for answers and explanations, our will for survival and our tendency to find agency in all things that led to superstition and religions.
Our ancestors sought answers for how the world was made, where life came from, where different human races originated, where languages came from, why humans do harmful things to each other and how to prevent this, where disease comes from, the movement of the celestial bodies (they didn’t know some of them were planets) and even a solution for the ultimate barrier to survival: how one can survive one’s own death. However, during a time when we hadn’t developed the proper tools, obtained the right knowledge and were still agency detection machines, it is quite natural that our ancestors turned to the supernatural as explanations for these things.
Our next topic will be on early religions, particularly those of the Ancient Near East. Thanks for reading.