Kosher in the Jurassic?

Jurassic pork—what could a kosher time-traveler find to eat in previous geological eras?

Here’s an intellectual exercise in paleontology. Imagine someone traveling back in time to previous geological eras. Imagine that this time traveler keeps kosher. Imagine the next question—of the fauna she finds then—which could she eat?

The authors argue that hypothetical discussions like this could be a way to talk to faith communities about evolution, without having to engage with the Genesis passages that contradict accepted science.

This is the ponderable imponderable fleshed out (no pun) in a recent article in Evolution: Education and Outreach by Roy E. Plotnick, Jessica M. Theodor, and Thomas R. Holtz, Jr., called, Jurassic Pork: What Could a Jewish Time Traveler Eat? The authors decided to explore this hypothetical terrain because, “discussing how paleontologists would address such a query illustrates how they think about the morphology, ecology, and relationships of extinct animals and thus gives an opportunity to introduce broader concepts from paleontology and evolutionary biology to a more general audience.”

The authors first describe how the Hebrew Bible describes kosher animals—broadly and in a nutshell, kosher mammals must both have split hooves and chew cud; fish must have both fins and scales; and (generally speaking) birds shouldn’t be raptors or birds of prey. The issue at hand is that, evolutionarily speaking, many of these features are relatively recent.

A cladistics approach

s12052-015-0047-2-5So Plotnick et al. looked at what they could determine from paleontological records. For example, for mammals—while it is easy to determine cloven-hoofness from skeletal remains, puzzling out which animals would have been ruminants—would have chewed cud—is trickier. The authors consider looking at fossil teeth, except that the teeth of animals that do and don’t chew cud don’t differ much. And also there aren’t significant wear or chemical differences in the tooth fossils. So they use a cladistics approach—using a branching “family evolutionary tree” that traces where significant evolutionary changes took place. They trace evolutionary changes back through animals’ clades, to determine at what point which animals were likely to have the changes that would render them kosher. They then use the same approach when looking at birds/dinosaurs and insects.

Mixing evolution and scripture

The authors argue that hypothetical discussions like this could be a way to talk to faith communities about evolution, without having to engage with the Genesis passages that contradict accepted science. They write, “We would like to suggest a novel approach: that knowledge of the biblical texts can also be used to spark an interest in the concepts and methods of paleontology and evolutionary biology. Focusing on areas of the texts other than Genesis may make these ideas more interesting and palatable to people of faith.”

You can find the whole article here.

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