Design in Nature - Why?


Moshe Ben-Chaim



This paper departs from typical writings that are usually based on Scriptural and Talmudic analyses.


I observed the design embedded in the natural world. The Rabbis used analogy to derive truths from them. For example, in Pirkey Avos, “Ethics of the Fathers”, we find numerous comparisons between man and nature. Certain, praiseworthy qualities of animals are to be resembled by us in our dedication to God’s service. We are taught that the righteous are equated to trees with many roots. The wise are viewed as an overflowing well. King David’s first Psalm equates one who is praiseworthy to a tree, of which its leaves don’t wither, and gives forth fruit in due season. King Solomon equated Torah to a “tree of life”. We are taught to resemble water, which seeks the lowest elevation, so too, we are to seek lowliness, to be humble. Moshe instructed Pharaoh to bend like a soft reed, so as not to be broken. Rabbi Akiva took a lesson from water’s persistence that penetrated rock, and thought, he too could be penetrated by the wisdom of Torah. And God Himself uses metaphor, “As the heavens are higher from the land, so also is My way higher than yours, and My thoughts from your thoughts.” (Isaiah, 55:9)

But this is all in the realm of “moral instruction.” Similarity between nature and ideals “spills” over into other areas too.


World events and population begin with very few numbers: a species started with just two members, growing to billions. World events were initially few, causing chain reactions of more and more events.


In the food chain, smaller animals serve as food for the larger, and those, serve as food for those even greater. There is a flow of nourishment within the animal world.


On the smallest scale, plant life derives nutrients from soil and water. Nutrients are drawn up through the stem or trunk, into the branches, and to the leaves and its fruit. Even a microcosmic element of the tree - the leaf - works in this fashion. Its stem derives nourishment from the branch, and then delivers this nourishment to the leaf’s veins, and to the smallest capillary vessels. This design is identical to animal’s and human’s vein structures. Blood is pumped through larger arteries, to veins and to vessels. Also identical, are the forms of rivers emerging from snow-capped peaks. Single, large rivers are formed, which offshoot into smaller streams, nourishing all life.


On the largest scale, the universe is expanding, with all galaxies of billions of stars each, propelled away from some previously located center by some huge, “big bang.”


In all cases, a life force feeds all life along its course. Why is this design so pervasive throughout the physical world? I believe God has designed the physical world, with numerous reminders of His reality as the Single Cause and Life of the universe. Using the tree as a paradigm, there is nothing escaping this “branch design”. Not only is there parallel in structure, but the concept of a “source of nourishment” is also paralleled to God, as the Source of all life. But the design does not end in the physical world.


Let us look to the world of knowledge. At the “root” (the tree analogy again) of true knowledge of any phenomena or Torah law, is what we call a “definition”. If something is to be apprehended as what it truly is, we must define its exclusive properties. I cannot define elephant as ‘animal’ alone, as this term includes all other beasts, and does not specify the elephant’s unique design. But, if I mention the trunk, its large ears and its weight, I have come closer to what makes an elephant, an elephant. As we study any area, we see that true knowledge of anything, finds “categorization” indispensable. Without the ability to categorize, we cannot learn. “Is this an animal? A plant? A Torah law pertaining to ‘action’, or a law regarding an object’s ‘status’? Is this morality or corruption?” All these questions which lead to knowledge, partake of the system of categories. Once we successfully categorize something by its most unique quality, we have arrived at a definition of that thing - what we term as “true knowledge” of that object or phenomenon.


There are many categories in the universe. Starting with one; all of creation. Within creation, we find two categories; metaphysical and physical things. Within the physical, we find three things; objects, events and laws. Within objects, we find three categories; plants, animals and elements. As we expose each category, we delve into each member, differentiated only by quantitative variations. But the design once again appears; there is a branch-like system of categories, identical to the branches of a tree, of veins, and of rivers.


The physical world, in all its objects and workings, serves to call our attention to proper moral behavior, as is seen from the Rabbi’s comparisons. But morality is only one area of teaching. Nature’s cohesive design reminds us that there is a “Source”, from which all things and life flow. Such reminders help man return his thoughts to pondering the “Cause”, from Whom, all life owes its existence and sustenance. In knowledge, when we study any area, again we are using categories, and they too are structured with “branches” of knowledge. We trace back our categories of knowledge to a “First Cause”, as stated in the opening sentence of the previous paragraph.


Why God designed the world in such a manner, we cannot say conclusively. That is God’s knowledge. But if we see a design permeating so much of creation, we might suggest a reason. And if this reason is consistent with the primary goal of man, to acknowledge the Creator, then our assumption is all the more safe. Maimonides’ chapter in the Guide, “A Parallel Between the Universe and Man”, although aligning different parallels, may teach that our foremost thinkers made similar observations.


I end my observations with the “end” of the physical, I mean the phenomena of “decay”. This too is part of God’s design, that objects age and die, as do people. We learn that the physical is not the objective of this physical world. The physical universe is merely a vehicle which may, in part, embody parallels to truths, assisting man’s brief exploration of knowledge, guiding him into the metaphysical world of ideas. Decay teaches that our attention must not be absorbed by the temporal, but by what is eternal, and that is knowledge of the Creator. We use the temporal, physical world for its true purpose, as a means to progress into the metaphysical world of God’s wisdom. This is our purpose, our obligation, our true happiness, and our design.


For a few thousand years, Torah was not necessary in God’s eyes for man to reach his perfection as a creature pursuing knowledge. The world alone afforded man all he needed to reach his goal. However, God’s knowledge dictated that at a certain point in history, the Torah was indispensable to man’s goal, and in His kindness to mankind, God gave us a Torah system to avoid man’s shortcomings, and advance our knowledge and perfection.


“The Torah is a tree of life to those who seize it, and those who support it are made happy.” (Proverbs, 3:18)