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Treffannosaurus Rex

Update: See relevant portion of interview transcript below.

Mark Norell, chairman and curator of the Division of Paleontology at the American Museum of Natural History, was a guest on the Leonard Lopate Show this afternoon. He has a new book out called Unearthing the Dragon: The Great Feathered Dinosaur Discovery.

It turns out, according to Dr. Norell, that the increasingly accepted notion that "birds are dinosaurs" is creating problems for some folks. Dinosaurs are reptiles, see, so if birds are dinosaurs, that means they're reptiles too, and you can't be eating reptiles and still be kosher.

Dr. Norell has been getting calls from some rabbis complaining about this revoltin' turn of events on account of what it basically means is that, for example, chicken soup is now treff, non-Kosher, kaput-ski on the Jewish Mom's Penicillin-ski.

Well, I'm not Jewish, and G-d knows I could hardly follow all the Jewish Food Minutiae I used to see on rec.arts.sf.fandom, so don't be yelling at me if any of this is wrong. I'm just reporting what I heard.

There will be a RealAudio link at that Lopate show link later today, I should think, if you want to hear it for yourselves.

Update: Direct link to RealAudio file of interview.

Update: You can also podcast WNYC.

Transcript of relevant section of the interview (begins ~ 15:30 into interview):

Leonard Lopate: Hasn't the discovery of feathers put paleontologists at odds with some other groups? Ornithologists? Creationists? Even some clergy? Mostly rabbis. What is bothering -- I can understand Creationists having a problem with this.


Mark Norell: ... As someone who is not Jewish, myself, and someone who just -- my closest connection to it is having several, you know, friends who observe kosher household rules and things like that, is -- I got a couple of letters from rabbis saying that these things couldn't be dinosaurs because then they wouldn't be kosher. That living birds wouldn't be kosher if they were considered reptiles. So --

LL: So you couldn't eat chicken because chickens came out of -- descended from reptiles. But aren't dinosaurs reptiles?

MN: Dinosaurs are reptiles.

LL: I thought reptiles were cold-blooded.

MN: No, that's a misnomer, I mean, basically, is that -- birds are reptiles also -- in modern classifications. Again, you have to think of it as a hierarchical nesting of sets. It's just humans are primates, primates are mammals, and mammals are vertebrates. In the same way, birds are dinosaurs, dinosaurs are reptiles, and reptiles are vertebrates. So, birds are a kind of dinosaur and dinosaurs are a kind of reptile.


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That would suck (altho i'm glad i don't keep kosher)

It seems rather unlikely to me; there's a list of birds that aren't kosher, and an explicit statement that all others are kosher.

It wouldn't surprise me to hear that someone argue either that dinosaurs are therefore kosher, or that birds are therefore not reptiles, but I would be astonished to hear that any mainline halachicist would be arguing that birds aren't kosher on the basis of paleontological research; in regards to halacha, explicit Biblical statements tend to trump paleontology.

(Yes, I realize that you're just reporting what you've heard. I'm just sayin', is all.)

Maybe the rabbis who wrote to him were radical right-wing Christians? :)

Why is there a list of birds that aren't kosher? What did they do, or what is it about them that makes them unclean? But most of all, what birds are on that list? I've never heard of non-kosher birds.

Ah! Never mind. I found "Is Turkey Kosher?"

Wow, that is even funnier than some of the arcane discussions i have heard regarding Muslim laws. Believe me they can get just as arcane as this (though they are pretty lax regarding food compared to orthodox Jews).

The problem, and possible out, for all this is that the folk categories the biblical laws assume are quite different from modern biological categories. Please correct me if I'm wrong, but I understand that the word 'owph in biblical Hebrew represents a folk schema that includees bats and flying insects along with the animals denoted by "birds" in English, whereas no modern biologist would dream of lumping them together.

So, theoretically, there's no problem: the Kosher laws are relative to biblical folk animal categorisation, whereas biological classifications are for scientific purposes. But here's the rub: if the modern discoveries in evolution show that the folk categories are arbitrary or represent distinctions that are in contravention of the real evolutionary relationships, then they look more and more like the product of ignorant prescientific people, which is a rather shaky basis for forming the basis of God's eternal dietrary laws. I think the conservative Rabbis are right to be worried.

... then they look more and more like the product of ignorant prescientific people, which is a rather shaky basis for forming the basis of God's eternal dietrary laws. I think the conservative Rabbis are right to be worried.

Well, I actually agree, but I've seen enough opinion on the subject of dietary laws to get the feeling that a proposition that makes sense to you and me can be dealt with in any number of complicated, basically inscrutable (to me) ways. I'd be interested to read Alter's opinion on the subject, if he's still hanging around. I think it's probably a matter of "it seems that way to those who don't believe, but for those who believe, it isn't a problem". In which case, I'm not sure the conservative Rabbis have all that much to worry about, assuming the opinions of outsiders on this subject don't matter to them particularly. Which I assume they don't.

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