I was looking through a new D&D 4.0 book today, and it got me thinking. How much can a thing change before it becomes a new thing?
Terry Prattchett has an answer; in The Fifth Elephant, one of my favorite Discworld books – one of my favorite books at all, for that matter, the Dwarf king displays his father’s axe, explaining that once the blade broke and needed to be replaced, and once it needed a new handle, and the entire paint job had been re-done, but it was still his father’s axe. It changed slowly, gradually, in small increments over time, and therefore always remained new and relevant.
Darwin has an answer; if two organisms can mate and produce fertile offspring, they’re of the same species. If not, they’ve become different animals. Again, small, gradual changes eventually result in a brand new thing. This also means the two organisms can look completely different and still share a species, still be, in some small but fundamental way, the same thing. Think poodles and Labradors. Of course, two animals can look very similar and be different; incompatible. Think horses and donkeys.
How do we apply these ideas to social Darwinism? When have two ideas diverged so much they become different, separate, possibly incompatible ideas? I pick on D&D 4.0 because, well, because it deserves the abuse. It’s changed so much that it’s no longer D&D. It’s fairly internally consistent and at the core there seems to be a good game, but the classic, beloved, memorable characters that made earlier editions so memorable cannot be recreated in this new system. It’s incompatible with the old ways, and is a new thing.
The same is true of modern fencing. There is “classical fencing”, which is a martial art, and there is “Olympic fencing”, which is a sport. They use similar equipment and terminology and look the same from the outside, but they are different enough that few people successfully and continuously do both.
So what about modern Judaism? As I’ve explored my Jewish identity recently I’ve come to question the boundaries and distinctions between denominations. How much can a denomination change and yet remain the same religion? How slowly can it change and yet remain relevant?
I suppose we could perform a Darwinistic cross-breading and see if it produces fertile offspring. I think it would.