Natural Theology, by William Paley

“Irreducible complexity” started as code for a Creationist strategy of selecting a specific wonder of nature that Darwinists were challenged to account for on purely physicalist principles. So successful have Darwinists been at meeting these challenges that they use “irreducible complexity” to refer to their inevitable success in accounting for such wonders. William Paley came up with a different strategy. Even as long ago as 1802 there were enough atheists denying the Creator credit for the wonders built into its creatures for William Paley to feel impelled to come up with an entire book-full of examples. The effect is mighty impressive and I think a lot harder to dismiss.

In over a dozen chapters with titles such as “Muscles,” “On the vessels of animal bodies,” Paley displays such a detailed understanding of  plant and animal anatomy and physiology that it is a surprise when, to illustrate the wonders of a bird’s feather, he points out the shaft comes robust enough for it to be the pen he writes with! Yes, 1802. Maybe not yet enough good steel to make pen nibs from! But plenty enough research done with microscopes to give his quill a good workout. His data does here and there fall short: “Ray likewise asserts, but I think without any grounds of exact computation, that the number of species of insects, reckoning all sorts of them, may not be short of ten thousand.”

Of course you want me to give you some examples. But I won’t. The whole point is not any one example being unusually apt but the sheer volume of examples. He takes the human body and reports, from the inside you might say, how it is marvelous from top to body, from skin to bowel. I felt my body being peeled apart, and I basked in him finding it totally marvelous. The overwhelming impression is of a numbing drumroll of hundreds of pages of marvels.

There is a crucial difference between an argument for irreducible complexity based on a single example and Paley’s roster of marvels. In “What is Life?”, where Erwin Schrodinger speculates about the properties of whatever chemical underlies inheritance, he hints at limits in how many characteristics natural selection can select for at a time—giving an example of an industry he suggests perhaps a dozen! In other words, as a master physicist/mathematician he can tell you how many features you can select for among so-many creatures reproducing over so-many generations, given a selection process of so-much efficiency. The number of features is not infinity. Yes, the evolution of any one instance such as the human eye or the motor of a protist cilia may be explicable if you imagine all the resources of natural selection being committed just to that. But to a thousand such instances? This is an altogether different challenge. At the Wistar Institute Symposium titled “Mathematical Challenges to the Neo-Darwinian Theory of Evolution” held in Philadelphia in April 1966, biologists’ cosy assumption of natural selection’s powers were found to lack basis, to put it mildly. 

So Paley's book stands as perhaps a unique collection of marvels defying easy accounting for along Darwinian lines.

Also a pleasure (if you like that sort of thing)  is Paley’s writing style. It is classic, more 18th century than 20th. Sentences are vast, with subordinate clauses galore, rolling on like music. Here is how he raises the Creationists’ challenge to account for the eye:

Were there no example in the world of contrivance except that of the eye, it would be alone sufficient to support the conclusion which we draw from it, as to the necessity of an intelligent Creator.

And then how he foretells how such single instances will not suffice:

For the sake of method, we have considered animal bodies under three divisions: their bones, their muscles, and their vessels; and we have stated our observations upon these parts separately. But this is to diminish the strength of the argument. The wisdom of the Creator is seen, not in their separate but their collective action; in their mutual subserviency and dependence; in their contributing together to one effect, and one use.

Here he points out that features cannot be constructed one by one, one gene mutation at a time as we would say, but material features and chemical features must evolve together—and control systems too, we would add: 

I have said, that chemistry and mechanism are here united: by which observation I meant, that all this machinery, would have been useless, telum imbelle, if a supply of poison, intense in quality, in proportion to the smallness of the drop, had not been furnished to it by the chemical elaboration which was carried on in the insect’s body; and that, on the other hand, the poison, the result of this process, could not have attained its effect, or reached its enemy, if, when it was collected at the extremity of the abdomen, it had not found there a machinery, fitted to conduct it to the external situations in which it was to operate, viz. an awl to bore a hole, and a syringe to inject the fluid. Yet these attributes, though combined in their action, are independent in their origin. The venom does not breed the sting; nor does the sting concoct the venom.

What atheistic doctrines does Paley think he is rebutting? I think it must be those of Lamarck. Though we are usually referred to Lamarck’s text of 1809 he was teaching his principle in Paris before that and Paley would have heard of them. Paley refers to these doctrines as “appetencies”:

the theory before us coincides with atheistic systems, viz. in that, in the formation of plants and animals, in the structure and use of their parts, it does away final causes. Instead of the parts of a plant or animal, or the particular structure of the parts, having been intended for the action or the use to which we see them applied, according to this theory, they have themselves grown out of that action, sprung from that use…. Now this extraordinary conformation is nothing more, say our philosophers, than the result of habit; not of the habit or effort of a single pelican, or of a single race of pelicans, but of a habit perpetuated through a long series of generations.

Paley titles his book “Natural Theology” and poses as an Enlightenment deist, using phrases such an “intelligent Creator.” To this Creator he attributes contrivance and design, mind and consciousness:

Wherever we see marks of contrivance, we are led for its cause to an intelligent author…. Now that which can contrive, which can design, must be a person. These capacities constitute personality, for they imply consciousness and thought. They require that which can perceive an end or purpose; as well as the power of providing means, and of directing them to their end.  The require a centre in which perceptions unite, and from which volitions flow; which is mind. The acts of a mind prove the existence of a mind; and in whatever a mind resides, is a person.

Only in the final chapters does he confess to being a Christian, and to having to written his book in defense of the Established Church. Of the reader he says:

His inward veneration of this great Being, will incline him to attend with the utmost seriousness, not only to all that can be discovered concerning him by researches into nature, but to all that is taught by a revelation, which gives reasonable proof of having proceeded from him.

Charles Darwin is said to have admired Paley’s book enormously and to have almost memorized it. But he notably differs from the view forced on Paley by his Christian belief that nature is benign

Contrivance proves design: and the predominant tendency of the contrivance indicates the disposition of the designer. The world abounds with contrivances: and all the contrivances which we are acquainted with, are directed to beneficial purposes.

IT is an immense conclusion, that there is a God; a perceiving, intelligent, designing Being; at the head of creation, and from whose will it proceeded…. It is a happy world after all. The air, the earth, the water, teem with delighted existence.

Paley subtitled his book “Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity, Collected from the Appearances of Nature.”

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Evolution for the Humanities
Natural Theology intelligent design