The first is William Paley’s Natural Theology, possibly one of the best-known defenses of Intelligent Design and the ideas of perfect adaptation (the title of course indicative of the way Science and Religion were traditionally intertwined). Natural Theology relies on inferring design from the complexity that can be seen in the world around us - Paley’s most famous analogy, that of finding a watch lying on the heath, has in recent years, come to represent the most fundamentally flawed Creationist argument: the argument of irreducible complexity (or perfect adaptation or even the argument of incredulity). The second book is Richard Dawkins’ The Blind Watchmaker and it deals with Paley’s argument on two levels: A, perfect adaptation is by no means true; there are many circumstances in which organisms could in fact be better adapted to their surroundings and B, natural processes are governed, not by the rules of a grand creator, but instead by the forces of evolution using natural selection. But even before those arguments come into play, Paley’s attitude towards Biology is taken into account. Consider Dawkins’ immediate response to Paley’s wonder at the complexities of the natural world in Chapter 1: Explaining the very improbable:
But one thing I shall not do is belittle the wonder of the living ‘watches’ that so inspired Paley. On the contrary, I shall try to illustrate my feeling that here Paley could have gone even further. When it comes to feeling awe over living ‘watches’ I yield to nobody. I feel more in common with the Reverend William Paley than I do with the distinguished modern philosopher, a well-known atheist, with whom I once discussed the matter at dinner. I said that I could not imagine being an atheist at any time before 1859, when Darwin’s Origin of Species was published. ‘What about Hume?’ replied the philosopher. ‘How did Hume explain the organized complexity of the living world?’ I asked. ‘He didn’t’ said the philosopher. ‘Why does it need any special explanation?’… Paley knew that it needed a special explanation; Darwin knew it, and I suspect that in his heart of hearts my philosopher companion knew it too.
Dawkins goes on explain Hume’s position as being one of rejecting Paley’s Argument of Design from perfect adaptation and inherent complexity. He [Dawkins] further says that despite Hume’s skepticism, he wasn’t able to provide an alternative explanation. This, of course, was provided by Darwin. The question, however, arising directly from Paley’s work that Darwin addressed was: What criterion must a process meet in order to lead to the consequence of apparent design? But interpolating from that question, what must be our immediate response when we discover the intricacies of biological mechanisms and processes, infinitely more complex and less pattern-oriented than say, a chunk of quartz crystal or a bunch of levers creating a machine? I will talk about Paley’s example of the compensation of the lack of teeth in quadrupeds by rumination which he took to illustrate a Creator’s intervention to produce the best case scenario for quadrupeds. Dawkins uses similar examples such as echolocation in bats. They both invoke design but ascribe it to different forces: Paley to the all-knowing Creator’s hand (not to be confused with Adam Smith’s invisible hand, but it is interesting how language was used so similarly in both cases), and Dawkins to natural selection.
Paley’s chapter Compensation talks about what would be called design principles in quadrupeds. The rule of thumb he explicates is this:
“The sheep, deer, and ox tribe, are without fore teeth in the upper jaw. These ruminate. The horse and ass are furnished with teeth in the upper jaw and do not ruminate.”
Fair enough. Rumination is, for those of you not well versed in Usman Qazi’s Physiology course, the act of ingesting food, softening it in the stomach, then regurgitating it so the animal can chew. This, of course, is what cows are essentially doing when they chew cud. As Paley’s rule of thumb will dictate, ruminants have thus less of a need for the faculty of front teeth in the upper jaw which is used, in non-ruminants like us, to chew and grind the food before ingesting it. (There is also one further feature that a Creator ‘intended’ to design: Paley notes that the chewing of cud seems to give the ruminant a sort of gratification, which one can tell when one is observing a cow chew cud. Thus, it is the Creator’s intention to make cows ruminate because it makes them happy!) Any Biology student will understand the sentiment behind Paley’s work: it is passionate and expresses a great deal of wonder about the biological world. The conclusions he draws from each example, what he terms a cumulative argument (apparently, ten examples which all independently conclude incorrectly might conclude correctly when put together) are that they all demonstrate a clear intention of design.
It is interesting to note how vastly the elegance of Biology and the natural world is interpreted. I keep trying to recall what I first thought of when I saw a sunflower, or dew on grass and was awestruck by its color, its texture or the first time I saw a peacock with feathers that could only have been tie-dyed to create the intricate patterns (patterns similar to the ones aunties wear in Lahore over the summer. Just saying). Did I think: there’s something that must have been created! It seems so intuitive to us to marvel at the proverbial watch on the ground and ascribe it to some invisible force, howsoever we wish to define that force, but can we definitely say that we innately ascribe it to a Creator? I happen to think that if I hadn’t been taught to continually appeal to a Creator as some sort of cop-out to actually being explained natural processes, I might have taken less time to understand Evolutionary Biology than I actually did.
Where does that leave religion? One possible (but highly unlikely) way of answering such a question would be by invoking the ideas of Matt Rossano who in a new book Supernatural Selection: How religion evolved, talks about how religion’s role in early society might actually have conferred benefits that placed a certain selection pressure on the use of imagination. I should say, however, that his ideas amuse me more than appeal to my intuition, for I do not believe we have much to gain by granting religion any kind of special place to begin with, and such explanations are likely to set bad precedent. But in terms of how modern society evolved because religion taught us how to form narratives and episodes the same way say, The OC, might unfold, it might be interesting to speculate. To read more about Matt Rossano, click here.
I’m in the habit of trying to connect ideas from places as far-flung as Jazz Music and Politics to Science. I will not do that now. I am exhausted. Thus, I will merely point you towards the third book: Tony Judt’s book Reappraisals, which I found to be excellent flight reading. Judt aims to encourage a closer reading of international policy affairs on the basis that we, leaving an age of brutality behind, have forgotten how to assimilate the lessons of the past into the politics of the present. The collection of essays forming Reappraisals is a motley crew of interesting stories: one particularly interesting was the Auschwitz story of Primo Levi. At one point, Judt quotes Levi’s essay “On Obscure Writing”:
It is not true that disorder is required in order to describe disorder; it is not true that chaos on the written page is the best symbol of the extreme chaos to which we are fated: I hold this to be a characteristic error of our insecure country.
What a wonderful defense of simple, uncomplicated writing! If only I had paid more attention to Levi, perhaps this blog post wouldn’t have turned out so convoluted. Have a wonderful summer!