When I think of William F. Buckley Jr., I think of a piece he wrote for the New York Times Op-Ed page a few years ago on Darwin and “Intelligent Design.” (I cannot find the piece in the Times archive online, and I’d be grateful for a link. I know my memory of it is correct, because Buckley refers to the piece himself elsewhere.) In that piece, he reprised an argument that he had used before, and that has been popular with religious anti-evolution critics since Darwin first published his theory.
Simply stated, the argument is that organisms are too complex and perfectly suited to their environments to have evolved by random mutation. To bring this home, Buckley and others employ, with various degrees of derision and sarcasm, the reductio ad absurdum of the room with ten monkeys and ten typewriters on which they bang away happily, and randomly. Could we expect this monkey business to produce Shakepeare’s Hamlet? Well…since the play has a finite number of words, and since the number of possible combinations of the letters in the text of the play is finite, albeit unfathomably large, it is possible if there were enough time provided for the (immortal) simians to do their work. Now, Darwin shivered at the colossal lengths of time his evolutionary scheme required, but that was as nothing compared to the duration we are contemplating here! Intelligent Design triumphs?
Of course, the entire argument is based on a complete misunderstanding, a profound ignorance of what Darwin’s theory entails. Evolution is not a random process. Genetic mutations occur randomly, but their selection and propagation is based on their survival value for the organism. As Ernst Mayr says, it’s a two-step process: mutation, then selection. Sort of as if those tapping monkeys had an editor in the room looking at their output, saving the good scraps of random prose, and somehow feeding that back into the process. Except, of course, the “editor” in evolution is not intelligent or active, but only the blind, crushing, indifferent force of the environment that leads to the disappearance by death or disuse of most mutations.
This fundamental ignorance is how I recall Buckley. He was clever and genial, and ever willing to evade a hard question. When verbal puffery wouldn’t do, he would employ snide humor, innuendo, or sarcasm. He was serenely confident of his opinions, bigotted and otherwise, and acted as though it was bizarre that anyone would question them. When an interviewer asked him if he had felt isolated from “real life” as a young man – he was home schooled – he replied that no, of course not. After all, you don’t need to experience things to understand them. He read a lot. Yes, true, reading is wonderful. But only a blockhead or someone uninterested in testing their ideas would be so confident that there is nothing more to know.