A Memory of William F. Buckley

Monkey Typing Shakespeare

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.

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7 Responses to A Memory of William F. Buckley

  1. softwarenerd says:

    As one of the key intellectuals who sought an increased role of religion in America, Buckley set the country back many decades.

  2. I think the biggest problem with evolution is that the gap between human beings and apes is, if genetically small, than rather prodigious in actuality.

    Chesterton discusses this in the first couple chapters of The Everlasting Man, and we’ve already discussed the consciousness problem.

    Serious question: are free will and evolution compatible?

  3. lichanos says:

    …biggest problem with evolution is that the gap between human beings and apes is, if genetically small, than rather prodigious in actuality.

    Why is this a problem? Apes look very different from humans to you! Perhaps monkees see less of a difference! (Topologicially speaking, a doughnut, a human, and an earthworm are all the same. Don’t be taken in by superficialities.) Why assume that appearance, as judged by you is proportionate to genetic diversity?

    This is an example of the pitfalls of “common sense” uninformed by scientific fact.

    …are free will and evolution compatible?

    Why on earth not? The big Creationist knock against evolution is that it is random. It is not, but if it were, that would preclude predestination and determinism, and so, leave “room” for free will. It’s not predestined either. Why is free will in conflict with evolution by natural selection? Totally separate issues.

  4. Apes look very different from humans to you!

    I’m not talking about appearance. To quote Chesterton, “man does differ from the brutes in kind and not in degree; and the proof of it is here; that it sounds like a truism to say that the most primitive man drew a picture of a monkey and that it sounds like a joke to say that the most intelligent monkey drew a picture of a man. Something of division and disproportion has appeared; and it is unique. Art is the signature of man.”

    He goes into it in further detail, and it’s worth checking out when you can find the time.

    Why is free will in conflict with evolution by natural selection?

    How did we evolve the ability to choose freely? There may be a valid answer, but I can’t seem to get my mind wrapped around it.

  5. lichanos says:

    I’m not talking about appearance.

    I wasn’t either.

  6. Gessi says:

    “But only a blockhead or someone uninterested in testing their ideas would be so confident that there is nothing more to know.” And yet the author of this blog is just as arrogant in his certainties as Buckley.

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