Designing Savants: Paley, Volta, and Galvani


A few days ago, there was a good piece in the Science Times on the influence of William Paley on Charles Darwin that got me reading Paley’s refutation of the “blind watchmaker” idea.  Paley wrote the best-selling book,  Natural Theology: or, Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity (1802) in which he supported his arguments for what is now called “Intelligent Design” by using the analogy of a walker stumbling upon a watch in an open field: Would he not assume that the watch had an “artificer?”  The marvelous forms of the natural world are similarly ‘designed’ by the divine artificer.  The argument was not original with Paley, but he made it more eloquently than ever before.  It even impressed the young Darwin, who was initially destined for a career as a parson.

The author of the column, George Johnson, also has a book out called The Ten Most Beautiful Experiments which is a nice read.  I was very pleased with the chapter on Galvani’s experiments with electricity and frog’s legs, and his subsequent disputes with Volta.  Volta was wrong in his objections, but he was also right.  Galvani was mostly right, but a little bit wrong.  After the dust settled, science was advanced, but they got a bit nasty about it.  It’s a great example to explode the crude myth that science advances with regular and logical steps all in the “right” direction.

Here are two shots of Volta’s residence in Belaggio – I can’t imagine any other reason to go there! 🙂 – and an illustration from Galvani’s published experiment.


Here are some excerpts from the beginning of Paley’s work in which he almost seems to state Darwin’s thesis.  (My emphasis and comments added.)

There is another answer which has the same effect as the resolving of things into chance which answer would persuade us to believe that the eye the animal to which it belongs every other animal every plant indeed every organized body which we see are only so many out of the possible varieties and combinations of being which the lapse of infinite ages has brought into existence that the present world is the relict of that variety millions of other bodily forms and other species having perished being by the defect of their constitution incapable ot preservation or of continuance by generation. Now there is no foundation whatever for this conjecture in any thing which we observe in the works of nature no such experiments are going on at present no such energy operates as that which is here supposed and which should be constantly pushing into existence new varieties of beings Nor are there any appearances to support an opinion that every possible combination of vegetable or animal structure has formerly been tried. [Not a bad argument here.  It isn’t easy to catch natural selection at work!] Multitudes of conformations both of vegetables and animals may be conceived capable of existence and succession which yet do not exist. Perhaps almost as many forms of plants might have been found in the fields as figures of plants can be delineated upon paper A countless variety of animals might have existed which do not exist. Upon the supposition here stated we should see unicorns and mermaids sylphs and centaurs the fancies of painters and the fables of poets realized by examples Or if it be alleged that these may transgress the limits of possible life and propagation we might at least have nations of human beings without nails upon their fingers with more or fewer fingers and toes than ten some with one eye others with one ear with one nostril or without the sense of smelling at all.  All these and a thousand other imaginable varieties might live and propagate We may modify any one species many different ways all consistent with life and with the actions necessary to preservation although affording different degrees of conveniency and enjoyment to the animal And if we carry these modifications through the different species which are known to subsist their number would be incalculable No reason can be given why if these deperdits ever existed they have now disappeared Vet if all possible existences have been tried they must have formed part of the catalogue


But moreover the division of organized substances into animals and vegetables and the distribution and sub distribution of each into genera and species which distribution is not an arbitrary act of the mind but founded in the order which prevails in external nature appear to me to contradict the supposition of the present world being the remains of an indefinite variety of existences of a variety which rejects all plan. The hypothesis teaches that every possible variety of being hath at one time or other found its way into existence by what cause or in what manner is not said and that those which were badly formed perished but how or why those which survived should be cast as we see that plants and animals are cast into regular classes the hypothesis does not explain or rather the hypothesis is inconsistent with this phenomenon.  [Here he makes the argument that monkeys typing in a room for eons and producing Shakespeare is absurd, but he adds the part that is usually left out of the jibe.  He acknowledges that an “editor” exists, i.e. the ones that are badly formed die.]

Furthermore a principle of order acting and without choice is negatived by observation that order is not universal it would be if it issued from a constant and necessary principle nor indiscriminate which it would be if it issued from unintelligent principle. Where order is there we find it where order is not i e where if it prevailed it would useless there we do not find it. In the of the eye for we adhere to our in the figure and position of its parts the most exact order is maintained. In the forms of rocks and mountains the lines which bound the coasts of continents and islands in the shape of bays and no order whatever is perceived it would have been superfluous. [At that time, geology was quite popular, so I wonder if this argument went over well.] No purpose would have arisen from rocks and mountains into regular bounding the channel of the ocean by curves or from the map of the resembling a table of diagrams in Euclid’s Elements or Simpson’s Conic Sections.


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