Designing Savants: Paley, Volta, and Galvani

May 29, 2014


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.

The inevitable backlash

March 4, 2010

Creationists don’t understand science, but they are not stupid.  According to the NYTimes [link below], they are now latching on to the controversy over global warming to promote their faith-based agenda.  The AGW folks brought it on themselves.

I have often said that one of the worst effects of the polticization of the science by the AGW backers is that they setting us all up for a massive backlash against science.  Perhaps it has begun here.  Once you get evolution and religion mixed into it, there’s no way out.

The IPCC fans have helped bring this on by turning a scientific debate into a battle between “science” and deniers, flat-earthers, and so-called conspiracy theorists.  This view is tacitly accepted by the NYTimes as well, as evidenced by the article yesterday about the rear guard protective action the IPCC/AGW folks are trying to ginn up.  (Such know-nothing attitudes are part of the screaming, but not the substantive debate.)

For the record:

  • Creationism and Intelligent Design do not meet any criteria for consideration as scientific hypotheses.  They are notions rooted in religious faith. 
  • Evolution by mutation and natural selection is a well-founded scientific hypothesis that has been so well supported over generations that it is dignified with the designation of “Theory.”  (Theory does not mean guess, or hypothesis!  More at this post.)
  • Antropogenic global warming (AGW) is a plausible scientific hypothesis that has, I think, a very weak supporting body of evidence.
  • The sceptical view on AGW is not a theory or competing hypothesis:  It is simply a recognition that one should not be convinced by the AGW case.  The null hypothesis, that our climate system is very complex and shows many historical examples of rather wide variation remains in force.  In addition I would say that humans probably do have a noticeable impact on regional climate, but not necessarily or principally as a result of CO2 discharges.  This is a long-standing view of many climatologists and geographers.
The fact that creationists don’t accept the AGW view does not mean that those who don’t accept the AGW view are creationists.  The fact that many good critics of the IPCC are libertarians or politically conservative does not mean that one is a conservative or right winger for criticizing the IPCC.  Let’s keep politics and science separate, despite the ramblings of those deconstructionist philosophes.

Critics of evolution are gaining ground by linking the issue to climate change, arguing that dissenting views on both should be taught in public schools.

Moths & Men

March 7, 2008

Those Peppered Moths

The Peppered Moths of the area near Manchester, England hold a special place in the history of Darwin’s theory of evolution. He doubted that evolution by natural selection would ever be observed in the wild – it would be just too difficult to find it and it would happen too slowly. These moths seemed to prove him wrong and to give a huge boost to his theory when it needed one most, at the end of the 19th century.

In the 1890s and early 20th century, Darwin’s theory was under attack by people who had discovered Mendel’s ideas on genetics – totally unknown to Darwin because they were published and then forgotten for a generation or so – and by other evolutionists who favored Lamarckian ideas or more mystical fare. The idea of evolution itself wasn’t in danger of abandonment, but the mechanism, was disputed, and there were implications from that. Darwin, himself, without benefit of Mendel, was somewhat fuzzy and uncommitted in his notions of precisely how selected traits were passed on, even though he was confident in the outlines of his theory. Only in the 1920s to the 1940s was synthesis worked out that joined modern genetics to Darwin’s theory, wrapping it all up in a rigorous bundle.

Along the way, there were those moths. They seemed to clinch Darwin’s case because as the air around England, especially Manchester, grew black with smoke, the trees too were blackened under a pall of soot. Of course, the mutant black variety of the moth would be less visible to predators and would tend to squeeze out the white moth in the local populations. That’s exactly what was observed – the populations did change. It fit nicely with Darwin’s theory, but it turns out that the science behind the field observations was not so reliable. In fact, it may have been downright wrong.

Judith Hooper has narrated this story in her book, Of Moths and Men: An Evolutionary Tale. I happen to think she’s a rather good writer and that she does a very good job at explaining the details of how Darwinian Theory was given a firm quantitative and experimental basis with genetics. Yes, she’s a journalist, and she wants to tell a good story, so she emphasizes personalities a lot, but that stuff is part of the day to day mess of scientific advancement. Scientists are people like anyone else: it’s just that they all subscribe to a culture that provides some ruthlessly objective methods for winnowing fact from fiction. It can take a while, however.

I find it very interesting that this book is cited by creationists as “evidence” for the stupidity of Darwinian Theory. Does the fact that one piece of evidence may be wrong mean the entire Darwinian theoretical structure is wrong? Does it matter that this example was highly publicized and included uncritically in inumerable textbooks? Is this an evidence for a conspiracy? I think it just shows two things: science is hard; most people don’t bother too much about scientific details – especially textbook publishers. (This fact was discussed a year or so ago in the context of scientific “cliches” about basic physics.) After all, the principals in the controversy were all scientists, all evolutionists, mostly Darwinians, and none was a creationist or proponent of “Intelligent Design,” yet these know-nothings will trumpet this controversy as proof that Darwin is a fraud. (See Icons of Evolution.) The simple fact is, as one blogger put it, these people use their religion to “correct” science.


March 6, 2006

From an obituary in the NYTimes for Henry M. Morris, the father of “creation science.”

[He]… showed that there were scientific answers to be able to defend the Christian faith and uphold the Bible’s account,”…

Well, there you have it. The basic contradictions behind all this hullaballo about Darwin and Intelligent Design, so called.  Scientific answers to defend the Christian faith…! The rank insecurity of it all! Who says the faith needs defending!? And I’m an atheist! And why would religion lean on the crutch of science for defense?

These creationists have a weak religion indeed. They surrendered to the modern world long ago by accepting the primacy of science and seeking to manipulate it to their ends. But they are in deep denial about it, and cannot accept their own spiritual perfidy.

Reason Triumphs!

December 21, 2005

Another pseudopod heard from!

Judge Jones, a conservative, a republican, appointed by George Bush, Sr., has issued a sweeping ruling that places the claims of the Intelligent Design science-bashers into the dustbin where they belong. From his ruling, as reported in the NY Times, emphasis added:

It is notable that defense experts’ own mission, which mirrors that of the IDM itself, is to change the ground rules of science to allow supernatural causation of the natural world, which the Supreme Court in Edwards and the court in McLean correctly recognized as an inherently religious concept… First, defense expert Professor Fuller agreed that ID aspires to “change the ground rules” of science and lead defense expert Professor Behe admitted that his broadened definition of science, which encompasses ID, would also embrace astrology. Moreover, defense expert Professor Minnich acknowledged that for ID to be considered science, the ground rules of science have to be broadened to allow consideration of supernatural forces.

To be sure, Darwin’s theory of evolution is imperfect. However, the fact that a scientific theory cannot yet render an explanation on every point should not be used as a pretext to thrust an untestable alternative hypothesis grounded in religion into the science classroom or to misrepresent well-established scientific propositions.

The citizens of the Dover area were poorly served by the members of the Board who voted for the ID Policy. It is ironic that several of these individuals, who so staunchly and proudly touted their religious convictions in public, would time and again lie to cover their tracks and disguise the real purpose behind the ID Policy.

Those who disagree with our holding will likely mark it as the product of anactivist judge. If so, they will have erred as this is manifestly not an activist Court. Rather, this case came to us as the result of the activism of an ill-informed faction on a school board, aided by a national public interest law firm eager to find a constitutional test case on ID, who in combination drove the Board to adopt an imprudent and ultimately unconstitutional policy. The breathtaking inanity of the Board’s decision is evident when considered against the factual backdrop which
has now been fully revealed through this trial. The students, parents, and teachers of the Dover Area School District deserved better than to be dragged into this legal maelstrom, with its resulting utter waste of monetary and personal resources.

Design De-Signed

February 7, 2005

The intellectual confusion that is at the core of the so-called Intelligent Design Theory was on display once again in this mornings’ NYTimes in the opinion piece, “Design for Living” by Michael J. Behe. Let’s do him the favor of assuming he’s honest, and not some stooge for the religious right, and examine his ‘arguments’ such as they are.Okay, so according to him, the proponents of ID do not doubt that evolution and natural selection occur, simply that they are not sufficient to explain the organisms we see. Lets say right off that that ends the argument. If they can show that current theories are inadequate, and they can propose a new one that can be proved to fill in the gaps, good for them! But what does that have to do with ID? Asserting that complexity theory or the permutations of cellular automata may be a crucial element in explaining evolution does not contradict Darwin’s theory (if the assertions are ever proved) any more than Mendellian genetics did. And it certainly does not support the notion of ID.

At the core of his position is a deep prejudice which he makes clear with his statement, “…we often recognize the effects of design in nature.” NO! That was precisely what Darwin showed to be false. Are we back in the 18th century when we must listen to pontificating natural theologians rambling on…”Notice, we have two feet, perfect for shoes, and noses, perfect to hold our glasses…” I suggest that an alien visiting earth from another galaxy (where are those guys when you need them?) might have difficulty recognizing Mt. Rushmore as ‘designed’, especially if their life forms were radically different from ours. Anthropologists often have trouble distinguishing ancient tools from randomly chipped shards found in their digs – is design really so obvious? I think not, unless you have already decided it is prevalent.

Mr. Behe never explains what design is, because he doesn’t know or care. It just explains everything he can’t easily explain now. Sounds like a religious idea to me. If you stop assuming design is present everywhere, you stop seeing it…if you have another explanation, which we do have.

I truly enjoyed his comment that scientists are probably gritting their teeth and muttering, “It wasn’t designed, not really,” despite their ‘common sense’ knowledge that it ‘obviously’ is designed. Yes, reminds me of a Polish astronomer I once knew who looked at the heavens and said, “It’s not really spinning around the earth, not really. It goes around the Sun.” He said that even though his eyes suggested that the solar system did revolve around the earth. Hadn’t people noticed it for centuries? We have to believe our eyes, but we also have to know that sometimes we just don’t know what we’re looking at. Alas, the world may look like the toy ground on the lathe of the Great Toymaker in the sky, but it ain’t.

Some of Behe’s arguments are simply rehashes of anti-Darwin screeds from the 19th century, such as his claim that “no research studies indcate that Darwinian processes can make molecular machines of the complexity we find in the cell.” Seems to me that the entire thrust of biological research over the last hundred years, including micro-biology and physiology, all of which employ Darwin as a foundation element, are just that. There is nothing so far that CANNOT be explained with Darwinian mechanisms. We are back, once again, to the Bishop Wilberforce pseudo-arguments about the eye being too complex for it to be the product of ‘random’ evolution. (Of course, we know that evolution is not random.)

The circular arguments of this pathetic exposition are capped by his fourth argument in which Behe asserts that the “strong appearance of design” is a simple and strong argument in favor of ID. That which we desire to prove is the proof of what we desire to prove. Great logic! And I have to disagree that Darwin was “laboring to explain” the profound appearance of design in biological life. He was working to explain how species came about, and the resolution of the false appearance of design is simply an after affect. And how do species come about, Mr. Behe?

Finally he appeals to a vox populi argument: most people don’t accept Darwin’s theory, therefore it’s justified to discard it. We won’t settle the issue by arguing over definitions – especially when he won’t define any of his terms. And science should “keep looking for another explanation in case one is out there.” Yup, go to it, Mr. Behe. Do your theorizing, publish your experimental results, and good luck to you. If you can disprove Darwin, you will be hailed as a great man, but the fact that you are on your quixotic quest for ID does not prove that it is valid.

Mr. Behe says it doesn’t seem useful to search for non-design explanations of Mt. Rushmore. He takes the humanly created and the natural world to be all of a piece, no distinctions. Ah, yes, those Alps, so beautifully designed, surely there must be a supreme artist…The marvelous thing about culture is that it is created by us, the thinking ones. Do we have evidence that the raw material of the world was similarly created, other than an intellectual weakness to assume that what’s good for the goose is always good for the gander?

But, you know, I’m tired of this. I give up. Let’s grant Mr. Behe his argument. Intelligent Design rules! Yahooo! Now, please explain to me: who or what is the intelligent designer; if it’s not a superhuman god, then how is it different from unintelligent design? If you don’t know, what on earth does your theory add to our knowledge of the world?

Much of the confusion and delusion of this piece stems from one basic idea. ID advocates think that because Darwinians have not explained every element of every complex organism of interest, they cannot explain anything. But when they do attempt to explain organisms’ evolution, they succeed. But to explain the details of complex organisms that have evolved over tremendous reaches of time…that’s a work in progress. But there is only one path to the end as of now, and each small step it takes is solid. This explains the confusion, but it doesn’t excuse it. Fact is, Newton’s laws of gravitational attraction are pretty simple and straighforward, but last I heard, it still isn’t possible to accurately solve for the motion of three bodies that are mutually attracting one another simultaneously. It’s too difficult for us now. Does that mean Newton was wrong?

One for Our Side!

January 14, 2005

Yesterday, a judge in Cobb County Georgia struck down a law that mandated stickers on high school biology textbooks with the following message:

“Warning this text contains material on evolution. Evolution is a theory, not a fact. Students should approach this material with an open mind, and examine it critically.”

He ordered that the school board remove the stickers immediately, and said that they constituted a violation of the establishment clause, i.e., the separation of Church and State. Bravo, judge!

The learned jurist quite sensibly ruled that since the stickers referred only to evolution, not to the Krebs Cycle, the structure of DNA, the nature of the cell, or other established facts of biology, that this was a focused and unconstitutional attempt by one group to impose its religious views onto the public school students. I don’t know what arguments the lawyers made, but I hope they pointed out that evolution IS a fact! If it is not a fact, none of the rest of the material in the textbook is fact, which is implicit in the judge’s ruling. The poor understanding of science that runs rampant in our society makes it possible for people to trade on semantic slipperiness about the words ‘theory’ and ‘fact.’

In ordinary language, people use the word theory to mean a guess, a hunch, a supposition, or a reasonable hypothesis, but in science, that’s how theories start. Then they are reviewed and tested relentlessly by people who would often like nothing so much as to gain glory by disproving their colleague’s theory with a factual counter-example. (Contrast this with the religious-dogmatic point of view that arrives at a conclusion and then simply searches for reasons to support and justify it.) Theories that make the grade are finally accepted as facts, e.g. the Copernican Theory of the solar system, the Newtonian Theory of Universal Gravitation, the Lavoisier Theory of oxygen, and Darwin’s Theory of Evolution by natural selection.

When a theory is a big, earth-shaking concept, our tendency to call it a theory lingers long after it has been proven again and again. We still talk about the Theory of Relativity because it is such an important concept with so many ramifications. For theories that aren’t so awe inspiring, we drop the theory moniker – nobody talks about Lavoisier’s theory of oxygen anymore because we all know that oxygen exists. We speak about the dead theory he destroyed, the Phlogiston Theory, and in this case, the word theory carries a negative connotation of an idea that was floated, and sank. Scientists are a hard headed bunch – they are not much interested in semantic controversy. That’s the purview of philosophers and dogmatic cranks, so they don’t have any difficulty with the false paradox that a theory, one that is accepted as proved, still is in some small way open to doubt because sometime in the future something that undermines it might turn up. How open minded of them! But know-nothings exploit this semantic difficulty, and the rigorous skepticism of the scientific community to try and further their absurd claims that evolution is just a theory, not a fact.

I bet that most of the people who want this sticker don’t have any problem with the fact of gravity, but actually, there’s probably more scientific controversy over this theory than evolution. Issac Newton never explained the nature of gravity, and he posited it as a force that acts over a distance without intervening material. The theory of the aether was junked at the turn of the 20th century with the Michelson-Morley experiment – space is just that, empty space. Pure and unadulterated. But nowadays, from what I hear about theoretical physics, everything, even gravity, has its source in particles. I won’t weigh in on this as it’s above my head by miles, but you catch my drift. Lets put warning stickers on physics texts, eh?