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.

Ray Bradbury

June 9, 2012

Ray Bradbury died at 91 this week.  Seems like he was eternal.

I read a lot of his stories as a kid, and I have revisited some of them since.  I am no fan of Sci-Fi, believing that most of it consists of plots with a single idea, more or less intriguing and clever, worked out with a style that is usually unremarkable, at best.  Bradbury’s writing rarely got above its pulp origins, which is to say it was crude, heavy-handed, often hokey, and calculated to produce a single effect.  Sort of like Poe, without the inspired weirdness.

But Bradbury had imagination, and at his best, his stories got a hook into you with their strangeness and sometimes eerie familiarity with real life.  He was, as well, a pop-poet of the Cold War nightmare of nuclear annihilation, something that seemed very near and real for thirty or forty years, back then.

I can’t remember the name of one story that has stayed with me:  a tale of men living on a planet where the nights are very short, and the sun shines with an intensity that kills in minutes those who don’t seek the shade in time.  People live in cliff side caves, but off in the distance, a metallic object can be seen glinting.  The humans have short lives, moving through birth, maturity, and death in months, as do all life forms on the hostile planet.  We realize that these are descendants of space travellers who crashed on the planet ages ago, and who have evolved in accord with the stresses of the environment.  The ship, with its complete protection from the rays of the killing sun, is just too far away to reach at a sprint in the time available before the sun rises to its deadly noon.  Until one determined fellow comes along, who just can’t shake his curiosity…

Nietzsche Reconsidered

January 14, 2012

Readers of this blog know that I have been hard on Nietzsche.  Maybe I’ve been too hard on him because of the nutty followers he attracts – but that’s not his fault.  Through the prompting of a young philosophy grad, I have been reading through The Gay Science in a ‘modernized’ edition of an old public domain translation (T. Common & B. Chapko) available on the Kindle, and I’ve found much to like.

Well, I am preoccupied with problems of knowledge and the mind-body relationship, and Nietzsche is not, but he does address many over-arching concerns of philosophy; philosophy in the general sense of a discipline that asks, “How shall we live?” or “How do we reconcile ourselves to the world as it is?” quite well.  In many ways, he is similar to what Huxley called The Perennial Philosophy, the ideas found in Zen Buddhism as well as the Twelve Steps of AA.

Step One:  I am powerless over…  Grant me the serenity to accept what I cannot change…

I want more and more to perceive the necessary characters in things as the beautiful… I do not want to accuse the accusers.  Looking aside, let that be my sole negation.  …I wish to be at any time hereafter only a yes-sayer!

Poor guy, Fred!  He lived at a time when the most stupid, racist, self-serving, and morally smug notions were trumpeted as eternal truths from the press (You vomit your bile, and call it a newspaper! – Zarathustra) and in which bald-faced lies were presented by pillars of culture as true.  Not so different from today.  In addition, a ‘muscular Christianity’ was the excuse for all sorts of international brutality and oppression over less technologically developed cultures.  Perhaps all his talk of war and battle is his metaphor for moral struggle, similar to the Islamic take on jihad, or perhaps he is ironically tweaking his contemporaries for their preoccupation with tin-horn glory, the military ‘virtues,’ and their genocidal violence – the Philosopher vs. Teddy Roosevelt.  Worth considering.

His writing shows a keen understanding of science, and of Darwinism in particular.  In his desire to embrace the whole person, intellect and instinct – he recognizes that instinct lives on, and is not eclipsed by culture – he denounces those who condemn the ‘natural’ in man.  It’s easy to take this as a romantic and irrational rebellion against the materialism and moral dogmatism of the 19th century, but he is more subtle than that.  He sees man as a unique element in nature, part of nature, but ‘existentially’ different, because aware of nature.  A difficult concept to navigate:

Let us beware against thinking that the world is a living being.  How could it extend itself?  What could it nourish itself with?  How could it grow and increase?  … Let us now beware against believing that the universe is a machine:  it is assuredly not constructed with a view to one end.

Beware New Age Gaians!  Beware vulgar mechanists!  Beware creationist teologists!

Nor is he too bad when he considers technical issues dear to my heart, such as the usefulness of assessing the nature of knowledge from a historical and Darwinian point of view, rather than a contemplative, Cartesian one:

Throughout immense stretches of time, the intellect produced nothing bu errors:  some them proved to be useful and preservative of the species:  he who fell in with them, or inherited them, waged the battle for himself and his offspring with better success.  … Those erroneous articles of faith which were successful were transmitted by inheritance and  which have all become almost the property of and stock of the human species, are, for example the following:  that there are enduring things; that there are equal things; that there are things, substances and bodies; and that at thing is what it appears to be; that our will is free; and that what is good for me is also good absolutely.

Necessary notions for the fledgling hominids.  Philosophers are not known for their rough and ready survival skills.  Logic, too, evolved from this basis, so what is its status as an ultimate truth?  And why seek for the analytic justification of it?  (Ernest Mach addressed similar questions about the fundamentals of scientific investigation.)  And this, on the ultimate epistemological notion:

Cause and effect:  there is probably never any such duality; in fact there is a continuum before us from which we isolate a few portions:  just as we always observe a motion in isolated points, and therefore do not properly see it but infer it.  … An intellect which could see cause and effect as a continuum , which could see the flux of events not according to our mode of perception, as things arbitrarily separated and broken – would throw aside the conception of cause and effect, and would deny all conditionality.

There is energy, and minds, such as they are, divide it into quanta which ‘we’ take for reality.  And the success of this strategy is the evolution of organisms with minds like ours.  But our minds are limited:

Sometimes I wonder if all these questions aren’t just a problem of scale.  As the scale of things changes, some things disappear.  As we walk around, we are not aware of quantum effects at the sub-atomic level; we aren’t even aware of molecules…  What if the same sort of effects relate to time – what would that do to our notion of causality and determinism?  As we ‘zoom’ our time-scale out to the enormous, everything would appear to be happening at more or less the same time … [from Free Will and All That]

Nietzsche, my brother?

Mentalités: Old and New

September 9, 2011

A relief in the apse of Narbonne Cathedral showing the mouth of Hell filled with damned souls.  To the right, a donkey pulls a cart with more unfortunates destined for the same.  The Virgin surmounts it all.

A storefront on a small street in Narbonne.  Not quite sure what the missing link between shopping and Darwin is, but clearly our view of mankind and its needs and ends has changed a bit.

The Human Tract

August 2, 2011

We are simply deformed cylinders, all of us.

Just take a cylinder, a hollow one, and you have a basic organism.  You just need to stretch it the long way a bit.  And make it narrower.

That space from one end to the other is just an intestinal tract.  Food goes in one end, waste comes out the other.  It’s a good, simple, durable design.  The worm, earthworm and other kinds, is a working example.

Now, you can imagine how you get this doughnut (torus) from the cylinder up above, can’t you?  Just fatten the walls a lot, and you’re done.  If you add little bumps and squeezes to it, and stretch some of the bumps into limbs, arms and legs, you would have a simple humanoid shape.  But it wouldn’t be too different from the original cylinder we started with, at least not from the topological point of view.

Just push, pinch, squeeze, and form the dough a bit until the center of the doughnut is stretched out enough to be the neck with a head on top of it, and you have a human.  This topological diagram of the human GI tract makes my point… see how the intestine just runs straight through?

Now, just what was my point?  Back to the mud…

Chabrol vs. Chesterton on cavemen among us

March 7, 2010

In Error there is truth

The universe includes everything right and wrong that can be said about it, so I always pay close attention to statements that are very, very wrong.  You might learn something!  So too, with nasty and critical comments on this blog.  I have a thick skin.

I received a nasty one recently on my post deriding William F. Buckley:

Gessi Says: March 7, 2010

“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.

Well, maybe I spoke too harshly of the recently dead, but no matter.  This jibe at my personality led me to other comments on the same post by a Libertarian Catholic blogger with whom I occasionally exchange views.  He mentioned G.K. Chesterton a lot, a man I’ve never read, and one who came up in conversation recently.  And that led me back to Chabrol, and to my lingering feeling that there was something very unsatisfying about his acclaimed film, Le boucher.

Cavemen among us

In an article by Dorian Bell, Cavemen among us*, the author connects Chabrol’s film to Zola’s novel, La bête humaine, and traces the idea that within modern “civilized” man, there lurks a primeval savage that sometimes finds its way to the surface.  This idea is very much associated with Chabrol’s film in many treatments, and Chabrol himself is quoted in the Bell article as saying, “Je me suis demande´ si l’homme était toujours “cromagnonesque.” [I asked myself, if man is always cro-magnonesque.]

Bell does a very good job of dissecting the presence of this idea in the film:  the images of flesh and meat, dialogue about butcheries, human and animal, the juxtaposition of the pre-historic cave drawings with the young children on an outing with their sophisticated teacher, etc. etc.  Unlike most critics I’ve read, he actually hits the point that Hélène is complicit with Popaul in his murders, stating (my emphasis):

Popaul’s violence seems extreme in part because it was successfully consigned to the periphery for so long.  Now it is back, borne by a returning colonial soldier whose crimes Hélène, the picture of purity, cannot bring herself to reveal. Remember that in the years leading up to Le Boucher, the state-sanctioned torture employed by France in the Algerian war had been met by many with similar silence. Complicity, like Freudian atavism, spares no one, and in the guilty figure of Hélène, Chabrol updates the thematics of atavism for the postcolonial era.

Typically, for an academic, he situates the discussion in the cross-currents of imperialism, Freudianism, and an arcane reading of la representation, but he is on to a lot of things here.  Problem is, what if you reject Freudianism?  What if you are not a Marxist?  The article assumes that these points of view are beyond question, or at least that it is not interesting to question them.  After all, how then would academics meet their quota of publications?  Alas, I wonder if Chabrol questioned them when he made this film.

Freud’s troglodytes

Underneath all this talk of atavism, primitivism, and savagery -walking through the cavemen’s haunts, Hélène asks her students on the outing, “What do we call a savage desire that has been civilized? An aspiration!”  If this were an irony, I would like it more, but I think it represents a serious attempt to make sense of civilization by Chabrol.  Why should we accept this?  Freud’s very influential but very absurd book, Civilization and It’s Discontents was surely more popular in 1970 than it is now, even in France, and it proposes the idea that civilization prospers by repressing and sublimating the savage impulses of mankind.  What is absurd is that the book was written by a man who remarked, “As a young man, I felt a strong attraction toward speculation and ruthlessly checked it.” Ah, well, maybe not quite well enough, because Civilization is little but an extended daydream.

Perhaps our ancestors were just as gentle and artistic as we are?  And here we have Chesterton, who writes of the popular notion of the caveman:

So far as I can understand, his chief occupation in life was knocking his wife about, or treating women in general with what is, I believe, known in the world of the film as ‘rough stuff.’ I have never happened to come upon the evidence for this idea; and I do not know on what primitive diaries or prehistoric divorce-reports it is founded. Nor, as I have explained elsewhere, have I ever been able to see the probability of it, even considered a priori. We are always told without any explanation or authority that primitive man waved a club and knocked the woman down before he carried her off.

We know a lot more about pre-historic man now than we did when he wrote, and this image of the caveman lives on mostly in cartoons and satire, even to the point where it has been recycled ironically as the Geico caveman who is insulted at the prejudice directed against him, but it lives on rather untouched among many intellectuals who are more interested in culture than the science of paleolithic archaeology.  Chesterton is absolutely right – what reason do we have to think that the cavemen was a savage in temperament as well as in material circumstances?   If one is committed to the Freudian view of civilization, it’s a no brainer, but what if civilization (culture) are, as someone somewhere said, simply things to make life easier? People haven’t changed that much – we just get better at making our lives run smoothly…most of the time.  The myth of atavism is just a convenient intellectual crutch for those who would rather not think the hard questions of why we are as we are.  Not so hard, after all, because we’ve always been as we are.

Does Chabrol know what a cro-magnon man was like?  Does he care?  Or has he simply used an idea in-the-air to make a taut thriller with an intellectual gloss that dazzles lots of his followers?  Hélène’s student asks her on the outing, “What would Mr. cro-magnon do if he lived with us now?”  She answers, “I don’t know, maybe he would die...”  [Of course, how could he survive in this civilized hell-on-earth?  Really, Popaul is barely making it as it is!]  Ah, but the little girl says, “Too bad, I think he would be nice.”  We are supposed to think that is childish and cute, but perhaps she understands more than her teacher.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Darwinism and materialism were subject to so much polemical vulgarization, that the elegant refutations of them by G.K. Chesterton have no interest for me, an atheist.  We’ve moved on, or at least I have, but his dissection of the caveman myth is wonderful.  Similarly, Freud’s grand theories about sex, death, and culture, whether in his own words or those of his descendants like Herbert Marcuse, should be consigned to the realm of interesting literary ideas that have had too much influence.  Nobody but scholars of French literature puts much effort into fathoming Zola’s reconfiguration of Darwin into Le Rougon Macquart cycle.  We read the books for their literary value.  Atavism, an idea for the dustbin, along with it’s twin fantasy, the noble savage.

*Dorian Bell – Cavemen among us:  Geneaologies of atavism from Zola’s La bête humaine to Chabrol’s Le boucher.   French Studies, Vol. LXII, No. 1, 39–52

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.