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.


September 25, 2008

I got an email from a believer today:  “How can you believe there is no God?  Just stop and look around at creation.”

Well, I frequently do just that.  A non sequitur if I ever heard one!

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.

A Memory of William F. Buckley

February 29, 2008

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.

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?

Jeepers, creepers, where’d you get those peepers?

December 13, 2004

Today I read in the newspaper that conservative groups throughout the nation, emboldened by their success in the presidential election, are pushing their initiatives at the state level. In Kansas, they have one the majority of the State Board of Education, and they will once again try to have the “Theory of Intelligent Design” inserted into school textbooks on biology. Let’s put this one to rest.

The so-called theory of Intelligent Design is not a scientific theory at all – it is a religious creed. And notice the subtle word-play…”Intelligent Design” as opposed to dumb-ass haphazard natural selection. Sort of like being pro-life instead of anti-abortion, despite a readiness to fry people in the electric chair. The notion, let’s call it that, is an old one, most memorably discussed by William Paley, a theologian, who asked, if we came upon a pocket watch in a meadow, would we not assume it was designed by an intelligent maker rather than having come about by chance and happenstance?

Well, if you are an educated urbanite with experience of machines, yes, I guess so, but so what. What if you are a 2oth century scientist and you come upon a glittering hard-edged thing that emits radio signals? Animal, vegetable, or mineral? Evolved organism, or designed machine? These Intelligent Design people love to try and prove everything in their religious system with a science they do not understand. They assume that the reasoning that they apply to things they see in our world apply to the natural world, but they have no reason to think that other than that this is how they are used to thinking. And when the 20th century scientist encounters the glittering thing, he cannot fall back on that happy way of viewing the world because he doesn’t even know if what he is looking at is alive! Our Mr. Paley in the meadow knows a machine when he sees one – why does he assume that nature is the same as a machine? Aha, he’s a closet Newtonian!! It’s easy to ennunciate a ‘theory’ built on an absurdly simple example chosen to appeal to unthinking ‘common sense.’

No, Intelligent Design explains nothing. Leaving aside the origin of the Intelligent Designer, it tells us nothing about how species change and arise. Most important, it is NOT a scientific theory. It cannot be tested, there are no experiments that verify it or refute it, and it cannot even be formulated except as a piece of wishful thinking built on predjudice, i.e., that our machine oriented view of things is the only way to think about them. The fact is, the natural world was NOT designed, and that is the wonder and beauty of it.

Of course, chance plays a big role here, and this is probably the most widely disseminated piece of mis-information about evolution that there is, i.e., that it is a random process. Nope – mutations are random, natural selection is not. If a mouse gives birth to a two-headed mouse, that mutation will fail, and die. If it gives birth to a mouse with super-eyesight, that mouse might survive, pass on the trait, and those mice might survive better, at a greater rate, and pass on the trait, and so on. It is not a chance process at all. In fact, computer simulations have re-enacted the evolution of the eye, and it doesn’t take as long as you might think – just a couple of tens of millions of years is all.

People seem to think, or want to believe, that a theory is the same as an opinion. It’s not. Darwin’s theory is an established fact. We only call it a theory to make clear that it is a proposition that was developed, tested, and proven by the scientific method. It is not a theory in the sense of speculative thinking. It is not a hypothesis – it has been proven too many times. Ordinary people use the word theory in a much looser way, but that is not what Darwin’s theory is. It’s rock solid – get over it, creationists! Yes, it is still tested, and sometimes challenged, but only regarding specific details of how it works out in the natural world.

If these people want the Theory of Intelligent Design included in the biology textbooks, then we must be more open minded. I want the theory of Satanic origins included, and the Native American creation theories there too. And what about the great Hindu theories of creation, eh? No end to it….