Berlatsky’s History Lesson, Part 1

Over at The Atlantic recently (February 8, 2014), reacting to the Bill Nye/Ken Ham debate, Noah Berlatsky offered to set the controversy in historical perspective, writing, “The ferocity of the debate makes it difficult to remember that, at one point not so long ago in geological time”—the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries—“religion and science weren’t all that distinct,” and contending that intelligent design, sensu lato, “wasn’t something invented after Darwin to oppose him; rather it was the context for, and a building block of, his work.” There’s a lot in Berlatsky’s column that’s right, and the general point that it is useful to understand the Nye/Ham debate against the broad sweep of the interaction of religion and science over the last five hundred years is, I think, undeniable. But there are a lot of little details that he flubs, as well as a serious misunderstanding of Ham’s project, and it’s these that I propose to discuss.

First, Berlatsky writes, “intelligent design—the belief that you could find God’s hand by examining creation—was seen as a way to glorify both God and the ordered laws of physics revealed by Newton.” The main problem I have is with the possibility for misunderstanding induced by the use of the term “intelligent design” here. Certainly it’s a reasonable if anachronistic label to apply to the historical view that Berlatsky describes here, but it’s in common use nowadays to apply to a specific antievolutionary campaign with its origins in the 1980s, and continuing today, as South Dakota’s recent Senate Bill 112, which if enacted would have provided that “[n]o school board or school administrator may prohibit a teacher in public or nonpublic school from providing instruction on intelligent design or other related topics,” demonstrates. Distinguishing explicitly between the two uses of the term would have been helpful.

Second, in saying that the argument for biological design “was the most sophisticated form of the intelligent design argument” and in discussing only William Paley’s version of it (and emphasizing Darwin’s engagement with it), Berlatsky seems to be implying that Paley’s argument for biological design was the most sophisticated form of the intelligent design argument. Thus wholly unaddressed are the post-Paleyan developments in British natural theology, particularly the Bridgewater Treatises (1833–1840), eight books funded by the will of the Earl of Bridgewater (who died in 1829) intended to update Paley with the latest science. And the Bridgewater Treatises also influenced Darwin: he read at least two and a half of them (Peter Mark Roget’s, William Whewell’s, and half of William Buckland’s), and indeed, one of the epigraphs to the Origin of Species is from Whewell’s, Astronomy and General Physics considered with reference to Natural Theology (1833).

Third, Berlatsky writes, “Hume had shot largish holes in the Newtonian design argument, and Paley as a consequence granted that astronomy was ‘not the best medium through which to prove the agency of an intelligent Creator’” (emphasis in original). True, Paley clearly had studied Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (1779), and there are aspects of his Natural Theology (1802) that seem clearly designed to deflect Humean arguments. But Paley (pictured above) didn’t concentrate on biology rather than astronomy because Hume concentrated on astronomy rather than biology or because Hume’s critiques of astronomical arguments for design are better than his critiques of biological arguments for design: he didn’t and they aren’t. Rather, Paley regarded biological arguments as having the advantage of readily accessible data: the objects of astronomy are simply too distant for their design to be readily apparent.

Fourth, after quoting John Durant as saying that “Paley unwittingly transformed his defence of theism into a model of naturalistic explanation,” Berlatsky adds, “That ‘naturalistic explanation’ is only a step away from Darwin’s natural selection.” I can’t understand his addition, except as a non sequitur or a pun—“natural” in “naturalistic explanation” contrasts with “supernatural,” while “natural” in “natural selection” contrasts with “artificial.” (Parenthetically, Hume makes the relevant distinction in his Treatise of Human Nature [1739/1740], III.i.2.) Moreover, it’s not as though Paley lacked any inklings about natural selection. As I noted before (in “Did Paley Anticipate Behe?”), Paley considers a protoevolutionary account of apparent biological design involving natural selection in Natural Theology, dismissing it on the grounds that if it were true, “we should see unicorns and mermaids” and similar chimeras.

Fifth, as a result of the ambiguity of the term “intelligent design,” Berlatsky seems to be suggesting (perhaps not intentionally) that Samuel Clarke’s celebrated argument for the existence of God—presented in his Boyle lectures for 1704–1705, published as A Demonstration of the Being and Attributes of God (1705)—was a version of the argument from design. It was not; it was a version of the cosmological argument. In brief, Clarke argued that something exists now; something cannot come from nothing; so there has always been something; if there has always been something, then either there is a chain of things extending eternally back into the past or a single eternal thing; such a chain could not exist of itself; so there is a single eternal thing: God. True, Clarke liked the argument from design too—he reputedly thought that it was easier to understand than the cosmological argument—but it’s the cosmological argument for which he’s remembered.

These are quibbles, of course, and you have to be relatively immersed in the details of early modern philosophy to know, or to care, about most of them. But Berlatsky also manifests a serious misunderstanding of what Ken Ham is up to, writing, “Ham’s project continues, as creationist G. Shane Morris says, to use nature as ‘a kind of baptized laboratory where the goal is to compel the evidence of the natural world to support a certain Scriptural hermeneutic.’” (I thought that I knew of all the creationist Morrises, from Henry M. to John D. to Henry III—all associated with the Institute for Creation Research, which Henry M. founded—but G. Shane is new to me; Berlatsky quotes from but fails to link to his February 4, 2014, op-ed in The Christian Post about the Nye/Ham debate.) Berlatsky adds, “That was broadly Paley’s goal as well.” That’s not true, for interesting and underappreciated reasons. I shall explain in part 2.

Glenn Branch
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Glenn Branch is Deputy Director of NCSE.
We can't afford to lose any time when it comes to the future of science education.

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