Curioser and curioser….

After many false starts I’ve actually started to write my “treatise” on evolution, some of the pages I’ve been turning out being in note form (I want to get the ideas down and then fill in the exact details later when I can pick up the proper reference books from the shelf) while others resemble actual passages and are in a near-finished form. My work isn’t going to be a chronological overview of the history of life like many other books, but will instead take a more personal approach reflecting how I’ve come to understand evolution and how it proceeds. Differing rates of change, convergence, etc. are going to be the guideposts to the tour of life on earth, and I hope that my motley assortment of chosen examples and evolutionary “narratives” will make sense to the reader (if it ever gets finished and published, of course).

Indeed, last night I started to seriously get down to work on the project, and in contemplating how to begin the section on convergence my mind kept going back to the museums of Hunter and Cuvier, shared function within (Cuvier) or across (Hunter) groups of organisms being most important in determining displays. While I still have plenty of research to do on Cuvier, his idea that organisms possessed finely-tuned systems to achieve certain ends in which no part could be modified or removed reminded me of some other ideas about natural history. An example would be the idea that a lion is a living system in which the teeth, claws, vision, digestive system, etc. must be all finely integrated with no change, such a notion recalling the argument of “irreducible complexity” from intelligent design. This was driven home even further when I re-read the first three chapters of William Paley’s 1802 book Natural Theology, Paley’s watchmaker argument seeming to borrow heavily from Cuvier’s ideas of nature. I am not enough of a historian of science to know the answer at this moment, but it appears that contemporary intelligent design has even deeper roots that I first suspected. While Natural Theology reads like a playbook for the Discovery Institute, Paley’s ideas echo those of Cuvier, but this is curious as Cuvier was not very much concerned with natural theology. Although Cuvier abhorred evolution, constantly being confronted with it by Lamarck and St. Hilaire, his focus on organisms having a “purposeful arrangement of parts” appears to stem from his desire to make biology a “hard science” with mathematical laws like chemistry or physics. Indeed, Cuvier seemed to be trying to find laws of nature that would have sufficient predictive power to determine the forms of creatures (rather than creating a phylogeny first and then trying to determine the laws), but ultimately Cuvier’s ideas could not successfully make sense of the diversity of life.

This realization came as a bit of a surprise; from what I’ve seen of ID advocates, they often do not seem to have a strong hold on their own intellectual history, the brand of creationism proffered by the Discovery Institute today being nearly indistinguishable from Paley’s arguments made more than two centuries ago (the main difference being the exchange of flagella for the eye or other organ). While I’m sure that “natural theology” could be traced back even further than the 18th and 19th centuries in various ways, it seems that modern intelligent design was unceremoniously cribbed from Paley who was himself influenced by the attempts of Cuvier to determine the grand scheme of nature, the whole enterprise being based on faulty foundations. Where Cuvier failed to fully reconcile homology, convergence, diversity, and Linnean classification, Darwin’s mechanism of natural selection made sense of the seemingly disparate lines of evidence, the explanatory power of natural selection being impossible to ignore. It is a shame, then, that creationists have unceremoniously stolen some of Cuvier’s concepts and renamed them, the idea of a finely-tuned and immutable nature existing as a sort of intellectual zombie, not allowed to be fully recognized or die. Hopefully I’ll be able to devote a more rigorous treatment to this topic in the near future, but it does seem that there is nothing new under the sun when it comes to creationism.

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