Intelligent Designs

A recurring motif of this course has been the ubiquitous magazine Punch. Since Punch‘s satirical cartoons popped up so frequently in our discussions of the Victorian era, I thought I’d take a sidelong glance at the historical (and ongoing) evolution debates by examining a contemporary homologue of Punch cartoons to see how evolutionary ideas and general reactions to Charles Darwin’s writing have (or haven’t) changed in the last century and a half.

Advanced Technology. Image by Randall Munroe (

The idea of evolution had been debated for decades before Charles Darwin suggested natural selection as a possible mechanism behind it. And, sure enough, the theory of evolution provoked religious controversy even before Darwin gave it teeth. One of the most famous arguments for design (and against evolution) actually comes from this pre-Darwinian era. William Paley opens his [aptly named] 1800 book Natural Theology with a hypothetical scenario involving clocks and rocks. Paley explains that even somebody who knows nothing about either clocks or rocks can tell that a clock must have been designed by a conscious designer, while a rock could have happened into existence by accident. Since an organism is obviously more like a clock than like a rock, he argues/assumes, life must similarly have been designed.

I actually think Paley deserves a little more credit than he usually gets from evolutionists. His writing makes it clear that he is not stupid, and in fact, if you try to deny yourself the anachronistic advantage of hindsight, he makes a lot of sense. I was with him for a long while, through several slightly varied iterations of the clock-vs-rock scenario, but he lost me when he hypothesized a reproducing clock. He slips it in like a mere peccadillo, which hardly changes the hypothetical situation and certainly has no impact on the validity of the analogy. If a clock is obviously designed, he claims, then a clock which builds other clocks is even more obviously designed, and the more generations this goes on, the more obvious it is that the whole system was originally designed, since designedness is proportional to awesomeness! (Those might not be his exact words, but that’s the gist of it.) However, that’s a pretty death-defying logical leap. The fact is, reproduction is an exclusively organic process. Clocks do not spawn more clocks, and theyespecially do not spawn more clock-spawning clocks. And, unfortunately for Paley, this is a pretty significant game-changer. Because, honestly, it is neat how I contain a factory for making more of me.

Dilution. Image by Randall Munroe (

One of my favorite arguments against evolution is that everything in the world is just too perfect to have happened by accident. The big Charlie D responded to this argument by pointing out the evil and sadness in the world: “What a book a devil’s chaplain might write,” he said, “on the clumsy, wasteful, blundering low and horridly cruel works of nature!” I prefer to dwell on the more ludicrous bloopers of humanity – like homeopathy. It makes less than no sense, but there it is, persisting like some weird fungus in a damp corner.

This cartoon points to a more significant topic in the evolutionary debates, though: spandrels. Obviously, belief in homeopathy is not selected for. What must be selected for, then, is some aspect of our brains which allows this belief to take root; the belief itself is not the object of selection, but only a side effect of selection’s action on some other item. Many of the arguments against evolution – in 1859, in 2009, and probably in 2159 – revolve around pointing out things that seem impossible to have evolved gradually through natural selection. A popular topic of evolutionary debate in the Victorian era was humanity’s sense of morality, which seemed to have no place in the animal world whence it supposedly came. Although Darwin himself believed that humans were subject to the force of natural selection as much as any creature, many supporters of his general theory still believed that humans occupied a special place in the system; evenAlfred Russell Wallace, the man who discovered natural selection independently of Darwin, wrote on “the limits of natural selection as applied to man.” For many like Wallace, the dignity of humanity was too great to be considered a side effect of natural selection. Today, scientists are still working on testable theories of evolutionary psychology, and the morality question is a big one.

Forks and Spoons. Image by Randall Munroe (

Almost as soon as Darwin published Origin, his theory seeped into every conceivable area of Victorian thought and culture. One of the first reactions many people had to the theory was an urge to form an applied science out of it. Enter Charles Darwin’s cousin Francis Galton and the controversial word he coined: “eugenics.” There is a lot to be said on eugenics – certainly more than I have space, time, or energy for here – so please forgive this extremely incomplete picture. The concept of eugenics was scary (what if we ruin everything? what if we destroy our species, and taken the rest of the ecosystem down with us?), religiously ambiguous (are we over-ambitiously playing God? are we fulfilling His divine plan?), and often plain discriminatory (more or less designating less popular groups of people as unfit). Whatever else it may have been, though, the idea of controlling our own evolutionary destiny was, at least, very exciting. It must have felt sort of like the modern age of genetic engineering, with infinite possibility and almost equal unknown risk. Although I’m guessing that no biologist in any century has ever been attacked by a mutant spork, this frivolous cartoon alludes to a truly universal question in the history of science: how much can a biologist really be in control of his materials? If the Romantic era taught us anything, it’s how technology can turn men into monsters; once you added evolutionary theory to your toolkit, you suddenly had the power to build them more or less from scratch. It’s a terrifying and beautiful thought.

Beliefs. Image by Randall Munroe (

Religious politics seem to have formed the core of a century and a half of debate over evolution. Unfortunately, we are still no closer to an effective rebuttal against unfalsifiable claims than we were a hundred and fifty years ago. My instinctive reaction has always been to weep.

[Originally posted 8/9/10]

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