The Intelligent-Design Theory That Inspired Darwin

Intelligent design, then, is not some sort of anti-science, know-nothing idiocy. It's an important part of the history of science, and a necessary link in the development of Darwin's elegant theory of evolution. If birds are dinosaurs, Bill Nye is an intelligent design theologian.

That may be a bitter truth to swallow for some anti-Creationists. But the history of intelligent design raises even more uncomfortable questions for Biblical literalists like Ken Ham. Paley and his intelligent design predecessors were not, in any sense of the term, evangelical enthusiasts. On the contrary, the history of intelligent design, from Clarke through Darwin, is a history of creeping atheism. The early post-Newton forms of the argument were often associated with deism. Samuel Clarke was publicly censured for un-trinitarian opinions — he didn't believe in the divinity of Christ. Paley was cagey about his own theological commitments, but there's good reason to think they weren't far out of line with Clarke's— he caused a stir at Christ's College as a student when he proposed in a 1762 public debate to argue against the eternity of Hell's torments.

And then there's this passage from Paley's The Natural Theology:

It is a happy world after all. The air, the earth, the water, teem with delighted existence. In a spring noon, or a summer evening, on whichever side I turn my eyes, myriads of happy beings crowd upon my view. ‘The insect youth are on the wing.’ Swarms of new-born flies are trying their pinions in the air. Their sportive motions, their wanton mazes, their gratuitous activity, their continual change of place without use or purpose, testify their joy, and the exultation which they feel in their lately discovered faculties ... Other species are running about, with an alacrity in their motions, which carries with it every mark of pleasure ... If we look to what the waters produce, shoals of the fry of fish frequent the margins of rivers, of lakes, and of the sea itself. These are so happy, that they know not what to do with themselves. Their attitudes, their vivacity, their leaps out of the water, their frolics in it (which I have noticed a thousand times with equal attention and amusement), all conduce to show their excess of spirits, and are simply the effects of that excess.

Paley's biographer, D.L. LeMahieu pointed out that this reads like Wordsworthian pantheism. It's a vision of romantic, organic spirituality, largely independent of a specifically Christian God.

Ham's aware of some of these tensions, and has written dourly that intelligent design "is not a Christian movement." But distance himself as he will, 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." That was broadly Paley's goal as well. Ham, almost despite himself, is working in a tradition of intelligent design that has as much to do with deistic spiritualism as with the Bible. To the discomfort of both, the scientist and the Christian apologist are both Paley's children.

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Noah Berlatsky is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He edits the online comics-and-culture website The Hooded Utilitarian and is the author of the forthcoming book Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics, 1941-1948.

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