Wednesday, April 25, 2007


The Father to the Idea

John Wilkins, having already condemned me to an attempt to understand the arguments over teleology by wantonly throwing The Philosophy of Biology by Marjorie Grene and David Depew in my path, has this wonderful quote from Thomas Henry Huxley that might have shortened the process greatly:

According to Teleology, each organism is like a rifle bullet fired straight at a mark; according to Darwin, organisms are like grapeshot of which one hits something and the rest fall wide.
This is the whole of the argument over Intelligent Design Creationism in a single sentence. It comes from a collection of Huxley's essays entitled Criticisms on "The Origin of Species" (1864).

While the above is a wonderful summation, there's no reason to stop there, especially since it was Darwin who was being accused of teleological thinking by a critic:

For the teleologist an organism exists because it was made for the conditions in which it is found; for the Darwinian an organism exists because, out of many of its kind, it is the only one which has been able to persist in the conditions in which it is found.

Teleology implies that the organs of every organism are perfect and cannot be improved; the Darwinian theory simply affirms that they work well enough to enable the organism to hold its own against such competitors as it has met with, but admits the possibility of indefinite improvement. But an example may bring into clearer light the profound opposition between the ordinary teleological, and the Darwinian, conception.

Cats catch mice, small birds and the like, very well. Teleology tells us that they do so because they were expressly constructed for so doing -- that they are perfect mousing apparatuses, so perfect and so delicately adjusted that no one of their organs could be altered, without the change involving the alteration of all the rest. Darwinism affirms on the contrary, that there was no express construction concerned in the matter; but that among the multitudinous variations of the Feline stock, many of which died out from want of power to resist opposing influences, some, the cats, were better fitted to catch mice than others, whence they throve and persisted, in proportion to the advantage over their fellows thus offered to them.

Far from imagining that cats exist in order to catch mice well, Darwinism supposes that cats exist because they catch mice well -- mousing being not the end, but the condition, of their existence. And if the cat type has long persisted as we know it, the interpretation of the fact upon Darwinian principles would be, not that the cats have remained invariable, but that such varieties as have incessantly occurred have been, on the whole, less fitted to get on in the world than the existing stock.
Note the example of Huxley using the term "Darwinism." Instead of all the meanings that creationists would pour into the term -- materialism, atheism, rebellion from God -- to Huxley it means nothing more than the observation that cats are what they are because there is a living to be made by catching mice.

If we apprehend the spirit of the "Origin of Species" rightly, then, nothing can be more entirely and absolutely opposed to Teleology, as it is commonly understood, than the Darwinian Theory. So far from being a "Teleologist in the fullest sense of the word," we should deny that he is a Teleologist in the ordinary sense at all; and we should say that, apart from his merits as a naturalist, he has rendered a most remarkable service to philosophical thought by enabling the student of Nature to recognise, to their fullest extent, those adaptations to purpose which are so striking in the organic world, and which Teleology has done good service in keeping before our minds, without being false to the fundamental principles of a scientific conception of the universe. The apparently diverging teachings of the Teleologist and of the Morphologist are reconciled by the Darwinian hypothesis.
In speaking of reconciliation, Huxley is, I think, harking back to Kant's position that teleology is a heuristic -- a way of organizing our thoughts about organisms usefully -- but one which, if rashly turned into an attribution of divine purpose, will merely serve to stifle knowledge. Thinking about cats as perfect mouse catchers may help us to see the attributes that make them as good at what they do as they are, and serves the purpose of any "just so" story, in suggesting ways to further study those adaptations and similar ones in other species. We only err when we mistake the "just so" for evidence or, worse, for reality itself.

The illustration above is a caricature by Huxley of The Pope of Science blessing a German supplicant naturalist of the "Church Scientific," from a letter to Darwin in 1868.

"Teleology implies that the organs of every organism are perfect and cannot be improved;"

This argument suffers from the same problem that Pascal's wager does. It assumes that "the designer" was something along the lines of the christian God and would, in this instance, only create prefect creatures.

(As ID proponents are quick to point out, bad designs are not evidence against ID for the simple reason that ID says nothing about the designer. Somehow they still manage to claim that the designer would not put any junk in our DNA - because the designer would not do that.... Yeah, logic is not on the ID proponents side).
Huxley was, of course, commenting on the state of the argument at his time. Cuvier had, perhaps ironically, proposed ideal adaptiveness as a scientific hypothesis, in order that organisms could be reliably known from a small number of traits -- large canines for predators and the like. (Despite being a creationist of a sort himself, Cuvier is probably the source of creationists' complaints that "evolutionists" claim to be able to identify an animal from a single bone.)

Geologist Charles Lyell (a mentor of Darwin's) and philosopher of science Willaim Whewell attacked "transmutation" (well before Darwin published) on the basis that such change had to be caused by organisms not being ideally adapted. But, if they weren't, that undermined Cuvier's principle, which was the very foundation used to determine what fossil organisms were and what traits they had. In effect, they claimed, transmutation undermined the very evidence the transmutationists were using to support their case.

So the past IDers took their position for scientific reasons (later shown wrong) that the present-day IDers have now abandoned to further camouflage their arguments from Constitutional scrutiny.

Aint history fun?
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