Saturday, December 22, 2007


Talking Design

George Douglas Campbell, 8th Duke of Argyll, was the very model of a Victorian establishment insider. He was a close associate of Prince Albert and served under a number of Prime Ministers in various positions such as Lord Privy Seal, Postmaster General and Secretary of State for India. He was also a well-known scientist of his day or, perhaps more correctly, as the present Wikipedia entry puts it -- delicately -- "an eminent publicist on scientific matters." An opponent of Darwin's theory but not of the man, Argyll may have come up with one of the more ingenious arguments in favor of intelligent design ever, as recounted by Neal C. Gillespie in his book, Charles Darwin and the Problem of Creation:

The old episteme, with its emphasis on the union of theology and science in the study of nature, had no more devoted champion in the years after 1859 than this Scottish nobleman. Argyll's primary strategy in his effort to preserve a unity of science and religion by means of the design doctrine was to insist that purposeful teleological language (which scientists, try as they might, seemed unable to avoid) was necessary in carrying on scientific work because a complete scientific explanation must involve the idea of purpose. "It is well worthy of observation," he wrote in the 1880s, "that in exact proportion as [scientific] phrases do avoid [teleological language], they become incompetent to describe fully the facts of science." For example, describing the various stages in the unfolding development of an embryo as "differentiations" failed utterly to encompass the goal-directed nature of those changes. The element of preparation for future use was the linkage that connected the entire process. Scientists of positivist bent, Argyll further charged, who, in an attempt to avoid religion and metaphysics, renounced teleological concepts in their work, were only substituting a metaphysics of their own: materialism. This was a bad metaphysics because it excluded a priori evident aspects of reality. ... The fullness of nature was not to be found in a "sameness of material" or in an "identity of composition" or in "mere uniformity of structure." It lay in a unity of "aims" or "action' -- in short, of mind. But positive science, moved by the philosophical needs of its method, relegated these elements of nature to theology and so dismissed them from "the category of scientific facts.
Argyll recognized that these teleological elements could justly be classed as theological but he denied they should be excised from science merely for that reason. They were, he believed, a necessary part of any complete understanding of the universe.

Those who used purposeful language -- as any honest scientist would, and must -- and denied its reference to mind, were giving the attributes of mind to matter. The metaphysics of language, then, was an issue greatly needing analysis; and the heart of that problem was metaphor and, of course, analogy.

The essence of Argyll's interpretation of language is found in two phrases: "I hold that the unconscious metaphysics of human speech are often the deepest and truest interpretations of the ultimate facts of nature" and "all metaphor is essentially founded on the perception of analogies.
As evidence of the first proposition, he pointed to the similarity of "folk taxonomy" to the binomial classification system as finally worked out by Linnaeus. As to the second and far more important of Argyll's propositions:

Teleological language in science, the significance of which some scientists tried to evade by pleading the use of metaphor, recommended itself to them in the first place only because of its evident appropriateness. Cuvier's work had been filled with it -- not from choice, however, but because "it was the automatic impression made by external facts upon the receptive structure of Cuvier's mind. He could no more have abandoned it, or departed from it, than he could have abandoned the use of speech." Similarly, "Mr. Darwin does not use this language with any theological purpose or in connection with any metaphysical speculation. He uses it simply and naturally for no other reason than that he cannot help it. . . . The greatest observer that has ever lived cannot help observing [purpose) in Nature; and so his language is thoroughly anthropopsychic," that is, teleological, as a consequence. The excuse of mere metaphorical color would not wash: the analogy was genuine, the perception true.
For once, Herbert Spencer, who so often managed to distort public understanding of Darwin's work, did good service by producing a credible explanation for this linguistic difficulty:

"The general truth," [Spencer] wrote in the Principles of Sociology, is "that the poorer a language the more metaphorical it is, and the derivative truth [is] that being first developed to express human affairs, it carries with it certain human implications when extended to the world around. . . ." Spencer spoke, in this case, of primitive language, but his remark was equally apropos of scientific language during a "primitive" stage such as evolutionary biology was experiencing in the nineteenth century. Not the least noticeable feature of the Origin is Darwin's struggle to express ideas for which an adequate language had not yet been invented. As biology matured its vocabulary, metaphors and "anthropopsychisms" tended to disappear.
The irony of all this was that Darwin ended up adopting a phrase coined by Spencer, at the urging of Alfred Russell Wallace (who thought the term "natural selection" too metaphorical) which would wind up causing no end of mischief ... "survival of the fittest."


Perhaps the Dover litigants would have preferred to have Argyll as a witness instead of the 8-balls they got stuck with. They still would have lost their case, but they would have looked a little less stupid.
Design was once a very respectable position, at the beginnings of what we now call science. It still is, in various forms, a viable theological position.

The problem is that creationists suffer science-envy, correctly recognizing science's intellectual and cultural power (though incorrectly assuming it is only a cultural phenomenon) to easily trump their dogma when honestly compared. Thus, since they cannot eliminate science (yet) they have to eliminate the honest comparison.
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