December 18, 2003 | David F. Coppedge

Darwin Plagiarized Paley?

Natural selection didn’t begin with Darwin, William L. Abler (Geologist, Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago) claims in a letter to the editor of Nature1 Dec. 18th.  According to Abler, Darwin probably got the idea from a theologian he once admired, only later to ridicule:

Darwin was educated not as a biologist, but as a country vicar.  Although he may have read Hutton’s book, it is equally likely that Darwin read one of the standard religious works of his day (now perhaps the most ridiculed book in biology), William Paley’s Natural Theology (1803), which presents Paley’s proof of the existence of God, as well as of Divine creation.  (Emphasis added in all quotes.)

He quotes Paley as stating the principle of natural selection, only to refute it as a possible objection against design: “There is another answer which has the same effect as the resolving of things into chance,” Paley writes in Chapter 5 of Natural Theology.  He explains it as the proposition that

…the eye, the animal to which it belongs, every plant, indeed every organized body which we can see, are only so many out of the possible varieties and combinations of being which the lapse of infinite ages has brought into existence; that the present world is the relict of that variety; millions of other bodily forms and other species having perished, being by the defect of their constitution incapable of preservation, or of continuance by generation.2

Abler thinks even Darwin could not have stated the principle of natural selection better.  He notes that even Stephen Jay Gould also pointed out Paley’s priority, but believes natural selection (by other names) was a common heresy in Darwin’s day.


William L. Abler, correspondence, “What Darwin Knew,” Nature 426, 759 (18 December 2003); doi:10.1038/426759b.
William Paley, Archdeacon of Carlisle, Natural Theology, or Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity, Collected from the Appearances of Nature, 1803, ch. 5, pp. 46-48 (click title for online edition).

Charlie, a plagiarist?  This was interesting, so I looked up Paley’s refutation in his once-honorable, classic treatise that Abler calls “now perhaps the most ridiculed book in biology.”  The venerable theologian offered three rebuttals to the principle now known as natural selection.  (1) His first might be characterized as a straw man argument today; Paley rhetorically asks that if all possible creatures had existed, why do we not see unicorns, centaurs, etc.  Darwinists might reply with their standard common-ancestry claim that natural selection would only build on patterns established early on, rather than from an infinite pool of possible forms.
    (2) The second argument is more interesting and still carries weight today.  It’s the argument from classification.  If nature could produce infinite gradations between forms, why do we find all living things grouped into nested hierarchies of taxa, Paley asks:

But, moreover, the division of organized substances into animals and vegetables, and the distribution and sub-distribution of each into genera and species, which distribution is not an arbitrary act of the mind, but is founded in the order which prevails in external nature, appear to me to contradict the supposition of the present world being the remains of an indefinite variety of existences; of a variety which rejects all plan.  The hypothesis [i.e., natural selection] teaches, that every possible variety of being hath, at one time or other, found its way into existence (by what cause or what manner is not said), and that those which were badly formed, perished: but how or why those which survived should be cast, into regular classes, the hypothesis does not explain; or rather the hypothesis is inconsistent with this phenomenon.  Ibid.,, p. 48.

In other words, why are their large gaps between major kinds?  The problem of gaps between living and extinct phyla was clearly understood long before Darwin.  For an elaboration of this “nested hierarchy” objection to common descent, read The Biotic Message by Walter Remine.
    (3) The third rebuttal is an argument from analogy with machines.  Paley says that no man seeing a variety of machines would think that, out of an assortment of all possible machines that might have arisen from a pool of metal, the remaining forms were “what were left from the accident, as best worth preserving….”  Paley sees no difference between this and inferring natural selection instead of design in living things.  Although this argument from analogy might have been rebuffed in the past, with the retort that living things are not like artificial machines, the discovery of molecular machines in the cell gives the point renewed force today (see Dec. 4 headline and embedded links in the commentary).  Biologists know that protein machines are selected from a near-infinite configuration space, being determined by the sequence of amino acids of which they are composed (see 09/06/2001 headline).  Yet we find these machines already functional in the most primitive life forms and highly conserved throughout the living world.  Natural selection cannot be invoked before the machines of replication existed.  It is time, therefore, to resurrect Paley’s third argument against natural selection and speak it into 21st century terms.
    So two out of three objections Paley raised to selection have not been satisfactorily refuted by Darwinists, without first assuming evolution to be true (circular reasoning).  It looks like Paley anticipated Darwin’s case and ably refuted it in advance.  So if Charlie cannot claim priority for the “discovery” of natural selection (according to popular misconception), maybe it is time to distribute the credit and blame where it is due.  Thanks, Dr. Abler, for enabling us to set the record straight.

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