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What Is Natural

April 19, 2015

The reverend William Paley developed the principle of natural theology.  In his central story, he wrote about finding a pocket watch on the ground as he crossed a heath.  Just by examining the intricate construction of the watch, he was able to determine that it was not a natural object, that it must have had a designer.  He noted that parts of living creatures, like a bird’s wing or a grasshopper’s leg, were perfectly designed for what they do.  They must have also had a designer.  There was no known natural process that could create such perfection of design.  The designer must be a supernatural entity.  His principle led to the modern idea of intelligent design.

Charles Darwin identified that natural process, one that was the mechanism of evolution.  It required two agencies, natural selection and deep time.  The accumulation of minute changes over millions of generations could produce this perfection of design.  I know that it seems impossible.  I know that it defies common sense.  Still, it’s certain to be correct.  This process has been proven many times to be the primary mechanism of evolution.  Charles Darwin, by the way, did not discover evolution.  It was already known.  His grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, knew about it, for example.  What Charles Darwin acutually discovered was the mechanism of evolution.

Perfection of design is not as good as some people thought.  Seeing it demands a certain amount of selectivity.  Certainly, a bird’s wing or a grasshopper’s leg are almost perfect.  Certainly, they are awesome and wonderful things.  Certainly there’s much to admire in the human body too.  If you look carefully, though, you will notice some imperfections, some legacies of our evolutionary ancestors.  The design of our spinal column, for example, has features that favoured walking on four legs rather than two.

Perfection of design is an illusion, albeit a very good one.  Evolution is the only natural process that can create such an illusion.  This principle has been reiterated by Steven Jay Gould in his book Dinosaur in a Haystack.

Darwin identified natural selection as one of the agents of evolution.  This was a good choice of words, reminding us easily of artificial selection.  We already understand how this is used in selective breeding, a technique that’s been used for centuries by plant breeders and animal breeders.  We already know how minute changes in each generation can result in plants or animals that are quite different from the original stock.

The other agent Darwin identified was deep time.  This is more difficult for us to understand since the times required are outside of our experience.  Our human lifetime is only about a hundred years.  All of human history is only about ten thousand years.  Six hundred millions years, the length of time that multi-cellular life has existed on earth, seems impossible to us.  To appreciate such things, we have to think in terms of geological times.  Fortunately, these have been well established through an enormous amount of scientific research.

When natural selection and deep time are combined, perfection of design is entirely possible, by the completely natural process of evolution.  There’s no longer any need to invoke a supernatural agent as the cause.  Nature was the designer.


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