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Perfection is an Illusion

May 7, 2017

The Reverend William Paley published a very influential book called Natural Theology in the early 1800s.  In this book, he made three primary points.  The first was that the presence of a designer is obvious to all of us.  In a famous illustration, he described finding a pocket watch lying on the ground.  From its intricate design, it was clear that the watch was not a natural object like a stone, but that it must have had a designer.

He also told us that animals and parts of animals, a grasshoppers leg for example, were perfectly designed for what they had to do, and that the designer was God.  He described how birds mate and care for their eggs and chicks, not because they anticipate the outcome of this behavior, but out of pleasure and love.  These sensations and emotions also were part of God’s design.

This was the only conclusion he could reach at the time, and the only conclusion that his readers could reach also.  No other phenomenon could achieve perfection of design in wild creatures.  God was the designer.

Charles Darwin, the author of On the Origin of Species and The Descent of Man, written in the mid to late 1800s, also searched for the cause of this apparent perfection.  Contrary to popular opinion, he didn’t discover evolution.  He discovered something more important, the mechanism of evolution, which he called Natural Selection.  Operating over millions of years, with this mechanism, evolution could be the designer.  Through the accumulation of changes, a wild creature could become adapted to its role in life, achieving apparent perfection.  Sometimes the perfection can be uncanny.  Darwin wasn’t alone in this discovery.  Alfred Russell Wallace also discovered natural selection around the same time.

In the late 1900s, Stephen Jay Gould, a prolific author and relentless researcher, told us that natural designs were not perfect after all.  They are excellent, but they are only perfect if you ignore the imperfections.  Natural designs often contain features that the creature has inherited from its evolutionary ancestors.  In fact, they often provide further evidence of how the creature has evolved, or evidence of features that adaptation cannot change.

Still, evolution is the cause of apparent perfection in design.  Paley was right in some instances.  Sensations and emotions are certainly part of the design.  It’s not just physical.  Paley was wrong in naming the designer as God.  We know now that millions of years of evolution can be the designer all by itself.


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  1. Also Perfection | jgmills

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