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Nineteenth Century Design arguments--A 19th Century Behe

Copyright 2001 G.R. Morton. This can be freely distributed so long as no changes are made and no charges are made. (home.entouch.net/dmd/design.htm)

George Taylor was a nineteenth century American design advocate. He wrote circa 1860 but was apparently published prior to Darwin as there is no mention of him in the book. His book had first been published in the U.S. and re-published in Glasgow somewhere around 1860. The latest reference in the book is to a January, 1850 article by Charles Lyell which affixes the date of this undated book to the early 1850s.

The reason Taylor is so fascinating is that he presents the arguments for Divine design based upon the best science of the 1850s but to the modern ear, they sound very unconvincing. I must emphasize (and I will embold the rest of the paragraph.) I am not presenting this data to discount or destroy the design argument but merely to point out that Christians walk by faith, not by sight. As such, we can't prove that God designed the earth, or that would be walking by sight and not walking by faith. So, what I am doing is pointing out that the argument for design is not a very strong argument upon which to rest one's faith. Christians should not expect to find proof. Even if God created a universe which could organize itself on its own, it doesn't mean that God didn't create it. To quote Edward Hitchcock:

“Even though we admit that God has communicated to nature's laws, at the beginning, a power to execute themselves, (though the supposition is quite unphilosophical,) no event is any the less God's work, than if all were miraculous.” Edward Hitchcock, The Religion of Geology and its Connected Sciences, (Boston: Phillips, Sampson, and Co. 1857 written 1851), p. 295

This means that Christians need to realize that they are chasing something which will not bear fruit.

Taylor made a remarkable statement which was very reminiscent of Michael Behe's concept of Irreducible Complexity. Taylor says:

     “It is our present object to trace the progress of these discoveries in the different sciences, and to ascertain, if possible, how far they deny the theories referred to [Lamarck's development theory and the Nebular hypothesis—grm] and to what extent they go, in proving the existence and ever-active presence and goodness of a GREAT INTELLIGENT FIRST CAUSE. In doing this we have been led to notice the agreement and adaptation of the infinitely varied parts of the universe, and how each part is inseparably interwoven with every other; and how all work together as some mighty piece of mechanism, in which nothing is wanting, neither can anything be taken away.”
     “If there were no beautiful adaptations—no pre-arrangement of parts to secure general and particular ends, there would be much more difficulty in refuting the arguments of scientific infidelity. But fortunately for truth and faith, all nature is full of these arrangements.”
George Taylor, The Indications of the Creator or, The Natural Evidences of Final Cause, (Glasgow: William Collins, c. 1860), p. 19-20

Compare this with Behe's definition of irreducible complexity:

By irreducibly complex I mean a single system composed of several well-matched, interacting parts that contribute to the basic function, wherein the removal of any one of the parts causes the system to effectively cease functioning. An irreducibly complex system cannot be produced directly (that is, by continuously improving the initial function, which continues to work by the same mechanism) by slight, successive modifications of a precursor system because any precursor to an irreducibly complex system that is missing a part is by definition nonfunctional.” ~ Michael J. Behe, Darwin's Black Box, (New York: The Free Press, 1996), p. 39

“The conclusion of intelligent design for physically interacting systems rests on the observation of highly specified, irreducible complexity--the ordering of separate, well-fitted components to achieve a function that is beyond any of the components themselves. Although I emphasize that one has to examine molecular systems for evidence of design, let's use Miller's essay as a springboard to examine other problems with the argument from imperfection.” Michael J. Behe, Darwin's Black Box, (New York: The Free Press, 1996), p. 223

Seeing that Taylor uses an almost identical definition for design as that used by Behe, it is fascinating to see the types of design arguments he uses. Behe looks for multi-component biological molecular systems and claims that they are evidence of design. Taylor, too, was looking for multi-component, interacting parts which would fail if one component was removed. Since he knew nothing of molecular biology, his examples are drawn from other fields of science. As we shall see, none of his design arguments would get much of a hearing today.

Interactions of the planets as evidence of design.

Taylor first uses the interaction of the 8 planets he knew of for proof of design. All the planets must have been set in motion at just the right velocities, positions, etc., for the stability of the solar system. He had rejected the nebular formation of the solar system and in doing so, rejected the explanation for the stability of the solar system and its formation via natural law. He says:

“But as the orbits differ very little from circles, the momentum of the planets, when projected, must have been exactly sufficient to insure the permanency and stability of the system.” George Taylor, The Indications of the Creator or, The Natural Evidences of Final Cause, (Glasgow: William Collins, c. 1860), p. 43

and

“This important and necessary arrangement has always been considered an interesting and conclusive evidence of original design; because it depends on conditions arbitrary in themselves. The quantity which secures the stability for the system depends on the uniform motion of the planets, their circular orbits, and the smallness of their eccentricities; all of which might have been different from any thing we can discover in the laws pervading the universe.” George Taylor, The Indications of the Creator or, The Natural Evidences of Final Cause, (Glasgow: William Collins, c. 1860), p. 43

Interactions of the earth's orbit and climate

Not knowing anything about Milutin Milankovitch or the precession of the equinoxes, he assumed an absolute stability of the earth's orbit and proclaimed that this was an evidence of design. What we know today is that the parameters of the earth's orbit vary cyclically over thousands of years, changing the climate from one of warmth (today) to one of glaciation (20,000 years ago). The eccentricity varies over a 100,000 year period and has in the past and will in the future assume very different values from that held today. But lacking this knowledge, Taylor was led to proclaim the unexplained (at that time) as evidence of Divine design.

“During our near approach to the sun, (for the earth is about one twenty-ninth of its whole distance from the sun nearer to it during its perihelion than it is during its aphelion,) its velocity is increased in proportion to the decrease of the square of its distance. It is this increased angular velocity of the earth when at its perihelion, that protects us from the excess of heat to which our comparatively near approach to the sun would otherwise expose us.”
“‘Were it not for this,’ says Sir John Herschel, ‘the eccentricity of the orbit would materially influence the transition of the seasons. The fluctuation of distance amounts to nearly one thirtieth of its mean quantity, and consequently, the fluctuation in the sun's direct heating power to double this, or one fifteenth of the whole. Now the perihelion of the orbit is situated at the place of the northern winter solstice; so that, were it not for the compensation we have just described, the effect would be to exaggerate the difference of summer and winter in the southern hemisphere, and to moderate it in the northern; thus producing a more violent alternation of climate in the one hemisphere, and an approach to perpetual spring in the other. . . This, then, for we can arrive at no other conclusion, must have been designed originally for the important offices it performs, by the POWER that created it; and that POWER must have been intelligent and all-powerful, for no other could have foreseen the necessity of this condition and established it as a law.”
George Taylor, The Indications of the Creator or, The Natural Evidences of Final Cause, (Glasgow: William Collins, c. 1860), p. 56-57

Knowing nothing of continental drift or the origin of the mountains rimming the Pacific ocean, Taylor argues that the topography is an evidence of design. Today the mountains along the Pacific coasts of North and South America are known to be uplifted through the effects of the subduction of the Pacific oceanic plates. Since there is no such convergence   He says:

“The mountains descend gradually towards the Atlantic and Frozen Oceans; while their slopes are rapid and precipitous towards the Pacific and Indian Oceans.
     ‘If this order were reversed,’ says Professor Guyot, ‘and the elevation of the lands went on increasing toward the north, the most civilized half of the globe at the present, would be a frozen and uninhabitable desert.’ This disposition of the slopes is most uniform and remarkable. There is nothing in the formation of the continental masses better adapted to impress the mind with the idea of original design.”
George Taylor, The Indications of the Creator or, The Natural Evidences of Final Cause, (Glasgow: William Collins, c. 1860), p. 137

He also assumes that the current arrangement of the Gulf of Mexico and the Rocky Mountains are permanent. Both of which act to funnel moisture into the mid-continent of the US allowing it to be the breadbasket of the world rather than a desert. He is correct that the arrangement acts in this regard, but given continental drift, this arrangement is temporary. He says:

“Thus in the case of North America, the effect of the long northern slope, by which we are exposed to the polar currents of wind, and the influence of the Rocky Mountains, which turn these currents back upon the Mississippi Valley, is controlled in a great measure by the action of the immense chain of lakes on the north, over which these currents must pass, and the gulf of Mexico on the south. This deep cut, as observed by Professor Guyot, opens the southern portion of our continent to the wet winds of the tropics. The return trade winds, coming directly from the sea, water the Atlantic coast, the western slope of the Alleganies, and the Valley of the Mississippi. Owing, therefore, to this ‘broad gate,’ we are more highly favoured with rains than could be expected from our situation and continental reliefs. A different disposition of the Rocky Mountains would change the character of our climate and country. The Rocky Mountains and Gulf of Mexico act and react on each other, and are equally necessary in making up our continental character.” George Taylor, The Indications of the Creator or, The Natural Evidences of Final Cause, (Glasgow: William Collins, c. 1860), p. 139

The seasons and light from the sun become an object of design. Taylor says:

“Vegetation is regulated by the seasons; but what agency does light, and especially the harmonious action of these distinct principles, perform? This question was before the British Association last year, and submitted to Mr. Hunt for investigation. From his report, it appears that light transmitted through yellow glass has little or no influence on the germination of seeds, from the fact that the chemical portion of the ray will not pass through that colour. Every vegetable requires a certain portion of all these principles, and will not survive without them. And it is upon the changes in the proportion of them that germination, growth, and fructification, depend. These changes are in harmony with the seasons, and may result from them. ‘It is now an ascertained fact,’ says Mr. Hunt, ‘that the solar beam during spring contains a large amount of the actinic principle, so necessary at that season for the germination of seeds and the development of buds. In summer there is a large proportion of the light-giving principle, necessary to the formation of the woody parts of the plant. As autumn approaches, the calorific or heat-giving principles of the solar rays increase. This is necessary to harden the woody parts, and prepare them for the approaching winter. It is thus that the proportions of the different principles are changed with the seasons, and thus that vegetation is germinated, grown, and hardened by them.’ We know not how these facts may act on the minds of others, but in the axis of the earth, so arbitrary yet so essential; in the distinct principles of solar light, so mysterious, yet so powerful and important in their action on vegetable life; and in the adaptation in the proportion of these principles to the seasons and necessities of the kingdom, we recognise the strongest evidence of the existence of an INFINITE WISDOM and an ever-active GOODNESS.” George Taylor, The Indications of the Creator or, The Natural Evidences of Final Cause, (Glasgow: William Collins, c. 1860), p. 111

Of course, none of this is true. The same spectral energies are output by the sun throughout the year and light has no effect on hardening wood. Yet, this was among the best of the 19th century evidences of design.

While these design arguments fail to make a case today, it is important to note that it is precisely this facet of their arguments that should make us careful about modern design arguments. How will our 21st century arguments appear to those 150 years hence? Will the advance of knowledge make them appear as odd as Taylor's arguments do to us? How will they view Behe's irreducible complexity argument? We should live so long.

Should the reader, then, conclude that the universe isn't designed? No. The reason for this is that while we can't prove design, we also can't disprove it. As Hitchcock indicated above, no matter what laws we find or postulate as having been involved in the origin and development of the world, one can always ask if those laws themselves were created by a Divine being. No matter how many layers of laws or how long the list of laws, this question can always be postulated. When science finally settles upon the answer to the existence of the universe, this question will always exist. While some will say that this is a God of the Gaps approach, it is a fundamental feature limiting our knowledge. Thus God can no more be excluded from the universe, than He can be proven to exist.

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