The Argument from Design by J.B.S.Haldane (1944)

I have recently been reading Paley's Evidences of Christianity as every good Rationalist should. Paley attempts, with very great skill, to prove the existence of a creator from the design of living organisms. Of course a good many of his arguments were met by Darwin.

It is clear that, given the facts of heredity and variation, organisms tend to adapt themselves to their environment without any conscious planning by themselves or anyone else. But it is by no means proved that the whole course of evolution from single-celled organisms to oaks, daisies , ants, and men can be explained on these lin es.

There are real difficulties in the evolution of such an organ as the eye, where many parts must vary together to produce an improvement. I have tried to meet them from a neo-Darwinian standpoint, but my argument is not so strong as the general argument f or Natural Selection.

Again, the evolution of instincts presents great difficulties. They cannot be inherited memories in the most interesting case - that of social insects. For since the ancestors of worker bees and ants were not workers, they have instincts quite different from any of their ancestors.

The chemical organisation of a cell is immensely complicated, and it is hard to see how an organism could work at all unless it were of extreme chemical complexity. I think, therefore, that a reasonable man should be prepared to examine arguments which a ssume a measure of design in living creatures,even though I do not personally think that they are cogent.

Now Paley imagined an intelligent savage picking up a watch and concluding that it had been designed. He then argued that animals show far more evidence of design than watches. And he next argued that the designer had manu of the characteristics of the G od whom he worshipped.

To my mind his argument leads to a radically different conclusion.

Let us suppose an intelligent savage to come upon one of the battlefields of World War II , and to examine tanks, artillery, rifles, land mines, and other weapons left behind in the desert. he might well conclude that these weapons had been designed, but a slight further exercise of intelligence would convince him that they had not all been designed by the same person or group of persons. He would conclude that the British weapons had been designed to destroy the German ones, and conversely. He might have a little difficulty if he got evidence that the Germans and Italians had had a scrap on their own, but we may omit this complication.

Now the most conspicuous features of animal organisation are those which are designed (if they are designed) for competition with other living creatures, and often for their destruction. All animals live by eating other animals or plants. They may kill t hem, as we kill rabbits and potatoes, or merely eat parts of them, as we eat parts of the apple tree and the flea drinks parts of us.

A few, such as the blowflies, beetles, and 'worms', actually mostly insect larvae, which eat our bodies if they get the chance, eat only dead food, apart from bacteria. And these exceptional pacifists are not the noblest of animals. The plants generall y compete by pushing, rather than biting. Look at a plantain spreading its leaves over the grass of your lawn, or a tree cutting off the sun from the plants below it till they die. Though only a few higher plants, like the sundew and the mistletoe, actua lly eat other living things, they are all engaged in a merciless struggle for life.

Of course biologists have devoted much of their time to the internal co-ordination of organisms. If this is attributed to a designer it shows very great ingenuity and no malice. However, a tank resembles a motor-car or a tractor in many of its features, buts its essential function is to carry a gun for the purpose of destruction. And when we consider animals, not in terms of the relations of their parts but of their relations to other animals, the same is true of them.

If, then, animals were designed, they were designed for mutual destruction. If there was one designer, he is or was a being with a passion for slaughter, like that of the ancient Romans, and the world is his Colosseum. A much more reasonable consequence of the hypothesis of design is Polytheism. If each one of the million or so animal species were the product of a different god, their mutual struggle would be intelligible.

One must particularly admire the ingenuity of the creators of some of the parasites, particularly those with several hosts. For example, the digentic trematode worms, such as bilharzia , which pass one generation in a water snail and another in human beings, causing an extremely painful chronic disease often terminating in cancer, are an amazing piece of work. So are the malaria parasites, which live alternately in mosquitoes and human blood.

A seaman dying of thirst on a raft may well curse Whitehead, who invented the torpedo. Trematode larvae surrounding a water snail and ramming their front ends into it look remarkably like little torpedoes when seen through a microscope. and, unlike the h uman creation, they multiply inside their victims and produce another generation which kills men or sheep. In fact, Whitehead was a mere amateur compared with the creator of bilharzia

Wherever Paley's argument leads, it does not lead to Christianity. If pushed to its logical conclusion it forces us to believe in a malignant creator or , more probably, in a number of malignant creators. Certainly this creator or these creators are not wholly malignant. The world of life contains a great deal of beauty and pleasure , but one can admire the beauty only by closing one's consciousness to the pain and injustice which are bound up with it. A biologist who has spent his life in the study of parasitic animals must inevitably smother his feeling of pity to some extent and tend to take misery and injustice for granted.

But the moral effect of the belief that the world was made by a benevolent and almighty creator is vastly worse. C.S.Lewis's book, The Screwtape Letters , is a good example of its effects on an intelligent man.

The book is supposed to be written by a devil. The devil is strongly in favour of modern medical practice, which in many cases has robbed death of its pain and terror. He is by no means enthusiastic about war, which gives many people the experiences of s uffering needed to turn their minds to God.

If the world of Nature is God's plan, the attempts to banish pain are contrary to this plan. So are attempts to perfect human society by eliminating the various evils which men inflict on one another. The religionist can point out the impossibility o eli minating cruelty and injustice completely.

Nor can one eliminate pain completely, but it is possible to reduce it to such a level that for years one may have no pain which interferes with normal action and thought. And Marxists, among others, believe that by applying scientific methods to human a ffairs it will be possible to cut down injustice and cruelty to a similar extent. All Buddhists, most if not all Hindus, and most Christians believe this to be impossible , and further, that it is a dangerous illusion to think it possible. Conversely, th ose who think that the establishment of 'heaven on earth' is something worth trying must regard the religions as dangerous illusions, whatever services they have rendered to men in the past.

Darwin made it reasonable to reject the argument from design, and the evil god or gods to which it leads if carried to its logical conclusion. We have not yet realised what an immense advance in our moral ideas this has made possible.

Naturally enough, many of the early Darwinists retained the veneration for Nature which is justifiable if it is God's handiwork. They therefore used Darwinism to justify various forms of human struggle, including war and unrestricted economic competition . T.H. Huxley, by contrasting the ethical process and the cosmic process, did his best to combat this tendency. But, as he took so much of the structure of the society in which he lived for granted, he underestimated the power of the ethical process.

Today we see that cut-throat competition, both between species and to a lesser extent within them, was a necessary condition of evolution. We also see that it is so no longer. We can control the evolution of animals and make unprecedented creature, such as the jersey cow and the Angora rabbit, for our needs. We shall be able to control our own, though very fortunately we do not yet know how to do so.

My own most important scientific work has been to accumulate some of the preliminary knowledge; for example to map some of the genes on a section of one of the twenty-four pairs of human chromosomes. It is abundantly clear that the amount of such prelimi nary work needed is so great that we shall not have the necessary knowledge for some centuries. By this time a Marxist may reasonably hope that human society will be so far improved that there will be agreement on the innate characters desirable in man, and willingness to alter our breeding habits accordingly.

We can look ahead to this. If human society is brought near to what we should now regard as perfection in the next few thousand years, our descendants will find Nature pretty revolting. The scream of a rabbit caught by a weasel will be as horrible as tha t of a rabbit in a trap to sensitive ears today.

If we abolished weasels, sportsmen, and other enemies of rabbits today, they would increase till they did vast damage to crops and trees arvation. Over-production, as Darwin saw, is a universal character of living things, and a necessary condition for Na tural Selection. To abolish the needless pain of Nature we should need to check this over-production, as we already do to some extent with our domestic animals. The lion and the lamb will be able to lie down together when we can provide the lion with a d iet high in proteins not derived from lambs but from vegetable or synthetic sources.

Speculations of this kind may seem ridiculous in the middle of a war. I believe that they are justified because we are apt to think that because widespread misery is part of nature it is therefore unavoidable. Those who are opposed to a radical reconstru ction of human society naturally take this view.

It is also important that Rationalists should examine the arguments brought forward in favour of various religious dogmas and see where they really lead. Defenders of religion invariably stop in the middle. Thus the argument from design leads on to Polyt heism; most of the arguments for the immortality of the soul also prove that it is not trammelled by space and therefore omnipresent. The argument , which is an essential part of Catholic theology, that God must have founded an institution or proclaim hi s will to mankind leads directly to atheism. For if there is such an institution it must be the Catholic or the orthodox Church, and their records prove that they are far from divine. Similarly an Idealist cannot logically stop short of Solipsism.

It is essential that we should study the economic and social origins of religious beliefs, and the irrational but profound psychological needs which they partially satisfy. But as long as these beliefs are alleged to be capable of rational proof it is ou r interesting, and sometimes amusing, duty to study these alleged proofs, and to see what, if anything, they really prove.


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