dered economy in the
laissez-faire system, you do not regulate from on high by passing explicit laws
for order. You do something that, at first glance, seems utterly opposed to your
goal: you simply allow individuals to struggle in an unfettered way for personal
profit. In this struggle, the inefficient are weeded out, and the best balance
each other to form an equilibrium, to everyone's benefit.Darwin's system
works in exactly the same manner, only more relentlessly. No regulation comes
from on high; no divine watchmaker superintends the works of his creation. Individuals
are struggling for reproductive success, the natural analogue of profit. No other
mechanism is at work, nothing "higher" or more exalted. Yet the result
is adaptation and balance--and the cost is hecatomb after hecatomb after hecatomb.
(I call Darwin's system more relentless than Adam Smith's because human beings,
as moral agents, cannot bear the hecatomb of such a system applied without restraint
to our own affairs. We therefore never let laissez faire operate without some
constraint, some safety net for losers. But nature is not a moral agent, and nature
has endless time.)
Adam Smith embodied the guts of his theory--his core insight--in
a wonderful metaphor, one of the truly great lines written in the English
language. Speaking of an actor in the world of laissez faire, Adam Smith
He generally indeed neither intends to promote the public
interest, nor knows how much he is promoting it.... He intends only his own gain,
and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote
an end which was no part of his intention.
Such a lovely image. The "invisible
hand" that produces order, but doesn't really exist at all, at least in any
direct way. Darwin's theory uses the same invisible hand--but formed into
a fist as a battering ram to eliminate Paley's God from nature. The very features
that Paley used to infer not only God's existence but also His goodness are, for
Darwin, but spinoffs of the only real action in nature--the endless struggle
among organisms for reproductive success and the endless hecatombs of failure.
In this light, we may finally return to poor Paley and feel the poignancy
of his inability even to conceptualize Darwin's third alternative--the argument
that finally, and permanently, brought his system down. He stood so close, but
just didn't have the conceptual tools to put the pieces together. (I do not suggest
that Paley would have become a Darwinian if he had recognized the third way. He
would surely have rejected evolution by hecatomb, just as he had attacked evolution
by purposeful step. Yet I remain fascinated by his failure to conceptualize the
Darwinian mode at all, for the essence of genius lies in the rare ability to think
in new dimensions orthogonal to old schemes; and we must dissect both failures
and successes in order to understand this most precious feature of human intellect.)
Darwin received his greatest inspiration from Thomas Malthus and Adam Smith.
Paley knew their work well--yet he didn't draw the implications. For Malthus,
Paley actually cites the key line that inspired Darwin's synthesis in 1838 (but
in the context of a passage on civil versus natural evils). Paley writes:
order of generation proceeds by something like a geometrical progression. The
increase of provision, under circumstances even the most advantageous, can only
assume the form of an arithmetic series. Whence it follows, that the population
will always overtake the provision, will pass beyond the line of plenty, and will
continue to increase till checked by the difficulty of procuring subsistence.
this point, Paley adds a footnote: "See this subject stated in a late treatise
upon population"--obviously Malthus.)The influence of Adam Smith
is not quite so explicit. But I was powerfully moved (and inspired to write this
essay) when I read Adam Smith's great metaphor in Paley's effusive prose and differing
intent. I quoted the line early in this essay. "I never see a bird in that
situation, but I recognize an Invisible hand, detaining the contented prisoner
from her fields and groves for a purpose."
I cite this correspondence
as a symbol, not a proof. I realize that it offers no evidence for Paley imbibing
the metaphor from Smith. The phrase is obvious enough and could be independently
invented. (Nonetheless, the line is central to Smith's argument and has always
been well known. The Wealth of Nations was published in 1776--an easy
date for Americans to remember--a full generation before Natural Theology.
So perhaps Paley had caught the rhythm from Smith.) The two usages are diametrically
opposed, hence the poignancy of the comparison. Paley's invisible hand is God's
explicit intent (although He works, in this case, indirectly through the bird's
instinct and not by a palpable push). Smith's invisible hand is the impression
of higher power that doesn't actually exist at all. In Darwin's translation, the
invisible hand dethrones the God of Natural Theology.
some, this tale of shifting usages and ideas may seem a dull exercise in antiquated
thought. Yet we have never stopped fighting the same battles, seeking the same
solaces, rejecting the same uncomfortable truths. Why are some of us so loathe
to accept evolution at all, despite overwhelming evidence? Why are so many of
us who do accept evolution so unable to grasp the Darwinian argument, or so unwilling,
for emotional reasons, to live with it even if we do understand?
This situation may be frustrating for someone like me who has spent a professional
lifetime working with the power of Darwinian models and who feels no moral threat
in their potential truth (for a fact of nature cannot challenge a precept of morality).
Frustrating perhaps, but not hard to understand. We leave Paley's world with reluctance
because it offered us such comfort--and we enter Darwin's with extreme trepidation
because the sources of solace seem stripped away. Consider the happy moral that
Paley draws from good design and its divine manufacture:
The hinges in
the wings of an earwig, and the joints of its antennae, are as highly wrought,
as if the Creator had nothing else to finish. We see no signs of diminution of
care by multiplicity of objects, or of distraction of thought by variety. We have
no reason to fear, therefore, our being forgotten, or overlooked, or neglected.I
can offer only two responses, both, I think, powerful and quite conducive to joyous
optimism, if this be your fortunate temperament. We may lose a great deal of easy,
unthinking, superficial comfort in the rejection of Paley's God. But think what
we gain in toughness, in respect for nature by knowledge of our limited place,
in appreciation for human uniqueness by recognition that moral inquiry is our
straggle, not nature's display. Think also what we gain in increments of real
knowledge--and what could be more precious--by knowing that evolution
has patterned the history of life and shaped our own origin.
Henry Huxley faced the same dilemma more than 100 years ago. Chided by his theologian
buddy Charles Kingsley for abandoning the traditional solace of religion in Paley's
style, Huxley replied:
Had I lived a couple of centuries earlier I could have fancied a devil
scoffing at me...and asking me what profit it was to have stripped myself
of the hopes and consolations of the mass of mankind? To which my only
reply was and is--Oh devil! truth is better than much profit.
a gain of such magnitude is no barleycorn.
Stephen Jay Gould
teaches biology, geology, and the history of science at Harvard University.
NATURAL HISTORY 11/90