Curioser and curioser....

After many false starts I've actually started to write my "treatise" on evolution, some of the pages I've been turning out being in note form (I want to get the ideas down and then fill in the exact details later when I can pick up the proper reference books from the shelf) while others resemble actual passages and are in a near-finished form. My work isn't going to be a chronological overview of the history of life like many other books, but will instead take a more personal approach reflecting how I've come to understand evolution and how it proceeds. Differing rates of change, convergence, etc. are going to be the guideposts to the tour of life on earth, and I hope that my motley assortment of chosen examples and evolutionary "narratives" will make sense to the reader (if it ever gets finished and published, of course).

Indeed, last night I started to seriously get down to work on the project, and in contemplating how to begin the section on convergence my mind kept going back to the museums of Hunter and Cuvier, shared function within (Cuvier) or across (Hunter) groups of organisms being most important in determining displays. While I still have plenty of research to do on Cuvier, his idea that organisms possessed finely-tuned systems to achieve certain ends in which no part could be modified or removed reminded me of some other ideas about natural history. An example would be the idea that a lion is a living system in which the teeth, claws, vision, digestive system, etc. must be all finely integrated with no change, such a notion recalling the argument of "irreducible complexity" from intelligent design. This was driven home even further when I re-read the first three chapters of William Paley's 1802 book Natural Theology, Paley's watchmaker argument seeming to borrow heavily from Cuvier's ideas of nature. I am not enough of a historian of science to know the answer at this moment, but it appears that contemporary intelligent design has even deeper roots that I first suspected. While Natural Theology reads like a playbook for the Discovery Institute, Paley's ideas echo those of Cuvier, but this is curious as Cuvier was not very much concerned with natural theology. Although Cuvier abhorred evolution, constantly being confronted with it by Lamarck and St. Hilaire, his focus on organisms having a "purposeful arrangement of parts" appears to stem from his desire to make biology a "hard science" with mathematical laws like chemistry or physics. Indeed, Cuvier seemed to be trying to find laws of nature that would have sufficient predictive power to determine the forms of creatures (rather than creating a phylogeny first and then trying to determine the laws), but ultimately Cuvier's ideas could not successfully make sense of the diversity of life.

This realization came as a bit of a surprise; from what I've seen of ID advocates, they often do not seem to have a strong hold on their own intellectual history, the brand of creationism proffered by the Discovery Institute today being nearly indistinguishable from Paley's arguments made more than two centuries ago (the main difference being the exchange of flagella for the eye or other organ). While I'm sure that "natural theology" could be traced back even further than the 18th and 19th centuries in various ways, it seems that modern intelligent design was unceremoniously cribbed from Paley who was himself influenced by the attempts of Cuvier to determine the grand scheme of nature, the whole enterprise being based on faulty foundations. Where Cuvier failed to fully reconcile homology, convergence, diversity, and Linnean classification, Darwin's mechanism of natural selection made sense of the seemingly disparate lines of evidence, the explanatory power of natural selection being impossible to ignore. It is a shame, then, that creationists have unceremoniously stolen some of Cuvier's concepts and renamed them, the idea of a finely-tuned and immutable nature existing as a sort of intellectual zombie, not allowed to be fully recognized or die. Hopefully I'll be able to devote a more rigorous treatment to this topic in the near future, but it does seem that there is nothing new under the sun when it comes to creationism.

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Rather than a true continuity, I suspect you've uncovered an example of parallel evolution. The ID community wishes to present creationism with a thin veneer of pseudoscience, and so they produce strategies that appear similar to the hypotheses generated when science was still grappling with the concept of evolution.

There doesn't need to be a shared intellectual history of the arguments; it's just that if you're trying to make alternatives to evolution look scientific, there are limits as to what arguments you can make.

By Caledonian (not verified) on 03 Nov 2007 #permalink

Caledonian; From what I've seen so far it seems that modern ID advocates like Behe have cribbed their ideas from older sources, the similarity between what Paley says in the first three chapters of Natural Theology to what the Disco. Institute puts out being far too close (in my opinion, at least) to be purely coincidental. What I'm suggesting is that Cuvier had a big influence on Paley, Paley in turn laying down the ground rules for modern ID adherents. Behe and others clearly know "of" Paley and his arguments (even though their discussions of him often lack detail), but they seem too lazy to trace the line of thought back even further to Paley's own influences.

As I said, I need to look at Cuvier's actual writing to absolutely confirm my ideas, but his view of a precise, immutable, and purposeful nature appears to have definitely influenced Paley as Paley even uses some of Cuvier's terms when referring to "laws" in nature. I just find it interesting that scientists like Behe are so intellectually lazy and dishonest that they rename 200 year old concepts as if they just formulated notions like "irreducible complexity" themselves.

Edward J. Larson, in his Evolution: The Remarkable History of a Scientific Theory makes the point that Cuvier's interlocking traits necessary to make an animal suitable to its "conditions of life" (that enabled him -- perhaps apocryphally -- to boast that he could identify an animal by a single bone) was a version of "irreducible complexity" on the macro scale.

Someone (it may have been Michael Ruse in Darwin and Design) noted that, while Cuvier attributed the interlocking "design" to the action of God, he did not develop it as a theological proposition but as a scientific hypothesis about anatomy. And it made predictions that could be tested with each new living or fossil animal that was discovered. A fossil animal, say, with carnivore-like dentation should, according to Cuvier, as more fossils were found, also have carnivore's claws, binocular vision, etc. He was very successful in that regard but for the wrong reason.

"Natural Theology" can be traced back to John Ray at least.

Not all IDers are entirely ignorant of Paley. Dembski claims to be more than Watchmaker-redux, cause he uses 'math'. Of course many other, lazier IDers just parrot ideas from the Bridgwater Treatises wholesale...occasionally substituting computers for watches. They may well be totally unaware of their ideological ancestors. Of course ignorance of history and ID go together like flies and feces.

I have come across a fair bit of celebration of Cuvier, Aggasiz and Owen in my very cursory experience with the creationist literature. This is almost uniformly presented in the simplified narrative: X was an eminent scientist, far more respected than Darwin, who opposed evolution, ergo evolution isn't really scientific.

It's also worth remembering that Darwin himself claimed that reading Paley was the only worthwhile aspect of his his schooling, and he apparently admired Paley far more than his grandfather or Lamarck.

Meanwhile Richard Chambers is seemingly forgotten by all, perhaps because he tried to stay anonymous. Indeed Vestiges can hardly be called scientific, but I'm convinced that Chambers was a far more creative, perceptive and prescient fellow than he is ever given credit for. If he had had the cojones to own up to Vestiges I wonder how our narrative of the history of evolutionary theory would be changed.

There's a lesson for you there though: don't publish your treatise anonymously!

Thanks John; I was sure that others have noticed the connections before me, I just hadn't come across them yet. I definitely think that Cuvier's idea of "interlocking" traits corresponded to the notion that you could reconstruct an extinct creature with just one part of the skeleton, but while fragments give us clues it doesn't work exactly like Cuvier might have hoped. I'll definitely have to check out those references.

Neil; Indeed, most of the creationist and ID treatment of Paley, Owen, etc. seems to be a nod of acknowledgment or an attempt to connect a noted scientist with a Christian belief system, but in general I've found that their knowledge does not go deeper than this. There are exceptions, of course, but in general they don't seem terribly interested with the work of earlier scientists. As I noted above, this is especially strange being that they find new names for old ideas, acting as if they had just stumbled on some breakthrough.

I have been meaning to read Chambers' work, especially since it seems to have socially paved the way for Darwin. Even if some of Chambers' ideas were wrong or controversial, at least it got people talking about evolution. The fossil discoveries of Anning, Mantell, Buckland, Hawkins, and the geological studies of Steno, Hutton, Smith, Lyell, etc. helped to clear the way as well, so the "time was right" for evolution in many ways when Darwin published On the Origin of Species by Natural Selection.

What we're discussing here is one of the points I'm trying to make with the historical section of my writing; evolution was not some idea conceived by Darwin in a "Eureka!" moment from nothing, but instead was built upon intertwining lines of evidence that were not available to naturalists just a generation before. While I'm not one to diminish Darwin's importance, I think the celebrity surrounding him has pushed other important players to the sidelines when this should certainly not be so, the development of evolution as an idea being far more complicated than most people realize (although I know you two and many of my other readers appreciate it).

I don't know what you're talking about as far as titles, Neil; I bought six copies of On Naval Timber and Arborculture and can't wait for the movie adaptation. I've even heard that Michael Mann is attached to direct. ;)

Yeah, apparently Christopher Walken is playing Patrick Matthew it sounds awesome!

As Asmiov says (roughly) 'the most exciting thing to hear in science isn't "Eureka" but "hmmm...that's funny..."'

There are exceptions, of course, but in general they don't seem terribly interested with the work of earlier scientists. As I noted above, this is especially strange being that they find new names for old ideas, acting as if they had just stumbled on some breakthrough.

This is what leads me to suspect they really do believe they've invented the wheel for the first time. Their incuriousity as regards to past scientists' thoughts is completely understandable to me, given that they reject the scientific method utterly.

By Caledonian (not verified) on 03 Nov 2007 #permalink

I couldn't remember the actual term Cuvier used for what I called "interlocking." Ruse renders it as the "subordination of characters" to the "conditions of life" (which didn't mean environment so much as how the animal "makes a living"). If you want a really good treatment of Cuvier (and much of the past philosophy of biology), get The Philosophy of Biology: An Episodic History by Marjorie Grene and David Depew.

In vertebrate comparative anatomy courses I believe it is usually taught as "Cuvier's "law" of the correlation of parts. I don't know if Cuvier every actually used that phrase himself or not.

Neil; I don't know what Cuvier called the idea either, but I too am familiar with the modern day term (I'm ordering some reprints of his works when I have the money to read his own words, in addition to all the books you and John have just added to my list!)

John; The book Stuffed Animals and Pickled Heads mentions Cuvier's concept of the "subordination of characters" as well, which seemed to be correlated to function and the niche of the organism. As Asma notes in his book which I just mentioned, all of this seemed to be an attempt to define some kinds of laws of natural history, although Cuvier did not extend convergence of form/function across his definitions of "embranchments" (Hunter, on the other hand, had no problem comparing a sea horse's tail with the tendril of a plant, crossing whatever barriers necessary to make the point). I'll definitely pick up the Grene and Depew book in addition to the many others I've just added to my list (I can live in a shelter made of books, right?).

I can live in a shelter made of books, right?

Doesn't everyone?

Hauling out Peter Bowler's Evolution: the History of an Idea, "correlation of parts" is the correct term for the interrelatedness of organs and "subordination of characters" was a kind of ad hoc ranking of the importance of features in classification, with some deemed more fundamental than others and distinguishing the embranchements.

I have access to a scanner and can make OCRed pdf files of some of the less extensive references if that would be a help, though it would takes me a few days at least.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but I believe that it wasn't the idea of evolution that made Darwin's work revolutionary, but the mechanisms of natural and sexual selection that he proposed. If I remember my history of biology course properly, the scientific world at that point was perfectly ready to accept that life changed over time, but not to accept the specific mechanism that Darwin put forth. That would help to explain why these ideas remained controversial in science into the 20th century.

On another note, I wanted to mention how much I liked your description of ID to an "intellectual zombie." I think that is a perfect analogy--and to me at least it really drives home the sort of pity I have for that particular idea. ID-like thinking had its place in scientific history, but the state of research has moved beyond that point and it's frustrating to have a group such as the Discovery Institute trying to haul us backwards 200 years. It also prevents the existing scientific community from appreciating ID-like thinking in a historical context as a stepping stone into modern biological theory. I feel they also do a disservice to the likes of Cuvier by association; Cuvier may not have espoused evolution in his time but from what I've read he did have an appreciation for solid science methodology. I like to think he would be insulted to be called on by the IDers today.

Sarah; You're correct that the idea of evolution (or transmutation, as it was sometimes called) predated Darwin and that it was his identification of the mechanism of natural selection that was of the most importance. Sexual selection is of great importance too, but from what I've read more people in the Victorian era had a difficult time swallowing it for one reason or another. I'll have to go back and re-read what I said, but I'm usually careful to say that it was Darwin's idea of evolution by natural selection that was important for precisely the reasons you named.

Thanks for the compliment as well, and it is frustrating that ID advocates keep wanting us to move intellectually backwards. Like you mentioned, even though Cuvier didn't accept evolution I don't know if I would either if I was constantly confronted by the ideas of Lamarck and St. Hilaire, either (but I say such things my my tongue firmly planted in my cheek, of course). As has been already said on this thread, scientific ideas often have longer and more complex histories than most people know about, and it is often surprising what you can find if you go back and read some of the older works.