It took a village to raise me—a village of well-meaning people who found almost nothing quite so threatening as what they called, quaintly, “Darwinism.” And so I grew up learning by heart all the usual rebuttals—I inherited the wind, so to speak, of anti-evolution rhetoric. And how much like wind it is, that handful of arguments against the overwhelming evidence for evolutionary biology. So it seems to the casual observer of these never-ending debates. So it generally seemed to me, except when I thought of that old chestnut, the “watchmaker analogy,” William Paley’s picture of the “argument from design” or “the teleological argument.” Paley’s parable is compelling, his example is persuasive, but his logic—argued David Hume, Darwin himself, and, most lately, famed biologist and professional pot-stirrer Richard Dawkins—is seriously flawed.
Almost twenty years before Dawkins became the face of the New Atheism, he championed evolutionary theory in a 1986 book called The Blind Watchmaker. The book inspired a documentary the next year in which Dawkins took on Paley’s intellectual descendants, the so-called “scientific creationists.” In the film (above), the young(er) Dawkins asserts that “Darwinism always needs defending, creationism keeps on re-surfacing to attack it” (over the image of a shark, no less). This is before the terms “Darwinism” and “Creationism” gave way to more sophisticated formulations in scholarly and popular parlance, like “Evolutionary Biology” and “Intelligent Design.” Whatever the wording, the centuries-old argument turns, broadly, on the same distinctions: is the order we perceive in the universe the result of “blind” natural forces or the purposeful design of an all-powerful entity? At least these are the extremes. As the Catholic Church’s position demonstrates, there are nuanced religious views in-between the dichotomies.
In Dawkins’ documentary, the “Bible-belt of the U.S.A.” comes under scrutiny as a particularly anti-science place, with its strange use of the fossil record and hasty conclusions made to rationalize a set of predetermined views. Oh, had this younger Dawkins known of the wonders to come in Kentucky’s Creation Museum. No matter: he has since been on the case for years. See him above in 1987, debunking the creationism of a slightly earlier age.