The English clergyman and philosopher William Paley (1743-1805), who among his many other achievements was also the Christ’s College senior wrangler of 1763, is probably best known today for his analogy of the “watchmaker”, which was an argument-from-nature for the existence of God.
If one were walking in a field and found a watch, the argument goes, one would never imagine that it had somehow arisen spontaneously from the unguided activity of Nature, but would instead assume, with complete confidence, that it was the work of a watchmaker. In the same way, Paley suggested, when one considers the exquisite design of plants and animals, there ought to be no doubt that such intricate complexity must require a Designer as well. And who could that be but God?
It is easy to see how, before Darwin’s great insight — arguably the deepest ever had by anyone — such an argument must have held great power. It still does, in fact: even today a great many people cite similar arguments, cloaked occasionally in misleading statistics, to support the same conclusion.
Of course, the fact that we who are alive today are descended from other, simpler organisms is really not in doubt anymore among scholars of biology and the Earth’s history (and the truth of Darwin’s insight, I should add, has no bearing on the question of the existence of God). But even so, sometimes one runs across an example of natural selection’s handiwork that, even to those who appreciate the process’s immense power to build design upon design, is simply astonishing:
What we are looking at here (from the August 2006 issue of National Geographic) are the wings of a South African speckled emperor moth. While mimicry in nature is not uncommon — we’ve all seen moths before with “eyespots” on their wings — what is extraordinary to me is the realistic detail exhibited by this species: in particular, the gleaming white patches in the eyespots’ “pupils” that so accurately resemble the glint of sunlight. I realize that design even at this level of detail is arguably less impressive than, say, the work that went into the actual eye that these markings mimic, but the fact that this striking image, seemingly painted by an expert hand, has been built right into the genome of a moth by the simple rules of natural selection is to me almost inexpressibly wonderful.