Book Review

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A review of Natural Theology by William Paley

The “Argument from Design” refuses to stay in its coffin.  The teleological argument for the existence of God, articulated in such detail by William Paley in 1802 in his book Natural Theology was dealt its death blow by Darwin’s Origin of Species in 1859, or so we are told by the propagandists of evolution . . . “Paley’s divine watchmaker became unemployed” Sir Gavin de Beer put it.  Nature itself, however, oblivious to these claims, continues to illustrate superlative design that grows more wondrous with each advance of man’s understanding of her workings.  Creationists are not resurrecting a dead argument.  The argument from design never died at all.  In astronomer Fred Hoyle’s words, “It is ironic that the scientific facts throw Darwin out, but leave William Paley, a figure of fun to the scientific world for more than a century, still in the tournament with a chance of being the ultimate winner.”

Give your intellect a real treat; pick up a copy of Paley’s work.  Read it, that is, if you can find a copy.  It’s unfortunate that a book so insightful, so influential in the history of science, a book that impacted Darwin strongly before his apostasy, a book by a man whose essays were required reading at Cambridge for 100 years, should be scarce today.  It’s well worth the search; and now, on the web, you can find online excerpts. Paley’s language is rich, eloquent, and stimulating.  His logic is impeccable, his thinking incisive.  Natural Theology is a classic.

Most of us are familiar with the “watch requires a watchmaker” illustration.  I myself had heard this from my youth and took it as axiomatic.  I would be hard pressed, if asked to, to write more than a couple of pages on it.  Here’s where Paley shines.  For two exquisite chapters he delves into this argument, the objections to it, the answers to the objections, the reasons why no one could rightfully assume that a watch, stumbled upon along the road, just came together by chance.

Paley then logically extends the argument to the natural world, where the “contrivances of nature” are seen to be far more illustrative of design than the watch.  Drawing from instances in biology, anatomy, physiology, entomology, botany, and astronomy, he takes us like a tour guide through a museum pointing out marvel after marvel.  For a theologian, Paley was a remarkable naturalist and observer.  It’s a challenge to us to open our eyes to the world around us that speaks so forcefully of God’s wisdom.

Scientific knowledge has grown tremendously, of course, since 1802, and some of Paley’s illustrations are out of date, if not downright erroneous.  Yet the errors in no way diminish the argument from design.  In every case, the facts show more design than even Paley imagined.  DNA, genetics, embryology, and microbiology were brought into the museum of natural theology only recently.  How Paley could flourish using today’s knowledge in a revised edition!  Would that a modern Christian biologist would take Paley’s classic and reprint it with updates and annotations.  Nevertheless, reading through the catalog of “natural contrivances” that Paley outlines, one can hardly fail to be surprised at how much was known in the late 1700s.  It’s a blow to our twentieth century chauvinism to realize that even in colonial times there was no trivial understanding of natural science.

Paley rounds out his work with answers to the “yeah buts” that inevitably gravitate to any proposition.  “Yeah, but what about poisonous snakes?”  “Yeah, but what about disease, old age, and death?”  Without reference to the Bible, or the fall, or the curse, Paley meets these objections head on with insight and finesse.  He comes up with some answers most of us never would have thought of.  Far be it from me to disclose them here; I’d rather you pick up the book and enjoy Paley’s own inimitable discourse.  Christian theologians know, however, that Natural Theology cannot bring a sinner all the way to the cross of Christ.  While nature can convince a person there must be a God, and conscience can convict him or her of sin, the Special Revelation of Scripture holds the key to salvation.  Missionaries are therefore vitally necesary to announce to the lost good news of Christ: “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you shall be saved“ (Acts 16:31).  Paley’s epic work can, however, get the sinner started down the right path, and gives the believer much cause for worship of the all-wise Creator.  [For further information on this subject, see the Creation Safari “Reality Check” article on Natural Revelation.]

The observer of nature needs to have a satisfying ontology, or metaphysical understanding of the nature and relations of being.  The questions of who we are, why are we here, what is our destiny, what is our relationship to our surroundings, in short what is our ontology, are another way of asking is there a Master Designer behind all we see.  William Paley, using only the observations of nature, deduced clearly that (with no apologies to Haeckel) ontology recapitulates theology.

If you can find it, get a copy of William Paley’s book.*  You’ll agree that “Paley ontology” is not just a fossil in the museum of science.

*A new edition (2005) has been printed and is available from  The publisher at Coachwhip Publications wrote, in response to this review:

You may be interested to know that I have recently reprinted the book as an affordable paperback, currently available at Amazon and other retailers.  You can view the cover at Amazon via the ISBN, 1930585217.  This edition includes an additional appendix – a bibliography of modern day teleological arguments, with a number of articles listed from Tech J., CRS Quart., etc.

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