The Clockwork Universe: Isaac Newton, the Royal Society, and the Birth of the Modern World - Edward Dolnick (2011)

Part II. Hope and Monsters

Chapter 20. The Parade of the Horribles

When Galileo and Newton looked at nature, they saw simplicity. That was, they declared, God’s telltale signature. When their biologist colleagues looked at nature, they saw endless variety. That was, they announced, God’s telltale signature.

Each side happily cited one example after another. The physicists pointed out that as the planets circle the sun, for instance, they all travel in the same direction and in the same plane. The biologists presented their own eloquent case, notably in a large and acclaimed book titled The Wisdom of God Manifested in the Works of Creation. The “vast Multitude of different Sorts of Creatures” testified to God’s merits, the naturalist John Ray argued, just as it would show more skill in a manufacturer if he could fashion not simply one product but “Clocks and Watches, and Pumps, and Mills and [Grenades] and Rockets.”

Strikingly, no one saw any contradiction in the views of the two camps. In part this reflected a division of labor. The physicists focused on the elegance of God’s aesthetics, the biologists on the range of His inventiveness. Both sides were bound by the shared conviction, deeper than any possible division, that God had designed every feature of the universe. For the physicists, that view led directly to the idea that God was a mathematician, and progress. For biologists, it led down a blind alley and made the discovery of evolution impossible.

Two centuries passed between Newton’s theory of gravity and Darwin’s theory of evolution. How could that be? Newton’s work bristled with mathematics and focused on remote, unfamiliar objects like planets and comets. Darwin’s theory of evolution dealt in ordinary words with ordinary things like pigeons and barnacles. “How extremely stupid not to have thought of that!” Thomas Huxley famously grumbled after first reading Darwin’s Origin of Species. No one ever scolded himself for not beating Newton to the Principia.

The “easier” theory proved harder to find because it required abandoning the idea of God the designer. Newton and his contemporaries never for a moment considered rejecting the notion of design. The premise at the heart of evolution is that living creatures have inborn, random differences; some of those random variations happen to provide an advantage in the struggle for life, and nature favors those variations. That focus on randomness was unthinkable in the seventeenth century. Even Voltaire, the greatest skeptic of his day, took for granted that where there was a design, there was a designer. No thinker of that age, no matter how brilliant, could imagine an alternative. “It is natural to admit the existence of a God as soon as one opens one’s eyes,” Voltaire wrote. “It is by virtue of an admirable art that all the planets dance round the sun. Animals, vegetables, minerals—everything is ordered with proportion, number, movement. Nobody can doubt that a painted landscape or drawn animals are works of skilled artists. Could copies possibly spring from an intelligence and the originals not?”

Newton, blinded by his faith in intelligent design, argued in the same vein. In a world where randomness was a possibility, he scoffed, we’d be beset with every variety of jury-rigged, misshapen creature. “Some kinds of beasts might have had but one eye, some more than two.”

The problem was not simply that for Newton and the others “randomness” conveyed all the horror of “anarchy.” Two related beliefs helped rule out any possibility of a seventeenth-century Darwin. The first was the assumption that every feature of the world had been put there for man’s benefit. Every plant, every animal, every rock existed to serve us. The world contained wood, the Cambridge philosopher Henry More explained, because otherwise human houses would have been only “a bigger sort of beehives or birds’ nests, made of contemptible sticks and straw and dirty mortar.” It contained metal so that men could assault one another with swords and guns, rather than sticks, as they enjoyed the “glory and pomp” of war.

The second assumption that blinded Newton and his contemporaries to evolution was the idea that the universe was almost brand-new. The Bible put creation at a mere six thousand years in the past. Even if someone had conceived of an evolving natural world, that tiny span of time would not have offered enough elbow room. Small changes could only transform one-celled creatures into daffodils and dinosaurs if nature had eons to work with. Instead, seventeenth-century scientists took for granted that trees and fish, men and women, dogs and flowers all appeared full-blown, in precisely the form they have today.

Two hundred years later, scientists still clung to the same idea. In the words of Louis Agassiz, Darwin’s great Victorian rival, each species was “a thought of God.”