In my previous post, discussing attempts to interpret Stonehenge in the 17th Century, I suggested that some scientists of the seventeenth century thought that natural things had been designed by God. This meant that they sometimes found it useful to think about natural things as if they had been designed by people, perhaps using processes similar to architectural design or the design of clocks and watches.
There was, however, a crucial difference between things designed by people, and those designed by God. For these scientists, that difference was related to perfection. For devoutly Christian naturalists such as John Ray (1621-1705), it was pretty much self-evident that everything designed by God had to have been designed perfectly. There was no way, he thought, that God could have made something that was less than perfect. Ray argued this in a theological work published in 1691, The Wisdom of God Manifested in the Works of Creation.
This argument, which served both as an attempted proof of God’s existence and an important explanatory tool in scientific inquiry, threw up some big difficulties. If every type of animal and plant was perfect, could it nevertheless be claimed that some species were more perfect than others? Are humans more perfect, for example, than oysters or clams? Distinctions like these were important to seventeenth-century thinkers, who often wanted to show that God had shown special favour to humanity by endowing men and women with special qualities to distinguish them from animals? But this creates big problems. Robert Boyle, for example, worried about the possibility that God might seem like a bad designer to people who compared oysters with humans. How can an oyster have been ‘perfectly’ designed if, unlike humans, it can neither see nor hear.
Another difficulty was thrown up by animals that seemed to have redundant organs, which today we can explain using evolutionary arguments. One such animal was the mole, which seemed to possess eyes – albeit eyes that were not much use for seeing things. How could such eyes be an example of perfection in design? One response to such worries was to make arguments about the adaptation of species to their specific circumstances.
In his Wisdom of God, Ray brought up the example of the mole, citing the philosopher Henry More, who had discussed in the 1650s. He made a virtue of the mole’s seeming impairment, arguing that its poor eyesight was an example of masterful design:
Dr. More produces an eminent Instance in a poor contemptible Quadruped, the Mole. First of all (saith he) her dwelling being under ground, where nothing is to be seen, Nature hath so obscurely fitted her with Eyes, that Naturalists can scarcely agree, whether she hath any Sight at all or no (In our Observation, Moles have perfect Eyes, and holes for them through the Skin, so that they are outwardly to be seen by any that shall diligently search for them; though indeed they are exceeding small, not much bigger than a great Pins head.).
In other words, Ray tried to show that the mole was a perfect creature, perfectly adapted to its dark, underground way of life.
N.B. In NO WAY is this an endorsement of ‘intelligent design’ theories, which have no place in modern discussions of nature. I am simply discussing ideas held by seventeenth century naturalists.