In his influential 1986 book, The Blind Watchmaker, Richard Dawkins famously proclaimed that the 1859 publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species for the first time “made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.” The title of Dawkins’s book was an explicit reference to the “watchmaker argument” presented in William Paley’s 1802 Natural Theology, and Dawkins took a swipe at latter-day opponents of evolution through his faint praise of that book: Paley’s (purported) inference of an intelligent designer to account for the origins of complex biology was “made with passionate sincerity and … informed by the best biological scholarship of his day.” For Dawkins, Paley presented a scientific argument for the appearances of purpose in nature, the most reasonable way at the time to “explain the organized complexity of the living world.” According to The Blind Watchmaker, it was by far the best explanation available—until Darwin came along and showed it to be “wrong, gloriously and utterly wrong.”[1] Thus every plaudit heaped upon the late Archdeacon became another stone cast at those who would claim to be Paley’s inheritors in the present Darwinian day.

Dawkins was hardly the first to cite William Paley as a foil to Charles Darwin, but the particular interpretation that he put forward—that Paley was raising scientific questions that Darwin convincingly answered—has only become the dominant view since The Blind Watchmaker was published. So much so that Dawkins critic and intelligent design advocate Michael Behe embraced Dawkins’s view of Paley his 1996 Darwins Black Box.

But how has the Natural Theology come to be seen as a work of science in the first place? This question is not meant to imply that Paley’s work was ever accepted as true by a scientific community, but that by interpreting Paley as a foil to Darwin, several historians and scientists fomented an understanding that the Natural Theology was addressing the same sort of questions that Darwin was asking, that is to say, scientific questions.

The transition from reading Paley’s book as a work of theology to reading it as a failed attempt at scientific explanation is a crucial part of a broader genealogy of misreading of the Natural Theology, but Paley as a scientific foil to Darwin is an image that evolved gradually over the course of two centuries. A complete genealogy would stretch beyond this limited space, but a look at three moments in this history, as well as Natural Theology itself, gives us an idea of how Paley and Darwin came to represent two opposing sides of evolutionary science.

The opening to the Natural Theology carefully indicates that Paley does not rest the inference of a designer on the necessity of an initial creation.[2] The first sentence of the book suggests that the idea of a world that has existed eternally cannot be ruled out through an investigation of nature.

In crossing a heath, suppose I pitched my foot against a stone, and were asked how the stone came to be there, I might possibly answer, that for any thing I knew to the contrary it had lain there for ever; nor would it, perhaps, be very easy to show the absurdity of this answer.[3]

Paley’s second sentence contrasts the impossibility of inference about the stone with the conclusions one might rightly draw upon discovery of a watch—that it shows indication of a designer. But the evidence of the watch’s designer does not come from the need to explain its origins. In the start of the second chapter, he considers a watch that “possessed the unexpected property of producing in the course of its movement another watch like itself.” Imagining an infinite regress of self-replicating watches, Paley affirms that “the argument from design remains as it was.”[4]

Yet by the 1830s, some readers were already disposed to the view that the origins of the natural world were important to natural theology. In their edition of Paley’s Natural Theology, published in 1836, Henry Brougham and Charles Bell appended a footnote to Paley’s opening sentence.

The argument is put here very naturally. But a considerable change has taken place of late years in the knowledge attained by even common readers, and there are few who would be without reflection “how the stone came to be there.” The changes which the earth’s surface has undergone, and the preparation for its present condition, have become a subject of high interest; and there is hardly any one who now would, for an instant, believe that the stone was formed where it lay.[5]

Even if this footnote, (which continues at length describing geological processes) is not seen as a correction to Paley’s argument itself, it suggests to readers that the question of how Paley’s exemplars—the stone and the watch—“came to be there” requires an answer accounting for their fabrication. The same interpretation is given in Brougham’s Discourse of Natural Theology, published a year earlier.

If, to take Dr. Paley’s example, we pass over a common and strike the foot against a stone, we do not stop to ask who placed it there; but if we find that our foot has struck on a watch, we at once conclude that some mechanic made it, and that someone dropt it on the ground. Why do we draw this inference? Because all our former experience had told us that such machinery is the result of human skill and labour, and that nowhere grows wild about, or is found in the earth.[6]

The inclusion of this footnote after the very first sentence of Paley’s text also suggests that, for Brougham and Bell, the debate over whether the world was eternal as opposed to being created at some initial point was no longer crucial to Paley’s discussion. As the footnote goes on to cite John Herschel from his Preliminary Discourse on the Study of Natural Philosophy, that text might be seen as an immediate influence on this interpretation.[7]

Herschel claims that scientific discoveries “effectually destroy the idea of an eternal self-existent matter” but also declares that “to ascend to the origin of things, and speculate on the creation, is not the business of the natural philosopher.”[8] If speculation on the creation is not the natural philosopher’s business, then it must be the proper domain of the natural theologian. With an appendix on horology and a lengthy footnote explaining the origin of the stone, creation also became the proper domain of the Paley of Brougham and Bell. Only shortly after Paley’s manuscript found its way into the hands of readers, individuals began to read the text as a response to questions, at best, only implied by the book itself.

Herschel’s demarcation of the role of the natural philosopher might also point us toward other aspects of natural theology and scientific thought in Paley’s time, as well as other ways of reading Natural Theology. It was, in one sense, an early step in the explicit separation of theology and natural science as separate “businesses” (to use Herschel’s own term.) But as Bernard Lightman has demonstrated, the mid and late nineteenth century was also a period of a growing distinction between the scientific practitioner and the scientific popularizer. He argues, “the success of the Bridgewater Treatises may have encouraged popularizers to incorporate natural theology themes in their works,” but that like those treatises, “they did not adopt the demonstrative natural theology of Paley as their model.”[9]


Paley’s work, left to the interpretations of his contemporaries and successors, gradually became about science and creation, rather than about theological argument.


Science popularizers wrote books that were about nature, but incorporated theological reflections, not works that made use of nature to support theological arguments. Yet some of them did draw from examples taken directly from Paley, even if they applied it towards different ends. From the perspective of the practitioner of science, the separation from theology was part of the separation from the popularizer, and the differences between natural theology and religious popular science were minimal.

The eight Bridgewater Treatises (books commissioned by the Earl of Bridgewater to explore “the Power, Wisdom and Goodness of God as manifested in Creation”) were collectively more representative of natural theology in the 1830s than the annotated Paley. As Aileen Fyfe has noted in her study of the reception of Paley’s Natural Theology at Cambridge, despite concern that Paley’s descriptions of nature were out of date, Paley nonetheless “was still regarded as the classic of the genre.” But the treatment of Paley as genre allowed later writers to invoke him and yet provide different arguments under the rubric of natural theology. As Fyfe writes, one strategy for this “was to ‘extend’ Paley by dealing with subjects not mentioned by him—such as chemistry, geology, astronomy and the physical sciences in general.”[10] Geology, astronomy, and chemistry served as the primary subjects for three of the eight Bridgewater Treatises. This extension into the physical sciences, at a time when those disciplines were no longer seriously entertaining an eternal world and were instead disputing the question of how the creation occurred, helped to entrench the question of creation into the genre of natural theology.

The Bridgewater Treatises not only helped to redefine natural theology as an inquiry into God from the origins of creation, they also helped to present the genre of natural theology as a religiously-inflected popular science. As Jonathan Topham has argued, “one overriding reason for the extraordinary success of the Bridgewater Treatises was that they presented the pious middle classes with a science largely non-technical and religiously conservative compendium of contemporary science.”[11]

The Bridgewater Treatises’ interpretations of Paley’s text—and their senses of what could be retained, updated, discarded, or presumed in composing works of natural theology that claimed to be extensions of Paley—added a second order of uncertainty in the way that readers perceived Paley’s work. Robert Chambers, author of the 1844 Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, could write of “The Natural Theology of Paley, and the Bridgewater Treatises,” as if they were all one thing.[12]

The Bridgewater Treatises and other works of natural theology could be seen as extensions of Paley, but only at the expense of expanding what people thought Paley’s thought represented. The readings of Paley that blossomed in the nineteenth century were diverse, divergent, and perhaps uncontrolled, but at least some of those readings, inflected by the Bridgewater Treatises, facilitated an interpretation that Paley’s aim in writing natural theology was to illustrate nature, more than to argue for the existence of God. Again, the Paley we see here is one whose original arguments have slowly expanded: the text now encompasses questions far beyond its early theological goals.

Paley’s work, left to the interpretations of his contemporaries and successors, gradually became about science and creation, rather than about theological argument. But by the dawn of the twentieth century, discussion of Paley had largely dwindled, especially in the United States. In Britain, mention of Paley persisted longer, but appears to have focused almost wholly on his Evidences of Christianity, or his Principles of Moral and Political Philosophy. Paley and his works were considered to be of more historical or literary interest than relevant to contemporary philosophy, science, or theology.

Indeed, from the 1920s through the early 1950s, it appears that Julian Huxley was one of the few writers to mention William Paley. Julian was the grandson of Darwin’s close friend, the “bulldog” T.H. Huxley. He was also a leading figure in codifying the modern evolutionary synthesis, an account of evolution that bridged until then disconnected fields of scientific study. His references to the Natural Theology all fit a narrative about the obsolescence of teleology in science that embodied Huxley’s “modern synthesis.” In 1923, Huxley pointed to Paley as the exemplar of “a common fallacy—the ascription of personality to God on the ground that a purpose exists in nature.” “Modern theologians,” Huxley then asserted, were “driven from this position by Darwin.” Yet Huxley’s aim in this essay was not to heap scorn upon the late Archdeacon, but rather to attack Henri Bergson for providing theologians with a post-Darwinian “refuge.”[13]

It was Bergson, after all, whom Huxley saw as contributing to the immolation of late nineteenth-century Darwinism. Huxley castigated Bergson and associated him with Paley (who was unquestionably a writer of religion, but whose theology was invalidated by his use of self-evidently obsolete science). In doing so, Huxley portrayed Bergson as an inappropriate model for biology. Huxley also reshaped the conversation of religion and science in a way legitimating his evolutionary synthesis by making it explicitly nonteleological.


Huxley delivered a Thanksgiving Day convocation that shocked many with its brazen pronouncement that humanity had evolved beyond need for “Divine Authority” much as it had abandoned “the doctrine of the Four Elements.”


As part of Huxley’s attempt to present evolutionary science as Darwinism as nonteleological and as the correct explanation for nature, he framed a history of Darwin’s antecedents that shifted the question of teleology into the scientific realm, albeit one with religious implications. In a 1939 essay he referred to “Paley and other naturalists” who had given a design-based account of “the co-adaptation of the various organs and parts.” This was refuted—Huxley claimed—by Darwin’s observation of structures that were not well-adapted, “notably vestigial structures are quite useless. So that they are no compliment to a Divine designer, and in fact quite destroy the argument.”[14] In 1945, Huxley claimed that “it was Paley who started Darwin on his intellectual career,” although he still referred to Paley as a theologian.[15] In effect, Huxley rendered the question of whether nature has a purpose as one scientists sought to answer as well as theologians. This depiction left Paley as a theologian, but one who was asking a question that had also been asked by scientists.

While Huxley was presenting the purging of teleology as a way to distinguish evolutionary science from its religious influences (and thus save a theory to which Darwin’s name could be attached), American antievolutionists were increasingly depicted as adherents to a biblical literalism that focused on the separate creation of species outlined in Genesis. Huxley’s framing of evolution as Darwinian coincided with the equation of Darwinism with evolution that American antievolutionists made in the 1920s and 30s. Huxley was not reframing the history of Darwinism for the purpose of addressing the American antievolution controversies, but his doing so helped align conversations about evolution, science, and religion as the conversation shifted from Darwin as a metonym for evolution to Darwin the historical figure, and from Darwinism’s relation to religion to Darwin’s personal relation to religion.

1959 was the centennial of the Origin of Species and Darwin’s own sesquicentennial. The year saw a series of celebrations and publications that celebrated Darwin both as an individual and as the standard bearer for a scientific theory. Julian Huxley was central to the organization of one of the most famous events marking the anniversaries, the Darwin Centennial Celebration at the University of Chicago. He delivered a Thanksgiving Day convocation that shocked many with its brazen pronouncement that humanity had evolved beyond need for “Divine Authority” much as it had abandoned “the doctrine of the Four Elements.”[16]

But it was another address that was perhaps most significant for discovering the reemergence of William Paley as a person of historical interest. Jaroslav Pelikan’s address on the subject of “Creation and Causality in the History of Christian Thought” contains the only direct references to Paley in the published proceedings. “Faith in the direction of divine Providence over nature, as formulated by writers like William Paley in his Natural Theology, could not stand if Darwin was right.”[17]

This depiction of Paley’s ideas and their relation to Darwin is not very different from those of the late nineteenth century, and it clearly treats Paley as a theologian. However, Pelikan’s primary thesis was the historical interpretation of “creation” and the gradual evolution from its understanding as the formation of things from (possibly preexisting) matter to an insistence (in at least some versions of Christianity) on creation as creation ex nihilo. Arguably, Paley’s presentation in Natural Theology speaks directly to this question, and yet he was only mentioned as an introductory connection to the conference’s Darwinian theme. It was not new to say that Paley was negated by Darwin, but when the University of Chicago Divinity School’s Professor of Historical Theology could look right past the details of the Natural Theology, it highlights the extent to which the text’s meanings had drifted in over 150 years.

The end of the 1950s and the early 1960s was also the beginning of what has come to be called the “Darwin Industry.”[18] The publication of Darwin’s unexpurgated autobiography by Nora Barlow in 1958 and several other publications timed to coincide with the Origin’s centenary helped direct historical focus onto Darwin’s personal life. Many of these texts also expanded on Darwin’s apparent struggle with Paley. In Barlow’s version of the Autobiography, a longer description of Darwin’s loss of faith that had been cut from the earlier published edition was restored.[19] This passage immediately precedes Darwin’s claim that Paley’s argument fails in the light of natural selection, enabling an interpretation that the failure of Paley’s argument was what led Darwin to abandon his religion.

This interpretation, as James Moore argues, “takes the Autobiography too seriously as a statement of causality” and suggests that more personal factors played a greater role in Darwin’s personal faith experience.[20] Nonetheless, this passage in the autobiography prompted others to frame a narrative of Darwin’s overcoming of the Paley he had looked up to in his youth, almost as an Oedipal victory. This increased biographical attention to Darwin, together with Huxley’s own writings, helped facilitate the repositioning of Paley as a scientific precursor, not only as a theologian whose religious views were made obsolete by science. Whereas earlier readers of Paley misread his theology, assigning him positions on creation then questioned by science, now Paley became at last a thinker wholly within the scientific realm.

Although the Natural Theology has been excerpted, annotated, and paraphrased in many instances, it was not changes to the text itself that enabled the diversity of reader interpretations over two centuries. Readers encountered Natural Theology, and by extension the character of William Paley, as expressions of the evolving question of science and religion. Questions of creation, or of teleology, shifted from the realm of theology into science, and Paley himself became, for some, a theologian, and for others, a failed scientist.

Understanding of how science and religion are defined individually—and how the science-religion trope is itself defined—has evolved symbiotically with the understanding of what audiences can read and interpret science-religion texts. As Natural Theology came to different audiences—to the business of religion, to the business of natural philosophy, to popularizers, to the classroom—the book itself was bound up with the issue of which audiences could proclaim the meaning of its contents, and how those audiences saw themselves in relation to one another. The history of Natural Theology, then, is not only about shifting meanings. It’s about different communities and different readers, each of whom imagined these key terms—science and religion—in drastically different ways.

Adam R. Shapiro is a historian of science and religion. His the author of Trying Biology: The Scopes Trial, Textbooks, and the Antievolution Movement in American Schools, released in 2013 with University of Chicago Press. This piece is an excerpt from an article published in Studies in the History and Philosophy of the Biological and Biomedical Sciences, 45, “Darwin’s foil: The evolving uses of William Paley’s Natural Theology 1802-2005,” 114-123, Copyright Elsevier, 2014.

[1] Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker (Harlow: Longman Scientific & Technical, 1986), 5.

[2] Adam Shapiro, “William Paley’s Lost “Intelligent Design,” History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences 31 (2009): 55-77.

[3] Henry Lord Brougham and Charles Bell, Paley’s Natural Theology, with Illustrative Notes (London: Charles Knight, 1836), 1.

[4] Brougham and Bell, Paley’s Natural Theology, 11, 13.

[5] Ibid., 1-2.

[6] Henry Lord Brougham, A Discourse on Natural Theology Showing the Nature of the Evidence and the Advantages of the Study (London: Charles Knight, 1835), 43.

[7] Herschel quoted in William Paley, Natural Theology: or, Evidence of the Existence and Attribute of the Deity, Collected from the Appearances of Nature (Boston: Lincoln and Edmans, 1836), 3, is at J.F.W. Herschel, A Preliminary Discourse on the Study of Natural Philosophy (London: Longman, Rees, Orme, Brown, and Green, 1831), 14.

[8] Herschel, A Preliminary Discourse, 38.

[9] Bernard Lightman, Victorian Popularizers of Science: Designing Nature for New Audiences (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007), 23, 24.

[10] Aileen Fyfe, “The Reception of William Paley’s ‘Natural Theology’ in the University of Cambridge,” The British Journal for the History of Science 30 (1997), pp. 330.

[11] Jonathan Topham, “Science and Popular Education in the 1830s: The Role of the ‘Bridgewater Treatises,’” The British Journal for the History of Science 25 (1992), 398.

[12] Robert Chambers, Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation (London: John Churchill, 1844), 324.

[13] Julian Huxley, Essays of a Biologist (London: Chatto and Windus, 1923), 215.

[14] Julian Huxley, The Living Thoughts of Darwin (London: Cassell and Company, 1939), 58

[15] Julian Huxley, Essays in Popular Science (London: Chatto and Windus, 1945), 183.

[16] Julian Huxley, “The Evolutionary Vision: The Convocation Address, in Evolution after Darwin: The University of Chicago Centennial, ed. S. Tax and C. Callender (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1960), 253.

[17] Jaroslav Pelikan, “Creation and Causality in the History of Christian Thought,” in Evolution after Darwin, 29-30.

[18] For example, Michael Ruse, “The Darwin Industry—A Critical Evaluation,” History of Science 12 (1974).

[19] Nora Barlow, The Autobiography of Charles Darwin, 1809-1882 (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1958), 87.

[20] James Moore, “Of Love and Death: Why Darwin ‘Gave Up Christianity,’” in History, Humanity, and Evolution, ed. James Moore (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 197.

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