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Turning Points in Natural Theology from Bacon to Darwin: The Way of the Argument from Design

Stuart Peterfreund
Published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2012

Reviewed by Edward B. Davis, History of Science, Messiah College

This book by Stuart S. Peterfreund, professor of English at Northeastern University, episodically traces the history and rhetoric of British natural theology from the early seventeenth century to the mid-nineteenth century. The unifying scheme is the identification of a few key “turning points,” when the conceptual and verbal language employed in making design arguments changed fundamentally. The author starts with Francis Bacon, for whom “the design of the organism or creature” was the locus for natural theological reflection. Then, when Robert Boyle so enthusiastically pushed the clockwork metaphor (which was already in use), he “shifted the grounds of the argument from the design of the creature to the design of the mechanism.” Isaac Newton put more emphasis on the mechanical system as a whole, the same basic approach taken famously more than a century later by William Paley. Finally, in the period leading up to Darwin, Robert Chambers and some of the (eight) authors of the Bridgewater Treatises changed the focus from “the design of the universal mechanistic system to … the design of the intrinsic system” (all three quotations from xi-xii, his italics). By “intrinsic system,” Peterfreund apparently means the whole fabric of natural laws that underlies all other phenomena, making specific forms of matter and mechanical action possible in the first place, a line of argument pursued most effectively by William Whewell.

The general picture is accurate, but not especially original. It is no secret that the mechanical philosophy stimulated natural theology, especially in Boyle’s experimentally accomplished hands, or that Whewell and others took natural theology in a new direction by pushing the theological significance of the lawlikeness of nature – indeed, Charles Darwin used a trenchant passage from Whewell on this very point as an epigraph for On the Origin of Species. Certain details, however, are nicely noticed and stated. Thus, “Bacon’s ‘creatures’ are not the same thing as Boyle’s ‘fabric’,” or the distinction drawn (relative to certain Newtonians) between “God primarily as a sublime artificer of the sublime” with regard to “God as a sublime artificer of the beautiful,” or the statement that, “If one word may be said to sum up the metaphysical underpinnings of Boyle’s version of the argument from design, the past participle destinated is that word” (47, 89, and 52; italics in original).

When Peterfreund does try to say new things, however, he is not always very convincing. For example, when comparing Boyle’s view of God and natural law to that of Newton, he presents Boyle as a millenarian who did not inquire too deeply into the causes of (in this case) the properties of air, because “speculation about the nature and operation of that cause constituted a waste of valuable time better spent in preparation for [the] second coming” (60). Unfortunately here it is Peterfreund, not Boyle, who belongs in the same sentence with “speculation.” He also suggests the possibility that Newton’s theory of primary colors (as seen in the rainbow, for example), in which light is treated as a material substance, was influenced by John Calvin’s Commentaries on the First Book of Moses Called Genesis, where (in his opinion) Calvin also (perhaps) treated light as a material thing. This is pure conjecture. Given the sheer quantity of words that Newton devoted to theological matters, we can expect scholars to produce specific evidence for this type of claim. A further problem also involves Calvin: both he and Martin Luther are seen as opponents of Copernican heliocentrism, owing to “the problems that heliocentrism poses for … the presumed authority of the Hexameron” (67). Luther’s opposition is well documented, but it was based on Joshua, not Genesis. Calvin is another story. Although he certainly held the traditional Greek view that the sun moves around a stationary earth, he never mentioned Copernicus’ name and it is not entirely clear that he was attacking Copernicus’ theory even in the sermon on 1 Corinthians 10-11 that is sometimes seen in that light. Even if he was aiming at Copernicus in that passage, his objections were based on reason and observations, not the Bible.

However, two more errors are more serious. In various parts of the book, Peterfreund refers to the documentary hypothesis of the Pentateuch either in a completely confused way, or else in contexts where it had no historical relevance. For example, in two separate but identical footnotes about William Buckland’s interpretation of Genesis, he quotes David Knight’s book, Science and Spirituality, adding completely erroneous interpolations: Buckland “went along with other scholars, for whom there is a break between the first verse of Genesis [the p account] … and the second [the j account]” (139 and 179). Knight’s description of Buckland’s gap theory is accurate, but Peterfreund’s interpolations confuse the first two verses in Genesis with the first two chapters. Elsewhere he correctly associates the p account with Genesis 1:1-2:4a, but he mentions this in connection with Bacon, Boyle, and Newton – none of whom would have recognized the documentary hypothesis. This is puzzling, to say the least, but I am completely baffled by his claim that “Newton’s position on [divine] immanence is utterly at odds with Boyle’s, at least in part because Newton wishes to avoid any discussion of teleology or a personate God involved in the intimate details of “contrivance” that result in the design of an animal” (note 105 on p. 171). It is true that Boyle said much more than Newton about such “contrivances,” and that he properly acknowledged divine immanence – despite an almost inordinate fondness for the clock metaphor. For his part, however, Newton loudly and joyously praised God precisely for `contrivances’ – and unmistakably attributed them to divine immanence at the same time:

The first Contrivance of those very artificial Parts of Animals, the Eyes, Ears, Brain, Muscles, [and so on] … can be the effect of nothing else than the Wisdom and Skill of a powerful ever-living Agent, who being in all Places, is more able by his Will to move the bodies within his boundless uniform Sensorium, and thereby to form and reform the Parts of the Universe, than we are by our Will to move the Parts of our own Bodies.

These very famous words from Query 31 in the Opticks are actually quoted by Peterfreund elsewhere in the book (92), so we know he did not overlook them: What was he thinking? Furthermore, Peterfreund realizes that Newton denied the Trinity, but apparently he does not realize that Newton’s protégé Samuel Clarke also held a view of the Trinity that was seen as unorthodox at the time. This nullifies the following comparison: “While [John] Ray, Clarke, and [William] Derham may have attempted to reconcile natural theology with orthodoxy, Newton and the skeptic [David] Hume … held religious positions that were unacceptable to the established church” (105). In fact, because Newton (unlike Clarke) carefully concealed his heterodox views from public view, his natural theology was seen as defending the established church; indeed, he may even have played a role in selecting Richard Bentley to give the first Boyle lectures on natural theology.

Peterfreund says this as part of a passage stressing the Anglican orthodoxy of Paley’s work. As he notes, “Newton is nowhere mentioned in Natural Theology, nor is Boyle,” and in his opinion this was a deliberate choice on Paley’s part, given his goal “to reconcile the discourse of natural theology with the discourse of Anglican orthodoxy” (105). On the previous page, the author makes much of Paley’s statement that “My opinion of astronomy has always been, that it is not the best medium through which to prove the agency of an intelligent Creator,” when compared with biological contrivances (italics in original). Boyle had said exactly the same thing in his Disquisition on the Final Causes of Natural Things, a work that Peterfreund quoted earlier in the book, but he seems to have missed this pertinent passage:

the Situations of the Cœlestial Bodies, do not afford by far so clear and cogent Arguments, of the Wisdom and Design of the Author of the World, as do the bodies of Animals and Plants. And for my part I am apt to think, there is more of admirable Contrivance in a Mans Muscles, than in (what we yet know of) the Celestial Orbs; and that the Eye of a Fly is, (at least as far as appears to us,) a more curious piece of Workmanship, than the Body of the Sun.1

Other parallels are also obvious, especially Boyle’s emphasis on the design of the eye and his widespread use of the clock metaphor to promote design – indeed, it is not too much to say that Paley’s watch was lifted from Boyle’s pocket. None of this would be evident to casual readers, since Paley did not invoke Boyle’s name, but the author of a work such as this might be expected to read less casually – and offer a better reason why Paley would avoid mentioning an author as pious and orthodox as Boyle really was.

Unfortunately, incompetent copy editing only adds to my disappointment. I will not blame the author, but this is simply the worst printing job for a scholarly work that I have ever seen. I have never said it before, and I hope I will not be tempted to say it again. I found dozens of errors of various types, at least a dozen of which will badly confuse many readers. The worst involve long quotations from primary sources in the footnotes (a few such errors also made their way into the main text), including the failure to place quotation marks around quoted passages, such that readers do not immediately realize that the words they just read were not the author’s.

In a two-page epilogue, Peterfreund dismisses the modern intelligent design view (as found in Michael Behe) with nothing more than a handwave. Although he realizes that “Behe’s arguments raise yet again the question of whether ‘an irreducibly complex biological system’ qualifies as a locus of design,” he declines the opportunity to ask why Paley’s ideas still seem so viable to so many so long after Darwin and why ID proponents tend to put more weight on the “design” of Paleyan “contrivances” than on Whewellian “general laws” (132-133). This is a less than satisfactory conclusion to a less than satisfactory book.

Cite this article
Edward B. Davis, “Turning Points in Natural Theology from Bacon to Darwin: The Way of the Argument from Design”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 44:1 , 95-98


  1. The Works of Robert Boyle, eds. Michael Hunter and Edward B. Davis, vol. 11 (London: Pickering & Chatto, 1999-2000), 97.

Edward B. Davis

Messiah University
Dr. Edward Davis is Professor of the History of Science at Messiah College.