Updated: Dec 22, 2019
In the early nineteenth century, no-one who had not studied the works of William Paley could consider themselves to have had a proper education.
William Paley (1743–1805), was educated at Christ’s College, Cambridge, becoming a Fellow in 1766 and entering the Anglican priesthood. His A View of the Evidences of Christianity, published in 1794, was required reading at Cambridge University until the 20th century. His most influential contribution to biological thought, however, was his book Natural Theology: or, Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity, Collected from the Appearances of Nature, first published in 1802. In this book, Paley laid out a full exposition of natural theology, the belief that the nature of God could be understood by reference to His creation, the natural world. He introduced one of the most famous metaphors in the philosophy of science, the image of the watchmaker:
‘. . . when we come to inspect the watch, we perceive. . . that its several parts are framed and put together for a purpose, e.g. that they are so formed and adjusted as to produce motion, and that motion so regulated as to point out the hour of the day; that if the different parts had been differently shaped from what they are, or placed after any other manner or in any other order than that in which they are placed, either no motion at all would have been carried on in the machine, or none which would have answered the use that is now served by it. . . . the inference we think is inevitable, that the watch must have had a maker -- that there must have existed, at some time and at some place or other, an artificer or artificers who formed it for the purpose which we find it actually to answer, who comprehended its construction and designed its use’.
Extending that metaphor to an examination of the eye, and much else in living systems, Paley argued the existence of God, an intelligent designer. Such objects, he claimed, could not have arisen by chance.
John Tyndall had not had the benefit of an extensive formal education in preparation for attending university. So when he undertook on his own account to attend the University of Marburg to study for a doctorate, there was reading to catch up on. According to his journal, one book Tyndall bought, on 17 October 1848, the day before he set out for Germany, was Paley’s Works.
While original letters and private journals are the staple material for biographers (and I have used them extensively in the forthcoming biography), books from the subject’s library can be equally revealing, especially if they contain notes and comments in the owner’s hand. Unfortunately Tyndall’s library is much dispersed, and few of his books in public collections contain marginalia. Nor do any public collections contain Tyndall’s copy of Paley’s Works.
Hutton-in the-Forest, near Penrith, Cumbria (Roland Jackson)
But the reader might by this point have suspected that the copy does exist. Though the Tyndalls did not have children, there are many living relatives of both, and some personal material remains in these private hands. I came across Tyndall’s copy of Paley’s Works completely by accident, when invited for lunch at Hutton-in-the-Forest, the house of Lord Inglewood, Louisa Tyndall’s great great nephew (who knew, at that point, nothing of my interest, though I knew of his connection). It turned out that his father had been given the book by Jocelyn Proby, Louisa’s nephew.
Tyndall’s copy is the single volume 1845 edition of Paley’s Works. He wrote his signature on the flyleaf, and dated it October 1848. Inside, it is clear what interested him and what did not.
In Moral and Political Philosophy, Tyndall frequently marked several paragraphs per page (with a line down the margin), where Paley advocated moral behaviour with which he doubtless agreed. He added relevant sayings from Fichte, Carlyle, and Emerson in comparison. His strict moral code is evident in the section on ‘Fornication’. Tyndall emphasized many statements, and a marginal note, ‘Rouen’, reminds the reader of his journal description of seeing the brothels there. With unusual use of double lines, he emphasised ‘…the criminal commerce of the sexes corrupts and depraves the mind and moral character more than any single species of vice whatsoever’.
In A View of the Evidences of Christianity, Paley starts by arguing the essential role of miracles in revelation. Tyndall made no comments on the whole of this work (indeed one of the pages is uncut). He also made few comments on Paley’s views on prayer (in Moral and Political Philosophy), though he quoted Emerson: ‘Prayer to effect a private end is theft and meanness’. There are no clues here to the later Prayer-gauge Debate, nor to Tyndall’s subsequent trenchant position on miracles. Matters of Christianity were of lesser moment than the wider moral, philosophical, and scientific issues. Tyndall made no comments on The Truth of the Scripture History of St. Paul Evinced (though the pages were cut), nor on The Clergyman’s Companion in Visiting the Sick (indeed, the pages are uncut). He may have read Paley’s collected Sermons (the pages were cut) but he did not comment on them.
Apart from Moral and Political Philosophy, the only other of Paley’s Works that Tyndall extensively annotated was Natural Theology. In Natural Theology, Paley compares the eye to a watch, and claims that the contrivance shown by both mechanisms demonstrates the existence of a designer. Tyndall marked Paley’s additional point (without comment): ‘It is only by the display of contrivance, that the existence, the agency, the wisdom of the Deity, could be testified to his rational creatures’. As with Moral and Political Philosophy, Tyndall marked many statements on many pages, including: ‘What does chance ever do for us? In the human body, for instance, chance, i.e. the operation of causes without design, may produce a wen, a wart, a mole, a pimple, but never an eye’. This sentence also caught his attention: ‘Is it possible to believe that the eye was formed without any regard to vision; that it was the animal itself which found out that, though formed with no such intention, it would serve to see with; and that the use of the eye, as an organ of sight, resulted from this discovery, and the animal’s application of it?’. In many further sections, describing the complex structure and functions of living systems, Tyndall marked specific examples of (apparent, and to Paley, evidential) design without comment. One specific remark does suggest some scepticism. On Paley’s reference to the rotation of the earth, and its creation thereby of habitable zones, Tyndall wrote: ‘a strong argument perhaps in Paley’s time’. Nevertheless, some 25 years later, the expression of the same scepticism in one of his own books that the creation of a habitable Earth was evidence for the Deity led to a complaint from the Duke of Northumberland, President of the Royal Institution, where Tyndall himself was Superintendent of the House and Professor of Natural Philosophy. It was still a sensitive matter.
On occasion, Tyndall could not resist a joke. Talking of ‘brute creatures’ in relation to their offspring, Paley had written: ‘I have often been surprised to observe how ardently they love, and how soon they forget’. Tyndall remarked in the margin: ‘Like an Irishman!’.
Though it is not explicit from these annotations, we know that Tyndall was unimpressed by Natural Theology. He wrote in his journal on 2 January 1849: ‘I am willing enough to be convinced upon the subject of which Paley writes, but what he says is insufficient to this end. The Great Spirit is not to be come at in this way; if so, his cognition would only be accessible to the scientific and to very little purpose even here’.
Already, in his mid-20s, the separation of the domains of science and religion was taking shape in his mind.