Last Saturday, March 31, 2012, we offered a contest, “Who invented the phrase intelligent design?” Friends had traced it back to one of Darwin’s letters (1861), and later uses were duly noted. But we reasonably believed it was older than that. So we offered a free copy of Nature of Nature: Examining the Role of Naturalism in Science to (1) the first reader who can located a use of the term prior to 1861. And (2) any subsequent reader who can locate an even earlier use.
It was most revealing.
First, a couple of caveats: We recognize that all uses of the phrase do not refer to exactly the same concept. We never expected so. But when writers use the term, they suppose that their readers understand something by it similar to what they understand. As with most abstractions, there can be a range of overlapping meanings in a cluster.
The concept of an audience understanding the meaning of a phrase (or not) came into sharp focus this last week, when US President Obama used the phrase “social Darwinism” in a campaign speech. Which left some of us wondering how many hearers/readers know what he is talking about? The phrase itself is well-attested; we even know who coined it and when (Herbert Spencer, mid-19th century). But is the term familiar, in general use? Was it ever? Maybe it will be now, as reporters run to encyclopedias and feel they should make use of their newfound knowledge (?).
Also, we didn’t expect to have much luck finding the term before 1750 because many words have shifted their meanings over hundreds of years. At one time, a key meaning of “intelligence” was “news” and a key meaning of “design” was “plot,” so “intelligence of designs” would be “news of (treasonous?) plots.”
So we hoped readers might find what we were looking for roughly post-1750. And how did that turn out?
Here are the pre-1861 finds, in descending order of date:
Gregory at 3, 8:24 am 1847 (The Oxford English Dictionary dates intelligent design to 1847, in an article in Scientific American: “The great store-house of nature—the innumerable and diversified objects there presented to our view give evidence of infinite skill and intelligent design in the adaptation to each other and to the nature of man.”)
NickMatzke at 7, 1805, citing The Connecticut evangelical magazine: and religious intelligencer…, Volume 6, P.B. Gleason & co., Jan 1, 1805. (See also: Note 12 clarification. Dr. Matzke also indicated that he thought the contest was silly, but he entered it anyway and suggested an address at which we might contact him, duly noted, should he win.
jcweaver at 47, 1766: “Reimarus’s Defense of Natural Religion” in The Monthly Review or Literary Journal v. 34, 1766 p370.
jcweaver seems to have found the earliest date, so he wins in category (2).
Category 1 got a bit confusing because the winner, BartM at 8:21 am, was first in under the wire with a pre-1861 date. But he was apparently a newbie in mod. So his post did not actually appear at first, but when it did, it appeared in order of arrival. Gregory Arago was behind him by a “heartbreaker” three minutes. The posts show above in reverse order because they are listed in descending order of dates found.
Thanks to all for taking part, and winners need to be in touch with UD News at denyseolearyAgmail.com, to arrange shipment of books.
Note: Uncommon Descent is on Mountain Standard Time.
Other early uses of elements of the phrase:
At 6, Chris Doyle came very close with “intelligent, designing,” 1802, from William Paley’s Natural Theology, Chapter 24.
At 33, Vincent Torley notes that English chemist Joseph Priestley used the phrase “intelligent designing cause” in 1794.
At 44, BartM found what looked like a source from1750, in The Natural Philosophy of Albrecht von Haller, p. 53, but it turned out to be the work of an English translator, circa 1980. Good sleuthing! But not the suspect.
At 38, kairosfocus notes that Newton’s translator used the phrase “intelligent Agent ”in 1729.
Also, at 58, Ted Davis notes an instance of “intelligent design” from 1877.
Other comments noted
At 7, NickMatzke started a discussion, which continued over many posts, of the relevance of searching out the term to present day controversies.
Hard to know unless we do it.
At 17, NickMatzke dismissed Hoyle and Wickramasinghe’s ideas (fine tuning) as (crazy, kooky); one naturally wonders what he thinks of Crick and Orgel on the origin of life (extraterrestrial). In response, Kairosfocusk looks at some of the issues these science notables grappled with.
At 22, Gregory offers,
It doesn’t seem controversial that the IDM did not exist prior to the 1980s. Can we agree on this? Likewise, this website, Uncommon Descent, is part of (or affiliated with) the IDM.
Hmmm. Intelligent design is more a consensus community than a movement. A movement usually has political goals, and most ID theorists are quite happy just getting published, or not getting fired. ID sympathizers are not happy with textbook Darwinism in the schools, and no one remotely interested in ID has much use for the Darwinized culture. It doesn’t add up to a movement, in the sense of the gay marriage movement or Occupy.
For the record, Uncommon Descent is an independent non-profit based in Colorado, and not affiliated with any other group. It is basically five ID types, various, who run this news and views Web site, which survives on small donations. If you thought we were bigger or more powerful – that just shows what the Internet can do.
At 56, Ted Davis observes,
As for the term “intelligent design” being used in something like the sense in which it’s used here at UD, a lot will depend on what you think ID actually is. For example, Nobel laureate Arthur Holly Compton used the term in 1940, as follows: “The chance of a world such as ours occurring without intelligent design becomes more and more remote as we learn of its wonders.” In context, he was talking about the fine tuning of the cosmos (as we would call it today), so it’s fair IMO to call this a reference to ID. At the same time, Compton did *not* see ID as an alternative to to evolution. He was fully convinced of human evolution. To the extent that ID is seen as an *alternative* to evolution, then, Compton was not talking about ID. In his view, design was an inference *from* science, not an explanation *within* science. When I took a similar view myself here some years ago, I was told in clear terms that ID requires “design” to be in the scientific toolbox. I won’t try to sort this out more than I already have.
We wish him the best with his new column series at BioLogos.
Again, thanks to all for participating.