Do you still think God is good?
— George Williams, 1987 (p. 157)
In the commentary following the death on September 8 of leading neo-Darwinian theorist George C. Williams — go here for a representative selection — I’ve seen no mention of the considerable role of theology in Williams’s thought. I’d speculate that this silence follows naturally from the wide, albeit tacit, acceptance by Williams’s closest colleagues of the theological assumptions he made. As Ludwik Fleck (1979, 41) understood, a premise on which a group of scientists agree (if they are conscious of holding the premise at all) is not likely to elicit comment.
But no one can open The Pony Fish’s Glow (Basic, 1987) or Natural Selection: Domains, Levels, Challenges (Oxford, 1992) and miss the theology.
While the biological examples Williams employs shift, depending on context, the logical form of his argument varies little: if a wise and benevolent God made organisms, we should observe perfection; we do not observe perfection; therefore, a wise and benevolent God did not make organisms. Natural selection, a mindless process, did. “Organisms show the expected design mistakes,” he wrote (1987, 153), “the dysfunctional design features, that arise when understanding and planning are entirely absent.”
Williams, unfortunately, did not think deeply about either his biological examples — such as the vertebrate eye — or his theology. A perceptive critic of slovenly reasoning in evolutionary theory, Williams nevertheless allowed himself a sort of “Dr. Seuss If I Ran the Zoo” latitude in postulating optimal (or perfect) structures, which God should have made, against which he judged existing structures to be deficient. “The human eye as it ought to be,” he captioned one figure, for instance, in The Pony Fish’s Glow (1987, 10), “with a squidlike retinal orientation.”
Really? Here’s an exercise. Write down a list of the main features of the cephalopod eye, its neural wiring, and retinal physiology, and compare that to a similar list for any vertebrate eye. Then try to isolate “photoreceptor orientation” as the only character by which functional optimality should be assessed. Ask yourself how you would test your analysis.
For years, I’ve had graduate classes follow Williams’s analysis of the human airway, another of his favorite examples. I’ve asked them to try to redesign the whole system, to avoid the problem of choking.
Try it yourself. The results are instructive.