Recently, Uncommon Descent featured a post by News, inquiring of readers what they would like to ask Richard Dawkins, if they could interview him. I wrote a response. I have been told that News has gone on holiday and would welcome posts on UD, so I’ve decided to put up my question as a separate post. So here’s what I’d really like to ask Professor Richard Dawkins.
“Professor, I understand you’re a great fan of Rev. William Paley’s work, Natural Theology, which Darwin continued to speak highly of, even after he believed he had refuted it. Indeed, you even described yourself as a ‘neo-Paleyan’ in The Blind Watchmaker. Paley, as you’re well aware, contended that unguided natural processes were incapable of creating what he called contrivances – by which he meant systems (whether natural or artificial) that were distinguished by the properties of ‘relation to an end, relation of parts to one another, and to a common purpose’ – to quote Paley’s own words. In modern parlance, we might define a contrivance as a complex, co-ordinated arrangement of parts, all subserving a common end. For our purposes, it does not matter whether this end is intrinsic as in living things, or extrinsic, as in artifacts.
“What Charles Darwin did was to put forward a mechanism (natural selection) which he argued was capable in principle of explaining how one complex, highly co-ordinated system of parts assisting an organism’s survival could, over millions of years, gradually evolve into another complex system serving an altogether different purpose, through an undirected (‘blind’) process. What Darwin did not show, however, is how the fundamental biochemical systems upon which all organisms rely for their survival, could have came into existence, in the first place. We might refer to these fundamental systems in Nature as Paley’s ‘original contrivances.’ These contrivances cannot be explained away as modifications of pre-existing biological systems, since anything that preceded them was non-living.
“Now, I understand that some biologists have hypothesized that autocatalytic reactions, by creating more and more complex arrangements of parts, could have given rise to these ‘original contrivances’ over millions of years. But it seems to me that this proposal ignores the most fundamental characteristic of living things: their teleology. A contrivance is a complex, co-ordinated arrangement of parts subserving a common end. In the case of a living thing, that end is the survival, flourishing and reproductive success of the organism. So my question is: how did these arrangements of parts that are supposed to have arisen through autocatalytic reactions billions of years ago ever come to subserve a common end? A telos, after all, is not the sort of thing that comes in halves; a biochemical system either has one or it doesn’t.
“Would you care to comment, Professor?”