Would Thomas Jefferson support Intelligent Design?

According to a recent article (here) by Stephen Meyer (of The Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture), Thomas Jefferson is claimed as an advocate of Intelligent Design (were he alive today).  However, the article has some relatively weak points that underly it’s basic claims.  First, let’s not ignore the obvious fact that Jefferson died in 1826 (July 4th), long before Darwin and Wallace first published their evolutionary thoughts.   So Jefferson is claimed as an opponent of Darwin, even though he was never exposed to Darwin’s theory of Natural Selection.   Meyer places deep emphasis on Jefferson’s opposition to “materialistic theories of evolution” that pre-dated Darwin:

“In 1823, when materialist evolutionary ideas had long been circulating, Jefferson wrote to John Adams and insisted that the scientific evidence of design in nature was clear: “I hold (without appeal to revelation) that when we take a view of the Universe, in its parts general or particular, it is impossible for the human mind not to perceive and feel a conviction of design, consummate skill, and indefinite power in every atom of its composition.’’ It was on empirical grounds, not religious ones, that he took this view.” (from Meyer article linked above)

So Jefferson rejected pre-Darwinian theories of evolution on empirical grounds.  This makes sense; pre-Darwinian models of evolution were often weak in nature, and generally deeply flawed.  Pre-Darwinian theories of evolution were often deep within the realm of pseudoscience, with no real mechanism to hold them up under scrutiny.  Lamarck’s work is remembered by most people as a failed alternative to Darwinian theory that preceded Darwinian theory.  Here’s a good description of Lamarck’s theoretical structure:

What was the mechanism for evolution? “Lamarckism” or “Lamarckianism” is now often used in a rather derogatory sense to refer to the theory that acquired traits can be inherited. What Lamarck actually believed was more complex: organisms are not passively altered by their environment, as his colleague Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire thought. Instead, a change in the environment causes changes in the needs of organisms living in that environment, which in turn causes changes in their behavior. Altered behavior leads to greater or lesser use of a given structure or organ; use would cause the structure to increase in size over several generations, whereas disuse would cause it to shrink or even disappear. This rule — that use or disuse causes structures to enlarge or shrink — Lamarck called the “First Law” in his book Philosophie zoologique. Lamarck’s “Second Law” stated that all such changes were heritable. The result of these laws was the continuous, gradual change of all organisms, as they became adapted to their environments; the physiological needs of organisms, created by their interactions with the environment, drive Lamarckian evolution.” (From here)

However, as sophisticated as Lamarck’s model was, he failed to win the support of many scientists of his period.  While Lamarck presented the first truly well-known scientific model of evolution, it would have been entirely possible for someone with a scientific background to reject it.  In fact, many scientists did, and with the advent of Natural Selection, Lamarckism was relegated to the intellectual dustbin in most societies.

What was extremely popular during Jefferson’s lifetime was popular pseudoscientific theories of evolution.  One of the most well-known of these publications is Robert Chambers’ Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation (published after Jefferson’s death, however.  I use it here for sake of familiarity). In any case, concepts of evolution circulating at the time of Jefferson were weak enough to be rejected outright by someone with a scientific background (as Jefferson had).

Let’s go back to the Stephen Meyer article again.  Here’s another quote from it:

“Contemplating everything from the heavenly bodies down to the creaturely bodies of men and animals, he argued: “It is impossible, I say, for the human mind not to believe that there is, in all this, design, cause and effect, up to an ultimate cause, a fabricator of all things from matter and motion.’’

The “ultimate cause’’ and “fabricator of all things’’ that Jefferson invoked was also responsible for the “design’’ of life’s endlessly diverse forms as well as the manifestly special endowments of human beings. Moreover, because the evidence of “Nature’s God’’ was publicly accessible to all and did not depend upon a special appeal to religious authority, Jefferson believed that it provided a basis in reason for the protection of individual liberty. Thus, the Declaration of Independence asserted that humans are “endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights.’’

So now Meyer alludes to Jefferson’s alleged belief that life is “designed”.  Thanks to natural selection (see Richard Dawkins’ The Blind Watchmaker for more on this), science has a way to explain the apparent “design” of life.; natural selection weeds out “bad” “designs” and preserves “good” ones.  Note that I’m not saying that science is atheistic, however.  The big thing about science in its modern form is that it cannot by definition accept or deny supernatural causation as an explanation for observed phenomenon. Put Jefferson in a modern setting, with the full body of scientific knowledge available today, and it is entirely possible that he would embrace evolutionary theory with open arms.  However, dead men can’t speak, so it takes academics such as Stephen Meyer to try to translate their views into modern contexts.  Unfortunately for Meyer, claiming a long-dead person as a supporter of Intelligent Design ( be it Jefferson or Isaac Newton), even though that person died long before Darwin published his first works on natural selection, is misleading.  However, Meyer assures us that Jefferson’s support of Intelligent Design has been vindicated by modern discoveries such as the structure of DNA. 

  I would not be so quick to embrace Jefferson as a supporter of Intelligent Design.  Jefferson had no grasp of the terms of the modern playing field.  He was not exposed to the mountains of evidence that scientists now have amassed in favor of evolution, or to the weakness of “Intelligent Design”, which now stands as pseudoscience.  But even if Jefferson would accept Intelligent Design today, there is one more question to ask: Who cares?  What relevance does a 200-years-dead politician have in a debate over the validity of Intelligent Design?  I could sit here and claim Isaac Newton as an opponent of Einstein’s general relativity until I’m blue in the face.  However, that would not make my argument compelling.  If Intelligent Design is so compelling, why not quote a body of able-minded modern scientists with good reputations as supporters rather than a guy who’s been dead for almost two centuries and had virtually no connection to the modern issues? Seems like a weak strategy to me…

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2 Comments on “Would Thomas Jefferson support Intelligent Design?”

  1. johnG Says:

    I finally got over to Discovery to read Meyer. I suspect he’s a source for others I’ve read in my local paper’s letters section who accredit the founding the US and hence the majority of our benefits of western civilization to Christianity. Not believing in intelligent design is like being ungrateful for the sacrifice of those who founded the US.

    Meyers’s argument about DNA being a perfect code ignores research into RNA as a precursor to DNA and the different types of DNA structures found in (if my recollection is accurate) viruses. Why would a perfect designer experiment with variations on the DNA molecule?


    • darwinaia Says:

      It’s interesting to see how people try to spin people who don’t support Intelligent Design as unpatriotic; after all, “this country is a Christian nation” (although that statement ignores the Treaty of Tripoli, 1796, that states that the US was not founded on Christian beliefs). For some reason, appealing to Christianity as a basis for modern society, and thus as a foundation for the United States, is a popular approach. It’s interesting to see.

      Great point on RNA and DNA too. I guess if you ignore something for long enough, maybe it will go away. It’s interesting how a lot of pseudoscientific arguments ignore large amounts of evidence in order to make their models appear to work. Of course, if you’re trying to win public opinion, rather than scientific credibility, it’s pretty easy to take that path.

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