This project will examine William Paley's influential book, Natural Theology, which was initially published in 1802, including its publication, transmission, and continuing impact on public understanding of evolution; more generally, it will explore the relationship between science and religion.

Although Paley's Natural Theology has been frequently cited in recent debates over the role of evolution in science curricula, the views attributed to Paley bear little resemblance to those he advanced over 200 years ago. By exploring the religious, scientific, and political environment in which Paley was writing, and relating the Natural Theology to the author's own life and work, this project will argue for a more nuanced understanding of Paley's work.

This project will also look at how the Natural Theology has been used since its publication, both by readers who saw themselves as supportive of its arguments (as they understood them) and by those who opposed or refuted it. By examining the publishing history of the text, as well as how it was adapted and used as a textbook in the nineteenth century, the evolution of Paley's work can be traced. Subtleties of his arguments were displaced in transmission, and some of his conclusions were reformulated using justifications that Paley himself would not have accepted. The role of Paley in the history of Darwin and the efforts by Darwin's contemporaries to reframe the relationship between science and religion artificially turned Paley into a foil for evolution.

This has continued through recent history, where both opponents and supporters of "intelligent design" have claimed that Paley is a precursor of this recent movement, despite the fact that the Natural Theology contains arguments that could be seen as challenges to intelligent design. This research will look at how and why Paley's work continues to hold relevance, and how its use has created and reinforced prevailing beliefs about the nature of science and religion.

Project Report

This project has investigated the divergent ways in which William Paley's 1802 book, Natural Theology, was read, published, used, and interpreted from its initial composition to the present day. Its intention was to determine the historical causes that explain the book's persistence in modern-day discussions over the public understanding of science - particularly the theory of biological evolution and its relationship with religious ideas. Through archival research and textual analysis, this project has discovered several new findings that not only enhance understanding of the specific history of the evolution-religion question, but which also contribute to the wider understanding of the popularization of science. One of the most important discoveries of this research has come from an investigation of the political contexts which informed the creation of Paley's texts. By situating the Natural Theology as part of the larger corpus of English reactions to debts over religious toleration and social reform in the wake of the French revolution, the political implications of natural theology become apparent. This in turn begins to explain one of the most unexpected phenomena discovered in this research, a clear indication that divergent interpretations of Paley were in part defined by national contexts. In particular, Paley's understanding of nature was separated from his political thought by many American readers in the 1840 who were particularly concerned with the abolition of slavery. In Britain, where slavery had already been abolished, Paley's naturalistic reasoning was more closely connected to his arguments about political economy. Through a deeper understanding of the way interpretations of this one text have diverged, it is possible to construct a genealogy of misreadings, where one commentator's invocation of Paley is demonstrably derived from a previous generation's use. This is most readily apparent in the question of the most famous of Paley's interpreters, Charles Darwin. In the landmark 1859 book On the Origin of Species, Darwin cites Paley by name only once, and does so to enlist the Natural Theology to support his own argument. Yet by the late twentieth century, Paley is held up as the exemplar of a scientific explanation for species that Darwinutterly refuted. This project has been able to demonstrate that this evolution was a multi-part process, which began prior to Darwin's publication. The gradual shift in Paley's original argument for an intelligent designer based on the adaptation of the material world to the natural laws as indications of purpose was shifted into an argument about the existence of a deity based on questions of the origins of complex life, which was in turn repackaged as a claim that evolutionary accounts of origins undermined the theological argument for a designer. this in turn was reinterpreted As an argument that design was a scientific question, not a religious one, and that Paley, writing over half a century before Darwin, was his scientific foil. The results of this project convincingly dispel the myth that Paley's work was intended as a scientific argument, even as it made use of the emerging genre of science popularization in the early nineteenth century. By looking at the ways in which texts not written as popular science were republished with that intention, new light is shed in the question of how the public understanding of science has developed historically. More specifically, this project also suggests more complex interactions behind the public understanding of science today, and offers strategies for discussing the philosophical and theological consequences of evolutionary theory in a new light. Many of the results of this project have been disseminated through talks and presentations given at professional academic conferences of scholars of history, philosophy, and religious studies. This has proven to be an especially useful mechanism for generating a broader impact as many of the scholars who attend these conferences are in a position to teach about Paley in the context of the "Darwinian Revolution" or in other science-religion themed topics in introductory undergraduate courses, including many non-majors in the fields of science or science and technology studies. Several scholars have informally stated that the presentation of this project would influence the way that they taught these subjects in the future. Through influencing those who teach the history of science to a large nontechnical public, the project has already had some success at reaching a broader audience. Several articles based on this project are in preparation or under review in peer-reviewed journals, and their publication will further the dissemination of this research. In addition, multiple academic publishers have expressed interest in a potential monograph based on this work.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Social and Economic Sciences (SES)
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Frederick M Kronz
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University of Wisconsin Madison
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