Words Crush Wednesday – Whewell

Published May 18, 2016 by Iphis of Scyros

Okay, my Words Crush Wednesday offerings are about to get erratic.  I’m still going to be quoting from the books I read over the past semester, but now they’re going to be all out of order, depending on when I find the books I marked (in the stacks and stacks of books around here) and get around to typing in the quotes.  (Should’ve been doing this as I went…)

And first I have to go with one of the last few books of the semester, The Darwinian Revolution by Michael Ruse, because it’s the only one that was a rental book, and I have to return it by, well, actually last Saturday, but I’m pre-writing this last Tuesday, so…

The subject of this quote is “natural religion or theology — the theology that involves man’s knowledge of God through reason and the senses.”  In other word, argument from design.  The two major figures about to be mentioned are William Whewell and William Buckland, both rather conservative scientists from the earlier portion of the 19th century.  The majority of the text below is Ruse’s, of course, but there is a pretty good sized quote within it from Whewell, hence the title of my post.  (I have removed his citations from the text, for readability.  If anyone wants to know what the citations said, let me know.  Or check out the book for yourself.  It’s a little bit slow going because of ten thousand zillion names (or so it feels like as you’re trying to remember them all) but quite a fascinating story.)

the argument from design gained fresh life with the publication in the 1830s of the “Bridgewater Treatises” — eight works, commissioned in the will of the eighth earl of Bridgewater, aimed at demonstrating “the Power, Wisdom and Goodness of God, as manifested in the Creation”.

Probably the most popular of these works was written by Whewell, officially commissioned to cover the subject of God’s magnificence as evinced by astronomy (Buckland wrote on geology).  He began by arguing that the world runs according to laws and that the effects of these laws are instances of apparent design.  Thus by law our earth has a year lasting exactly twelve months, and by law plants have a year lasting exactly twelve months.  This, Whewell pointed out, is a coincidence essential for the well-being of plants.  Were plant cycles eleven months and the earth year twelve months, we would soon have flowering in January, which would spell doom.  Having set the stage, Whewell drew his conclusion.  “Why should the solar year be so long and no longer? or, this being of such length, why should the vegetable cycle be exactly of the same length?  Can this be chance?…No chance could produce such a result.  And if not by chance, how otherwise could such a coincidence occur, than by an intentional adjustment of these two things to one another?”  God (understood as an all-wise designer) must have matched the lengths of the solar year and the vegetable year.  More specifically, since a disjunction would not make much difference to the sun but would be fatal to a plant, there must be a God who looks out for the interests of the plants.

Apparently Whewell never once in his entire life witnessed an early or late spring.  That or he never looked out his window at plants whose blooming season was cut short by a late snowfall.  He should have talked to some gardeners or farmers before basing his argument (which, you will notice, had very little to do with the astronomy he was assigned to) on the growing cycle of plants.  I’m sure they would have told him what we all know, that the plants are reacting to the change in temperature, not on an annual cycle of fixed length.


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