That old-time religion

Editor's Introduction -- The writers of a Merrill "biology" book display their devotion to natural theology, a religious fancy that was popular in Britain during the 19th century.
This article ran in The Textbook Letter for November-December 1991.
It accompanied reviews of Biology: The Dynamics of Life, a high-school
textbook issued by the Merrill Publishing Company.

When the Shark Bites with His Teeth, Dear,
Remember That It's All for the Best

William J. Bennetta

The idea that organisms have been fashioned directly by a divine creator, and that they play divinely ordained roles in nature, is ancient. Yet it was promoted to greatest effect only 190 years ago, by the English churchman William Paley. In 1802 Paley published a book called Natural Theology, in which he recommended the study of nature as a way of apprehending the creator's existence and attributes. These could be inferred from the examination of living things, Paley said, because the physical intricacies of organisms -- like the physical intricacies of a watch -- are marks of purposeful design and of a skillful designer.

One result of Paley's analogizing was the pervasive popularity of natural history in Britain during the 19th century. It gave rise to a quaint subculture of amateur naturalists who were amateur theologians as well. They found supernatural perfection in every organism's form, discerned godly goodness in every organism's way of life, and discovered that every organism was playing a role in a grand scheme that had been created for the benefit of the most perfect organism of all: man.

Of course, this subculture had its own literature, which Lynn Barber has described in her delightful book The Heyday of Natural History, issued in 1980 by Doubleday & Company (New York City). Look at her page 76:

The . . . conventional line, preferred by the majority of natural history writers, was to talk vaguely about the "balance" or "harmony" of Nature. Some species were necessary to keep down other species which would otherwise run amok. Insectivorous birds, for instance, were "commissioned by an all-wise and beneficent Providence to free us from the clouds of insects, which would otherwise infest our dwellings, and destroy the labours of the field." This was quite a promising line of attack, but, since the state of ecological knowledge was low, and since in any case it was based on the false premise that everything in Nature must be ultimately beneficial to man, it often led to circular arguments. What is the use of ladybirds? one writer asks. Why, to help the gardener, by keeping down aphids. And what is the use of aphids? Why, to feed ladybirds, of course. This solution was deemed sufficient.

The passage that Barber quotes (about birds' being "commissioned" to control insects) is from The Note-book of a Naturalist, written by one E.P. Thomson and published in London in 1845.

Though the religious speculations of William Paley and his followers have no scientific significance at all, they persist conspicuously in Biology: The Dynamics of Life. Merrill's writers clearly imagine that organisms exist to be helpful, and Merrill's book even retails the mystical, scientifically meaningless notion of a "balance" of nature. On page 520, for example, we read about "The Importance of Birds":

Birds have many roles in the environments in which they are found. Birds help to maintain balance in the environment. Some birds eat insects that would otherwise increase in number so much that they would overwhelm natural habitats. Predatory birds feed on rats and mice and keep them in check.

That first sentence tells us that Merrill's writers care as little for logic as did those amateur naturalists of 150 years ago: Could birds possibly have roles in environments in which they were not found? The more important point, however, is that Merrill's passage obviously reflects a devotion to natural theology and is strikingly similar to what E.P. Thomson wrote in 1845 (though Thomson's "destroy the labours of the field" was more poetic than Merrill's meaningless, pseudoscientific phrase "overwhelm natural habitats").

On pages 491 and 492, the writers rhapsodize on "The Importance of Fish." Please neglect that incorrect plural, but do notice this notion about sharks:

In the sea, sharks fulfill the same role as do lions and tigers on land. As predators, sharks keep prey populations healthy by limiting the sizes of the populations. Without sharks, prey species would increase in number and be subject to starvation and disease.

So again, mystical foolishness. Why would the "prey species" not be eaten by other predators if there were no sharks? Why do the writers imagine, as they obviously do, that predation is more proper than starvation as a population-limiting agent? And just what are those prey species anyway? Do they include Homo sapiens? When a shark kills a man, shall we rejoice that the shark has helped to keep our population healthy? If so, what shall we say when a man kills a man? So much for natural theology.

I can't object to Merrill's publishing a book about antiquated religious doctrines, but I object strongly to Merrill's calling such stuff "biology."

William J. Bennetta is a professional editor, a fellow of the California Academy of Sciences, the president of The Textbook League, and the editor of The Textbook Letter. He writes often about the propagation of quackery, false "science" and false "history" in schoolbooks.


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