The Perception of Patterns in Nature

Fascinating essay by science-writer George Johnson in Tuesday’s NYT Science section, Creation, in the Eye of the Beholder, about the eternal tendency of humans to perceive patterns in nature as evidence of some designer. Whereas in fact, it’s evidence of natural selection. Johnson responds to an image of the HIV virus:

When we see such intricate symmetry, our brains automatically assume there was an inventor. Overcoming that instinct took centuries, and it was only then that the living world began to make sense.

And then goes on about William Paley:

Writing in the early 1800s, the English clergyman William Paley argued that if you were walking in the countryside and found a watch on the ground, you would be right in inferring that there was a watchmaker. By the same token, he argued, the intricacy of a living organism implies the existence of a creator.

What creationists and conspiracy theorists share is a deep disbelief in accidents like the ones that drive evolution, and a certainty that everything that happens was somehow intended.

Since that time scientists have found clocks far tinier and more delicate than Paley’s ticking inside living cells, governing the rhythms of life. Evolution is fully capable of making machines. For that matter, the brains and hands that design civilization’s artifacts are products of the same evolutionary algorithm — random generation and testing.

He [Paley] almost had it all: variation and natural selection, survival of the fittest, the possibility of vast stretches of time. But then he rejected the idea. That is not how he would have made a world. Surely the same was true of his God.

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