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Post-Darwin, James Clerk Maxwell’s Views Presaged Modern Arguments for Intelligent Design

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Yesterday, we considered the pre-Darwin views of the towering physicist, who lived from 1831 to 1879, thus straddling Charles Darwin’s own period of scientific activity and publishing. The Origin of Species appeared in 1859. In 1860, Maxwell returned to London for a professorship at King’s College, where he met Faraday. For the next decade, he devoted himself to his great work on undergirding Faraday’s empirical work with solid mathematical physics, climaxing in his 1873 Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism. In the following years, he developed the Cavendish Laboratory for Cambridge University until his death from cancer at age 48.

His field being physics instead of biology, Maxwell may have been out of the loop somewhat in the Darwin controversy swirling about him, though he was certainly aware of it. It does not appear he engaged the Darwinians directly as did Lord Kelvin. Perhaps it was against his nature to be confrontational. References to Darwin by name are non-existent in his extant letters; the only reference is in a letter to him from his longtime friend Cecil J. Monro in 1871, where Monro refers with mild sarcasm to Darwin: “‘I can easily believe,’ as Darwin would say, that before we were tidal ascidians we were a slimy sheet of cells floating on the surface of the sea” (emphasis added). From the context, it appears they both shared this dismissive attitude about Darwin’s evolutionary views and his propensity for wild speculations.

Maxwell also criticized the theory of Pangenesis devised by Darwin. This shows in his Encyclopedia Britannica entry on “Atom” (see Campbell, pp. 280-281). The design inference he draws in this pre-DNA era is quite remarkable, presaging Thaxton’s writings on “configurational entropy”:

Some of the exponents of this theory of heredity have attempted to elude the difficulty of placing a whole world of wonders within a body so small and so devoid of visible structure as a germ, by using the phrase structureless germs. Now, one material system can differ from another only in the configuration and motion which it has at a given instant. To explain differences of function and development of a germ without assuming differences of structure is therefore to admit that the properties of a germ are not those of a purely material system.

Maxwell’s best-known design argument from the period is his statement that molecules have the character of “a manufactured article.” He said this in September 1873 in his “Discourse on Molecules” to the British Association.

No theory of evolution can be formed to account for the similarity of molecules, for evolution necessarily implies continuous change, and the molecule is incapable of growth or decay, of generation or destruction.

None of the processes of Nature, since the time when Nature began, have produced the slightest difference in the properties of any molecule. We are therefore unable to ascribe either the existence of the molecules or the identity of their properties to any of the causes which we call natural.

On the other hand, the exact equality of each molecule to all others of the same kind gives it, as Sir John Herschel has well said, the essential character of a manufactured article, and precludes the idea of its being eternal and self-existent.

Thus we have been led, along a strictly scientific path, very near to the point at which Science must stop, — not that Science is debarred from studying the internal mechanism of a molecule which she cannot take to pieces, any more than from investigating an organism which she cannot put together. But in tracing back the history of matter, Science is arrested when she assures herself, on the one hand, that the molecule has been made, and, on the other, that it has not been made by any of the processes we call natural.

When he says “Science must stop,” is he calling design a science stopper? No. Speaking from a time before subatomic physics, Maxwell envisions future scientific investigation of “the internal mechanism” of a molecule; that would be as legitimate as dissecting an organism, a scientific activity that had been engaged for centuries. He’s using a logical argument here that works today: you can’t create a thing by intelligent design then say it appeared in the beginning by natural causes. Science only stops at trying to explain the origin of an eternal and self-existent entity. Nevertheless, as Stephen Meyer would say, we can make an inference to the best explanation by appealing to causes now in operation to explain phenomena whose origin we did not witness. Maxwell agrees:

Science is incompetent to reason upon the creation of matter itself out of nothing. We have reached the utmost limits of our thinking faculties when we have admitted that because matter cannot be eternal and self-existent it must have been created. It is only when we contemplate, not matter in itself, but the form in which it actually exists, that our mind finds something on which it can lay hold.

That matter, as such, should have certain fundamental properties, — that it should exist in space and be capable of motion, that its motion should be persistent, and so on, — are truths which may, for anything we know, be of the kind which metaphysicians call necessary. We may use our knowledge of such truths for purposes of deduction, but we have no data for speculating as to their origin.

But that there should be exactly so much matter and no more in every molecule of hydrogen is a fact of a very different order. We have here a particular distribution of matter — a collocation — to use the expression of Dr. Chalmers, of things which we have no difficulty in imagining to have been arranged otherwise.

These statements fit well with the fine-tuning arguments in cosmology. The properties of matter are contingent; they could have been otherwise, he says. The particular arrangement of the properties of molecules, and their fitness for function, distinguish them as “manufactured” articles.

Subsequent paragraphs show that Maxwell believes the designer is the Christian God, but that is not necessary to the logic of his design argument. “Natural causes, as we know, are at work, which tend to modify, if they do not at length destroy, all the arrangements and dimensions of the earth and the whole solar system,” he argues. Speaking as an authority on thermodynamics, he knows the laws of nature can modify or destroy order but not create it.

Three years after this discourse, in 1876, Maxwell elaborated on what he meant. In a reply to C. J. Ellicott, Lord Bishop of Gloucester and Bristol, Maxwell mentions that Monro had criticized his argument about molecules in Nature, pointing out that one could draw a very different possible inference: that “uniformity among manufactured articles is evidence of want of power in the manufacturer to adapt each article to its special use.” Maxwell responds,

What I thought of was not so much that uniformity of result which is due to uniformity in the process of formation, as a uniformity intended and accomplished by the same wisdom and power of which uniformity, accuracy, symmetry, consistency, and continuity of plan are as important attributes as the contrivance of the special utility of each individual thing.

Monro’s criticism is theological; Maxwell’s is empirical. We see ID critics doing that in our day. Their argument is basically, “It can’t be designed because God wouldn’t do it that way.” Maxwell responds that the properties of things we know are designed (e.g., “uniformity, accuracy, symmetry, consistency, and continuity of plan”) allow us to make the same causal inference when we see those properties in things we did not observe coming into being.

Another design inference Maxwell made in this period concerns his famous thought experiment later dubbed “Maxwell’s demon.” Campbell recognizes in his description that such a demon would be “contrary to the principle of dissipation of energy” (i.e., natural law, the second law of thermodynamics), requiring that the law be “circumvented by intelligence” (p. 280). Last year we noted a real-world biological case of Maxwell’s Demon in the cell’s selection of left-handed amino acids. Such selection would be prohibitively improbable by natural law. “As in the Maxwell case,” we said, “it doesn’t have to be a living agent; it can be a robotic system able to separate out molecules against the laws of thermodynamics. That requires intelligence, else it would be ‘unnatural.'”

So far we detect significant prescience about intelligent design in Maxwell’s thought. He all but uses the phrase himself. Readers may wish to investigate essays from his mature years at Cambridge (1873-1878), reprinted by Campbell:

  • “Does the progress of Physical Science tend to give any advantage to the opinion of Necessity (or Determinism) over that of the Contingency of Events and the Freedom of the Will?” (1873), a discussion of metaphysical systems in relation to what science has discovered about physics.
  • “On Modified Aspects of Pain” (1876), an essay on pain and punishment.
  • “Psychophysik” (1878), a witty critique of various naturalistic theories of the self. It includes some mild sarcasm in reference to “Evolutionists”: “I have now to confess that up to the present moment I have remained in ignorance of how I came to be, or, in the Spencerian language, how consciousness must arise. I was dimly aware that somewhere in the vast System of Philosophy this question had been settled, because the Evolutionists are all so calm about it; but in a hasty search for it I never suspected in how quiet and unostentatious a manner the origin of myself would be accounted for.”

Maxwell’s views on intelligent design were also communicated in a most unusual way: through poetry. He was a chronic poet, distributing rhymes to his friends and colleagues throughout his life. Some were just for fun, but others are profound. We posted one of his most important anti-evolutionary poems earlier, “Notes of the President’s Address,” in response to Tyndall’s 1874 speech to the British Association calling for scientists to pursue the path of methodological naturalism (read it here). But there were others. Some require scholarly analysis to understand; see, for instance, Daniel Silver’s article on Maxwell’s last poem, “To Hermann Stoffkraft, Ph.D., A Paradoxical Ode After Shelley.”

Out of the dozens of surviving poems reproduced by Campbell, here is one, letting the reader draw any applications to modern intelligent design theory. Since this was written in the same year as Tyndall’s address, Maxwell probably intended a bit of levity directed against Tyndall’s advocacy of methodological naturalism. (Note: “British Asses” is a nickname for members of the British Association. “Red Lions” was “a club formed by Members of the British Association, to meet for relaxation after the graver labours of the day.”)

Belfast, 1874.

AT quite uncertain times and places,
The atoms left their heavenly path,
And by fortuitous embraces,
Engendered all that being hath.
And though they seem to cling together,
And form “associations” here,
Yet, soon or late, they burst their tether,
And through the depths of space career.

So we who sat, oppressed with science,
As British asses, wise and grave,
Are now transformed to wild Red Lions,
As round our prey we ramp and rave.
Thus, by a swift metamorphosis,
Wisdom turns wit, and science joke,
Nonsense is incense to our noses,
For when Red Lions speak, they smoke.

Hail, Nonsense! dry nurse of Red Lions,
From thee the wise their wisdom learn,
From thee they cull those truths of science,
Which into thee again they turn.
What combinations of ideas,
Nonsense alone can wisely form!
What sage has half the power that she has,
To take the towers of Truth by storm?

Yield, then, ye rules of rigid reason!
Dissolve, thou too, too solid sense!
Melt into nonsense for a season,
Then in some nobler form condense.
Soon, all too soon, the chilly morning,
This flow of soul will crystallize,
Then those who Nonsense now are scorning,
May learn, too late, where wisdom lies.

Photo: Statue of James Clerk Maxwell, Edinburgh © Ad Meskens via Wikicommons.