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William Paley Confronts Erasmus Darwin: Natural Theology and Evolutionism in the Eighteenth Century

David Burbridge
S & CB 10 (1)
April 1998


This article examines the relations between natural theology and evolutionary theories in the eighteenth century, and in particular William Paley’s response to the Zoonomia of Erasmus Darwin. It discusses the status of the argument from design, and suggests that in eighteenth century Britain the argument became less prominent after about 1730 when the threat of atheism, as distinct from deism, was felt to have receded. Paley should be seen as successfully reviving and updating natural theology to counter new philosophical and scientific threats, and in particular Erasmus Darwin’s evolutionary theory, the first to give a systematic account of biological adaptation. In his response Paley showed the inadequacy of any theory that explains adaptation by the active exertions of organisms. The article concludes with suggestions for further study of Paley’s influence in the nineteenth century.

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