Observation and Natural Theology: William Harvey & William Paley
Harvey showed how blood, pumped by the heart, circulated through vessels in the arm.
In the 1600s the study of life changed forever. After relying on the authority
of ancient writers like Aristotle and
Galen for centuries, European naturalists
began to look at life for themselves. Anatomists discovered new organs
in the human body, and also discovered that familiar organs didnt
work the way Aristotle and Galen said they did. The English physician
William Harvey (above left), for example, discovered in the early 1600s that blood
was pumped from the heart through the body in a closed loop. Meanwhile,
Harvey and others were examining animals and plants and making equally
astonishing discoveries. The English inventor, Robert Hooke,
for example, looked through a microscope at a previously unimaginable complexity hidden
in tiny animals as humble as a flea.
Envisioning organisms as machines
This new generation of naturalists envisioned life as machines. Like human-made
machines, an animal had many different partsmuscles, eyes, bones,
organs, and so onthat all played vital functions to help keep the
animal alive. Naturalists found that they could apply the same scientific
methods in physics that they used to invent machines, to life itself.
Natural theology and Gods design
Some clergymen worried that this mechanistic approach of life smacked of atheism. But many of the naturalists
themselves believed that they actually were on a religious mission. In fact, a number of them were both
naturalists and theologians. They believed that God had created the entire world in such a way that
his plan could be understood in part by rational creatures. By studying the intricate structures of a hand
or a feather, a naturalist could appreciate Gods benevolent design.
Natural theology, as it became known, dominated English thinking for nearly two centuries. In the early 1800s,
it was best known to Englishmen through the writings of Reverend William Paley (left). Natural
theology was important scientifically because it guided researchers to the fundamental question of how life
works. Even today, when scientists discover a new kind of organ or protein, they try to figure out its function.
But it would be Charles Darwin, who actually
occupied Paleys rooms at Cambridge University and was an admirer of Paleys work, who would take
science beyond natural theology and move those questions from the religious sphere to the scientific.