How the Watch Got its Works

A refutation of William Paley’s design argument

(Garvey, J.C. Kipling, J.R. et al 2011)

William Paley, the 19th century Intelligent Design Creationist, tried to put the scientific clock back 500 years to the time when Francis Bacon was burned at the stake for denying that the world was flat, by using the example of a self-replicating watch found during a walk on the heath.

His “argument” (which was never peer-reviewed in the proper way) has been rightly dismissed many times on the basis that a watch is quite different from the biological systems known to have evolved by random mutation and natural selection. But in these days when Fundamentalist attempts to impose the God of the Bible under the guise of science are threatening to undermine the fabric of the Universe, and have already produced global warming, there is now a clear need to refute his sophistry from a purely scientific and evolutionary viewpoint.


Paley’s argument hinges on the assertion that a watch, especially a self-replicating one, could not have assembled by chance. But a host of new evidence, even since he published his book, has completely demolished the design argument. One wonders why his Natural Theology has not been banned from the bookshops. Even from the first page, his elementary and egregious errors show that he doesn’t understand the first thing about science.

Although the complexity of Paley’s watch may initially seem an impossible target for natural selection, the situation has been changed by the recent discovery of a clear precursor. In museum collections from the period, several examples from children’s nurseries of toy clocks have been unearthed (See Fig 1: Secreton type III clock). These resemble Paley’s watch in having an almost identical face and hands, but lack the mechanism and case of the later development. Although exact dating is not possible, clearly the simpler object is more likely to have evolved first, and would have been highly adapted to the nursery environment.

But how could this simple precursor have begun to acquire the large number of interrelated moving parts found in Paley’s watch? It is postulated that in children’s nurseries of the period, there were no doubt many other playthings, which may well have included small shiny shapes for creating pictures. Some of these must have resembled stars, or by a change of function, gear-wheels. The incorporation of an assemblage of these into the toy clock would have made it considerably more realistic, and so given an adaptive advantage.

All that would be necessary after this to introduce mechanical functionality was the addition of a spring and escapement (both simple components no doubt either derived from mutated cog elements, or introduced via horizontal gene transfer from elsewhere in the nursery environment). We are already beginning to see a mechanism conferring, we can imagine, some advantage which selective pressure would later refine into accurate timekeeping.

The same selective adaptation can be seen in the next development – the inner and outer cases. It is not difficult to see how initially the case was exapted from the snuff-boxes popular at the time (the authors suppose that by this time the proto-watch had moved from the nursery to the adult environment). The existence of two concentric cases in Paley’s watch initially caused us some problems, until we realised that it was easily explained by a gene duplication event.

The transparent watch-glass already has an explanation in the pioneering work done in 1991 by Piatigorsky and Wistow, and later by others, on the evolution of the crystalline lens in Eukaryotes. The adaptation of structures having their origin in the primitive eye to non-ocular use is more than likely to explain the watch-glass which, together with the case that must have evolved at more or less the same time, would have conferred significant physical protection.

Finally, a gene conserved from the nursery-stage, perhaps originally coding for a small spinning top, underwent near-neutral mutation until it reached a configuration able to form the winding-knob that completes the watch.

As can be seen from this detailed account, the complexity of Paley’s watch may be fully explained by the usual, proven, processes of evolution and there is no need to invoke some “supernatural designer” (who designed the designer anyway? Paley has no answer to that!). At each supposedly “impossible” stage, a selective advantage was conferred on the watch. Although some of the details of our scheme may be open to criticism, there can be no doubt that some such series of changes took place in evolutionary history.

If William Paley indeed found such a watch on the heath (and he presents no actual data to show he did) we have shown that it can be fully accounted for by entirely natural mechanisms. It is time, then, to consign Paley and his politically-motivated design arguments to the dust of history. If anyone doubts this, he should look around and see the incontrovertible evidence of the millions of watches to be seen in the world around us. Does anyone seriously think they could be the result of so-called miracles?

Jon Garvey

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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