Essay / On This Day

Happy Birthday Bernard Nieuwentyt

Bernard Nieuwentyt was born this day (August 10) in 1654. You’ve never heard of him, but he was a mathematician, a natural philosopher, a medical doctor, and mayor of his town. He also wrote some theology, including this classic bit from 1718:

…let us suppose that in the middle of a sandy down, or in a desert and solitary place, where few people are used to pass, any one should find a watch, shewing the hours, minutes, and days of the months; and having examined the same, should perceive so many different wheels, nicely adapted by their teeth to each other, and that one of them could not move without moving the rest of the whole machine; and should farther observe, that those wheels are made of brass, in order to keep them from rust; that the spring is of steel, no other metal being so proper for that purpose… Lastly, he would perceive, that if there were any defects either in the wheels, spring, or any other parts of the watch, or if they had been put together after any other manner, the whole watch would have been entirely useless.

Now the question is… whether it be possible he can perswade himself that this watch, with all belonging to it, the niceness of its make, figure of so many parts, and other contrivances for shewing the time, could have acquired its being and form by meer chance only, which operated indifferently one way or another, and without any certain rule or direction?

Or otherwise, whether he could expect to pass for a man of sense and understanding, if having found this watch in a solitary place, he should pretend to believe that it was not made by a skilful workman, nor that its parts were put together with judgment…

If this argument sounds familiar, you probably know it from William Paley’s 1802 Natural Theology

…suppose I had found a watch upon the ground, and it should be inquired how the watch happened to be in that place; I should hardly think… the watch might have always been there. Yet why should not this answer serve…? For this reason, and for no other, viz. that, when we come to the inspect the watch, we perceive … that its several parts are framed and put together for a purpose, e.g. that they are so formed and adjusted as to produce motion, and that motion so regulated as to point out the hour of the day; that if the different parts had been differently shaped from what they are, of a different size from what they are, or placed after any other manner, or in any other order, than that in which they are placed, either no motion at all would have been carried on in the machine, or none which would have answered the use that is now served by it. …we find a series of wheels, the teeth of which catch in, and apply to each other, conducting the motion from the fusee to the balance, and from the balance to the pointer… We take notice that the wheels are made of brass in order to keep them from rust, the springs of steel, no other metal being so elastic…

And if that sounds to you like Paley copied some ideas and even some phrasing from Nieuwentyt, you’re right.

When the similiarities were first reported around 1848 in a journal called The Athenaeum, there was some controversy over Paley’s plagiarism. An article in the Methodist Review the next year weighed the controversy carefully, deciding that Paley did indeed have to be classed among “the great plagiarists.”

But as all professors eventually find out, even open-and-shut cases of plagiarism are fraught with ambiguity. If you marshal all the evidence, Paley may be excused, but not exonerated. His treatment of Nieuwentyt is certainly a case of too much use of a source without attribution. There are many theories for how a man as scrupulous as Paley could have transferred so much of another author’s writing into his own book. His Natural Theology originated as college lectures, which he put into published form decades later. Lectures are often summaries, abstracts, and reports that a professor gives to his students about a wide range of literature that is not assigned to be read. They should include a certain kind of loose attribution, certainly: a mention of the sources if not quite a full footnote. It’s easy to imagine Paley not wanting to take the time to spell out the name Nieuwentyt for students. Then, perhaps thirty years later, when Paley brought out his classic book, he apparently failed to bring all his citations up to publishing standards.

There are more excuses: Paley was writing in a sub-field of Christian apologetics that was already, by his time, filled with certain stock arguments that were difficult to trace. The watchmaker analogy also has a pedigree that predates Nieuwentyt, and Paley fills the analogy out with greater acumen and more judicious illustrations than Nieuwentyt did. Paley had a remarkable memory and a command of a great deal of literature; it is easy to imagine him remembering ideas and arguments with considerable verbal precision, without knowing where he got them. His Natural Theology presented itself as a popular account of the best current arguments, not as cutting-edge research. He was trying to put forth a set of arguments in the most memorable form possible, which he succeeded in doing. Bernard Nieuwentyt’s Christian Philosopher was no longer being read, used, or discussed; Paley took up the opening argument and made it a standard piece of intellectual furniture for the nineteenth century’s arguments about design.

But these are excuses. After all the excuses have been made, it seems that Paley had Nieuwentyt’s work at least in his mind’s eye if not open on his desk when he wrote the classic opening pages of the Natural Theology. Let justice be done: His name is fearsomely dutch, and we would not remember him at all if Paley had not used his work without attribution. But Happy birthday to Bernard Nieuwentyt.

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