NOTE: Spoilers for Watchmen are included in this article, by design.
Starting in the mid-17th century, the authority of religious revelation began to come under unique and increasing threat. The enthusiastic inquiries of naturalists were uncovering disturbing geological and fossil evidence that the earth was much older than anyone had previously believed. Skeptical treatises from philosophers such as John Locke and David Hume challenged the foundations of what we think we know and what is possible to know. At the same time, scientists (who up until the 19th century were called “natural philosophers”) kept learning more and more about the laws of nature, solidifying a worldview in which everyday occurrences are based on those laws, rather than the commonplace intervention of a deity.
Into this breach stepped William Paley, a Cambridge graduate who was ordained in 1767 and spent decades combining the pulpit with the pen, authoring several influential works of mainstream Christian argument. His health began to decline around 1800, but he still was able to finish and publish his greatest and most famous work, Natural Theology or Evidence of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity, collected from the appearances of nature, which understandably tends to get referenced as just Natural Theology. The book was published in 1802 and was immediately an enormous success, finding a large audience eager to reconcile scientific discoveries with received religious teachings.
Who Makes the World?
Paley’s essential argument in Natural Theology is this: given the vast array of biological adaptations which are analogous to human-made machines, there is no other plausible explanation for them but a designing deity, a “contriver” as he often puts it. The opening sentences of his text are his most famous encapsulation of the argument (with 1802 punctuation and spellings intact, though with some of the 1802 wordiness abridged):
In crossing a heath, suppose I pitched my foot against a stone, and were asked how the stone came to be there, I might possibly answer, that, for any thing I knew to the contrary, it had lain there for ever: nor would it perhaps be very easy to shew the absurdity of this answer. But suppose I had found a watch upon the ground, and it should be enquired how the watch happened to be in that place, I should hardly think of the answer which I had before given, that, for any thing I knew, the watch might have always been there. Yet why should not this answer serve for the watch, as well as for the stone? […] For this reason, and for no other, viz. that, when we come to inspect the watch, we perceive (what we could not discover in the stone) 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 several 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. […] This mechanism being observed… the inference, we think, is inevitable, that the watch must have had a maker; that there must have existed, at some time and at some place or other, an artificer or artificers who formed it for the purpose which we find it actually to answer; who comprehended its construction, and designed its use.
This watchmaker analogy would have been back in the news while Alan Moore was writing Watchmen, thanks to the efforts of evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins. In 1986, Dawkins published The Blind Watchmaker, which began with Paley’s analogy and then proceeded to thoroughly dismantle it via explicating the natural selection theory of that other Cambridge man, Charles Darwin. Darwin, for his part, had not only studied Paley’s books, he in fact lived in the very same set of Cambridge rooms that Paley had occupied seventy years prior. (The Watch on the Heath: Science and Religion Before Darwin, pg. 20) Darwin quite admired the clarity and force of Paley’s arguments, writing in his autobiography:
The logic of [an earlier Paley book] and as I may add of his “Natural Theology” gave me as much delight as did Euclid. … I did not at that time trouble myself about Paley’s premises; and taking these on trust I was charmed and convinced by the long line of argumentation.
Later, of course, Darwin could no longer take Paley’s premises on trust, having found in natural selection a much more convincing and satisfying answer to biological phenomena than Paley’s “argument from design”.
Chapter 4 of Watchmen is entitled “Watchmaker”, and in it Dr. Manhattan ponders the same question that moved Paley and Darwin: who makes the world? The web annotations quite rightly recognize the link to Paley:
The title of this issue, “Watchmaker,” refers also to the famous “argument from design,” saying that the universe as a complex creation must have a creator. The metaphor was first proposed by William Paley in Natural Theology; his example was that of finding a watch somewhere, and that its complexity implied a watchmaker. This term has come to symbolize an intelligent creator, and thus is particularly appropriate to Dr. Manhattan, as is “The Judge of All the Earth.”
Note the connection to Linette Paley, a very minor character who appears later in Watchmen.
(Linette Paley, for those keeping score, was an avant-garde composer who was among the artists recruited and then killed by Adrian Veidt. Aside from the name, it’s hard to see any connection to William.) Leslie Klinger also connects the creator reference to Dr. Manhattan, noting that “Jon calls the universe a ‘makerless mechanism’… Yet he ultimately chooses to move on and become a maker himself”. (pg. 140)
Now, there’s a lot to dig into here, but I want to take a moment for something I rarely spend much time on in these essays: sheer appreciation. Moore’s use of clock, watch, and time imagery throughout this book is simply astonishing. Let’s take stock:
- The title Watchmen in one sense implies guardianship, but in combination with all the clock imagery can’t help but evoke timekeeping as well.
- The early years of the Watchmen universe feature the Minutemen, whose name also implies both guardianship and timekeeping.
- There are twelve chapters, corresponding to hours on a clock.
- Each chapter ends with an image of a clock, ticking down towards 12:00.
- That clock not only counts down toward the story’s climax, it also resonates with the nuclear anxiety of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists’ Doomsday Clock, first cited in the newspaper on Veidt’s desk in Chapter 1.
- Large clocks appear at various key locations in the story — Veidt’s Antarctic stronghold, the exterior of Madison Square Garden, Jon’s clock-like Mars ship.
- The art is full of circles with an indicator of position, like clocks — Dr. Manhattan’s symbol, The Comedian’s blood-streaked badge and its many echoes, and the Vitruvian Manhattan that ends this chapter.
- Let’s not forget about those melting clocks in the art on Dr. Manhattan’s wall.
- Jon is constantly mentioning seconds, minutes, hours, days, and years — with an awareness that (allegedly) encapsulates all of time, he cannot stop talking about pieces of it.
- Jon’s father repairs pocketwatches — he too is a watchmaker, albeit one who stops believing in his craft. We see the pieces of his work fall to earth as he rejects them, linked with the meteors that fall at the end of the chapter.
- A broken watch precipitates Jon’s accident.
- Shortly before the main events of the plot, Jon and Laurie buy an issue of Time magazine, whose cover is a stopped watch.
- A denizen of the newsstand intersection, who berates Malcolm Long and dies from Adrian’s attack, is a street vendor of watches.
It all meshes together with soft precision, and it’s just… beautiful. Exquisite. Crafted. It leaves absolutely no doubt of a contriver. One of the ironies behind Dr. Manhattan’s question is that we know exactly who makes his world: Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons, John Higgins. For our world, at least the biological parts of it, the answer seems clear as well: evolution. Dawkins leaves us no room to doubt that.
William Paley, though, was without the benefit (or challenge) of having On The Origin of Species at hand, let alone The Blind Watchmaker. That said, he certainly wrestled with its precursors, including the work of Charles’s grandfather Erasmus Darwin, who argued that biological diversity proceeded over enormous spans of time from a single “filament”, in some ways anticipating the gene-centric view that Dawkins would later champion. But for Paley there was simply no way for that filament’s progression to explain the incredible array of phenomena he catalogued in Natural Theology. His reaction to human anatomy was essentially the same as my reaction to the clock motifs in Watchmen: an intense aesthetic rapture, followed by the desire to inventory and analyze.
Genesis Sui Generis
Most of Natural Theology consists of Paley rolling out example after example from anatomy, zoology, botany, and like biological fields. His reasoning, over and over, proceeds along this line:
- Here is something we know about anatomy. (Or a similar field.)
- This really reminds me of a machine! There’s often an analogy offered here. For instance, he might compare the operation of an eye to the operation of a telescope.
- Doesn’t it remind you of a machine?
- This thing in the body, not made by humans, really reminds us both of things that are made by humans. Therefore, God exists.
- (optional) He will often follow this up with a sentiment along the lines of, “After that example, no further examples should be necessary.” He will then give many more examples.
I’m being a bit flip here, and with what we know today it’s awfully easy to see the gaps and flaws in Paley’s thinking, but before the notion of natural selection had been articulated, Natural Theology had a pretty sound argument! It is quite seductive and intuitive to see a designing hand in biological details — I know people even today who learn enough facts about the human body that they dare anyone to know that much about it and not believe in God.
For the inhabitants of the Watchmen universe, the problem is even knottier due to the existence of Dr. Manhattan, an existence which appears to steamroll Darwin’s founding assumptions. The theory of natural selection rests on four pillars:
- Variation — individuals within a species vary.
- Genetic inheritance — traits are passed down via reproduction.
- Super-fecundity — organisms can produce more offspring than necessary to replace themselves over their lifetimes.
- Filtering — environmental and genetic factors prevent populations from increasing geometrically.
Combined, these factors tell us that only those best equipped to deal with the filters survive, and that those survivors pass their traits on to their progeny, who have been naturally selected for the best chances of survival.
None of these pillars apply to Dr. Manhattan! He was created artificially and accidentally. He is unique, irreproducible, and invincible. He exemplifies the notion of a massive change happening instantly rather than Darwin’s notion of gradual changes over millions of years. Yet I suspect Paley would find little comfort to his Biblical beliefs if he were aware of Jon Osterman’s sudden transformation.
For one thing, Paley’s “contriver” is nowhere to be found in Dr. Manhattan’s genesis. Instead, Jon assembles himself into a sui generis species which indeed does have a “watchmaker”, but not the creator reported in Paley’s Bible. Dr. Manhattan, in fact, fits the category of god better than the category of organism. Janey Slater says as much on page 11 of this chapter: “They say you’re like God now.” Jon replies, comfortingly, “I don’t think there is a God, Janey. If there is, I’m not him.” But then he tells her he’s still the same person, and that he’ll always want her, and in his self-narration he describes this moment starting with, “As I lie…” So is he lying too when he says he’s not God? Perhaps, but given his “makerless mechanism” remark at the end of the chapter, I suspect not. He might (eventually) think he’s a god, but never thinks that he’s the God.
Still, Jon’s near-omniscience and near-omnipotence would certainly be terrifying to Paley, a feeling shared by Milton Glass at the end of the chapter. But even more terrifying would be Jon’s overwhelming indifference to human life. Paley, it’s important to note, felt he not only had to prove the existence of the Christian God, but the goodness of that God as well — remember that the second part of his title specified that he would provide “Evidence of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity”. For Paley, God is not just a force who set the clockwork in motion, but one who did so out of love for humanity.
In the final quarter of Natural Theology, Paley abandons his litany of examples arguing for a contriver, directing his rhetoric into chapters with titles like “Of the Personality of the Deity”, “Of the Natural Attributes of the Deity”, and of course, “The Goodness of the Deity”. To support this final claim, Paley contends that “in a vast plurality of instances in which contrivance is perceived, the design of the contrivance is beneficial.” (pg. 237) He proceeds to back this up by explicating the overall pattern in which a creature’s abilities are well suited to its needs, a relationship we now can see clearly as owing to natural selection. Even without that lens, though, the question must be asked: beneficial to whom?
The Shark and the Herrings
Paley wasn’t unaware that nature could be red in tooth and claw. A plant or animal’s abilities are certainly beneficial to itself, but not to its adversaries, and those adversaries sometimes include us, the purported beloved of our creator! The tiger’s teeth, claws, and powerful frame are to its own benefit, but the distinct detriment of the lamb. Despite the New Testament’s exaltation of the meek, and of turning the other cheek, Paley “proves” divine goodness in part by pointing out the effectiveness of killing machines. What kind of “good” deity would frame such fearful symmetry? Well, that’s a question for next time.
Paley does try to address this dilemma, devoting a substantial portion of “The Goodness of the Deity” to the question of “animals devouring one another”. (pg. 246) There is much reference to “the natural order”, and an argument that being killed fast is better than dying slowly, framing predators as agents of mercy. Paley’s moral calculus is deeply utilitarian, based in a larger philosophical movement of the late eighteenth century which held that as long as good things outweigh bad things, the universe must be good. It’s an approach to morality that Watchmen readers may find familiar — an approach that depends heavily on who we see as the hero of the story.
Super-fecundity, later to become a pillar of natural selection, is for Paley an amelioration of misery for prey species: “In rivers, we meet with a thousand minnows for one pike; in the sea, a million of herrings for a single shark.” (pg. 250) Whether this is a valid defense of God’s goodness in the face of devouring animals depends on who you see as the protagonist of their interaction. If you’re the shark, plenty more herrings will be along later. If you’re the herring, you only have the one life!
In Watchmen, Ozymandias is the shark, and the shoal of herrings gathers throughout chapter 11. (And maybe a few guppies, according to Joey the cab driver on page 9 of that chapter.) Adrian sees himself as the hero of the story, and if a few unfortunates have to die along the way, it’s all for the greater good. Like Paley’s version of God, he rests on the rationale that if his actions benefit the “vast plurality”, the universe he aspires to make must be a good one.
Part of the genius of Watchmen, though, is that we understand many of those “herrings” as unique, irreplaceable lives. The two Bernards. Joey. Her girlfriend Aline. Malcolm and Gloria Long. Steve Fine and his partner Joe. Ralph the Gordian Knot locksmith and his brother Milo, of the Promethean Cab company. The watch seller who berates Malcolm. None of these people are protagonists in Watchmen, and we don’t spend a whole lot of time with any of them, but we know them as people, with their own lives, emotions, and agendas. They are not anonymous prey, and when they die, more of them will not be along later.
Reading Paley’s utilitarian moral arguments in his context as an 18th-century Englishman, it’s easy to see how this notion of disposability propped up the logic of colonialism. If the goodness of God is axiomatic, proven by the happiness of the person writing about him, then surely those Englishmen must be the heroes of the story, the sharks to all those savage herrings in the lands they were bravely “discovering”.
Paley, attempting to justify the goodness of God despite the existence of evil, invokes a colonial analogy directly, making the case that, “A West Indian slave, who, amidst his wrongs, retains his benevolence, I, for my part, look upon, as amongst the foremost of human candidates for the rewards of virtue.” Now, it’s arguable whether Paley’s mention of “wrongs” carries within it a critique of slavery itself — if so, it’s quite submerged, as it would have to be given the general audience for whom he was writing. In any case, Paley trots out in the very next sentence “the kind master” of this slave, stating that this master “is likewise a meritorious character; but still he is inferior to his slave.” It’s a “noble savage” trope, similar to what we see in “Gunga Din” — seemingly uplifting the victim of a system while taking the system itself as just a part of God’s plan. In general, Paley’s justifications for what he calls “civil evil” (aka the evil that humans do) are redolent of what today we’d call unexamined privilege.
Seeing Ozymandias deploy that same utilitarian logic, reciting his hero’s journey narrative to his Asian servants as they die from the poison he’s given them, prompts us to examine the privilege and colonialism embedded into superhero stories themselves. “With great power, there must also come great responsibility” can be read as a recasting of the White Man’s Burden, a missionary notion of rescue in which one who assumes himself superior decides that it’s his job to save his subalterns from themselves, no matter the cost to them. By generally remaining reactive, most superhero stories cling to a moral high ground, a version of protection which responds only to external threats. Ozymandias shows us how thin is the line between that version of goodness and that of Paley’s God, insisting that we believe in a universe whose violence and death are mere byproducts of goodness and love.
This is the craft of Watchmen. While Paley’s watch on the heath uses regulated motion to point out the hour of the day, the object created by Moore, Gibbons, and Higgins uses intricately meshed narrative to point out the uncomfortable truths within its genre, and to highlight the broken versions of humanity we sometimes exalt as heroes. It’s less like a watch than a pair of spectacles, bringing a familiar world into a new focus, and revealing what was always there, if only we’d had eyes to see it.
Next entry: In the Forests of the Night
Previous entry: Soft Watchmen
Excellent essay. “The Watchmen” was a masterstroke of writing, art, and storytelling. Moore, Gibbons and Higgins tossed down the gauntlet in challenge to the rest of the graphic novel world, and I’ve not read much of anything to eclipse it in craft and cleverness. They explore deep themes in the narrative, utilizing a wide array of visual and literary devices. This book could have been the springboard to ever better content from others in the field, and that would have been remarkable. Unfortunately, few have risen to the challenge, but that just makes what these three guys achieved ever more special.