Asa Gray: Defending Darwin

Emma Hattersley 16 Oct 20

“On the Origin of Species” was one of the most influential scientific works of the 19th century. It transformed the field of biology forever, and revolutionised the way we looked at the natural world. For this reason, it was controversial from the moment it was released, both with biologists, who gradually rewrote every textbook that had ever been written, but also with the religious establishment.

There were many Christians and atheists who believed that this work was in direct contradiction of the Biblical creation narrative told in Genesis. However, despite popular belief, this was far from a universal opinion. From the very beginning, there were many theologians and scientists who disagreed. The man at the forefront of this movement? Asa Gray.

As a Christian who also accepts evolution as scientific truth, Asa Gray is a personal hero of mine. For me, he is evidence that my faith and they way I understand biology are not in contradiction, and that this way of looking at the world is not a recent development.

However, despite my own perspective, the purpose of this article is not to present the evidence for evolution, or judge Christians who may hold different scientific views to myself. Instead, I want to focus on Gray, a devout Christian who was prepared to stand out: both for his faith, and for his scientific opinions.

Gray’s career

Gray was born in 1810. He initially studied medicine, but spent most of his free time studying botany. He then switched full time to this field of study just two years after graduating as a doctor. It was also around this time that he came to Christ, and became a committed member of his church in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

His switch to botany turned out to be an excellent decision on his part. He became known as the ‘Father of American Botany’, and was eventually made professor of the subject at Harvard University. This was the very first permanent Botany professorship in the United States. He remained at Harvard until his death in 1888.

Over his career he acquired more than 200,000 plants, many of which he named for the first time. His real genius lay in taxonomy, the science of organising and classifying different species.

Suksdorfia violacea, the type species of its genus. Gray named the genus after his assistant, Wilhelm Nikolaus Suksdorf.
[Robert L. Carr; Eastern Washington University, EWFLORA; 2011]

Unlike any scientist before or after him, he dominated American botany, bringing the discipline up to the more modern European standard and analysing the geography of America’s flora properly for perhaps the first time.

Gray’s friendship with Darwin

Despite his amazing career in his own right, Gray is far better known for his friendship with Charles Darwin, and was the route by which most of his ideas entered the United States. Primarily, he led the argument that the ideas expressed in ‘Origin of Species’ were not inherently atheistic, though he acknowledged that some would use it as an ‘excuse’ for unbelief.

Darwin wrote to Gray about his evolutionary ideas before they were published, as part of their regular correspondence about ideas in biology. When Alfred Russel Wallace wrote to Darwin, describing independently derived ideas about evolution, it was a letter to Gray that Darwin published to show he'd had the idea previously.

After the publication of ‘Origin of Species’ in 1859, Gray ardently defended the work through his letters, asking academics in America to give the idea a fair hearing. His article “Natural Selection Not Inconsistent With Natural Theology,” was later published by Darwin as a pamphlet. Darwin later changed his mind with regards to this opinion, but nevertheless appreciated Gray’s work in distributing his ideas.

In later years, after the interruption of the American Civil War, Gray published a series of anonymous articles. These attacked the religious opponents of Darwin, but also those whose acceptance of evolution had led them to agnosticism. These were later compiled into the book ‘Darwiniana’ (try saying that three times fast!) This book was the first to illustrate the viewpoint of ‘theistic evolution’, which is the view that religious teachings about God are compatible with evolution.

Gray believed that the question “Does God exist?” and the question “Does life evolve?” were completely separate questions, which required different methods of investigation. He strongly believed that God created the world. However, he argued that we needed to adapt our arguments for his existence “in such ways as to harmonise our ineradicable belief in design with the fundamental scientific belief of continuity in nature, now extended to organic as well as inorganic forms, to living beings as well as inanimate things.”

Darwin himself wrote that “no one person understands my views and has defended them so well as Asa Gray. If I ever doubt what I mean myself, I think I shall ask him!”. This mutual respect for one another continued throughout their lives.

As Darwin steadily progressed into agnosticism, the letters he writes to Gray on the subject are full of pain and confusion. From these letters, it’s interesting to note that it was not his scientific theories that primarily led him away from God. He was overwhelmed by the suffering that existed in the world, and felt that a God in control of the world could not possibly allow it. How often have we had these kind of conversations with our non-Christian friends!

It was Gray that counselled him on this, trying in his letters to bring him to God. Although Darwin never did come to Christ, it did not lessen the two’s mutual regard for one another.

Gray’s legacy

So what lessons can we learn from Asa Gray today? I believe we can be encouraged by his correspondence with Darwin for many reasons.

Firstly, these letters make it clear that Darwin did not view discussing the religious implications of his work as unnecessary or unintellectual. His interest in understanding the world meant that, although not a Christian, he recognised that discussing the concept of God was vital. This can encourage us to have deeper conversations with non-Christian scientists. All scientific theories describe God’s world, under God’s governance, so can therefore be explored through a Christian lens.

Secondly, it’s worth noting that Darwin’s issues with Christianity were not primarily scientific. How often do we limit evangelistic conversations with our fellow scientists to simply explaining why science doesn't disprove God? Although this issue, and other logical academic problems are important to discuss, many scientists are far more emotional than we give them credit for. Just as Darwin questioned God’s goodness after the death of his daughter, many scientists may hide deep pain and longing behind philosophical masks. Listening and counselling like Gray may, unlike with Darwin, help us to lead scientists to God.

Thirdly, Gray shows how Christians who believe in evolution do not need to fear that they have watered down their faith or their scientific credibility. It is incredible to me that it was a man of God who Darwin felt understood his work best. Gray also never made the mistake of limiting God’s creative power through evolution’s mechanism. Although I don’t in fact agree with every single one of Gray’s opinions on the combination of evolution and theology, I agree with his basic philosophy; the choice of one or the other is unnecessary.

As I wrote this article, I often tried to consider how to sum up Asa Gray. It’s hard! The best description I found, interestingly enough, comes from Darwin: “I will tell you what you are, a hybrid, a complex cross of Lawyer, Poet, Naturalist, & Theologian!” All these characteristics, however, came from the most fundamental aspect of his identity: his faith in God.

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