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Asa Gray and Charles Darwin, Part 3

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August 4, 2012 Tags: Design, Problem of Evil
Asa Gray and Charles Darwin, Part 3

Today's entry was written by Sara Joan Miles. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of BioLogos. You can read more about what we believe here.

Note: Many Christians believe that they face a painful choice-- either life was designed by God or it is an evolutionary product of natural selection. Charles Darwin himself believed in this dichotomy, and people ever since have felt the need to "choose sides". However, looking back at history, we find that one of Darwin's chief scientific colleagues, Asa Gray, did not share this perspective. As a man devoted to the Christian faith, Gray believed that living creatures were the handiwork of God, but that did not cause him to reject evolution. Instead, after examining the evidence, Gray accepted evolution and the divine design of life.

One of the primary reasons that Darwin rejected biological design was due to the preponderance of pain and death that he observed in the natural world. Gray was alert to these troubling facts as well, but he also embraced the God of the Bible who redeems life from suffering and death rather than avoiding them altogether. By trusting the Gospel, Gray could reconcile the problem of natural evil with the existence of a benevolent, active, loving God.

In part 2 of this series, we saw how Darwin struggled with the reality of suffering and death in the natural world. In this final post, we learn how Asa Gray was able overcome Darwin's "insoluble problem" and embrace evolution without rejecting the idea of design.

This essay was originally published by the American Scientific Affiliation in Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 53 (September 2001): 196-201. Used by permission.

An "Insoluble" Question for Darwin

The death of Darwin's daughter Anne added
to his struggle with theodicy.

Imbedded in this refusal to follow Gray is the question of theodicy to which I referred earlier. How could an omniscient, omnipotent, benevolent God set up a process that led to "injurious deviations of structure"? How could such a Being design a struggle for existence, a survival of the fittest-- war for all and death for some? For Darwin, a doctrine of design that included evil and suffering was not worth embracing.

But Darwin still had to explain beauty and goodness, so he continued to waiver. In 1874 Gray wrote an article for Nature that was essentially a tribute to Darwin. After discussing his contributions, Gray said:

Apropos to these papers, which furnish excellent illustrations of it, let us recognise Darwin's great service to Natural Science in bringing back to it Teleology: so that, instead of Morphology versus Teleology, we shall have Morphology wedded to Teleology.19

Darwin's response showed pleasure. He wrote: "What you say about Teleology pleases me especially, and I do not think any one else has ever noticed the point. I have always said you were the man to hit the nail on the head."20 And near the end of his life, Darwin wrote to his friend T. H. Farrer these words: "If we consider the whole universe, the mind refuses to look at it as the outcome of chance--that is, without design or purpose. The whole question seems to me insoluble, ...."21

Why was this an "insoluble" question for Darwin and not for Gray? I believe that there were two closely related factors upon which they disagreed and which led to their different viewpoints. First, as Michael Roberts has insightfully pointed out,22 Darwin followed the traditional Paleyean view of design and tried to go from design in Nature to belief in God. Gray began with a belief in God and saw design in Nature as a result of that belief.23

Another way to say it is that for Darwin, design would be evidence for God, whereas for Gray, design would be evidence from God. Since Darwin believed that Nature provided examples that would give evidence for a God that either could not or would not eliminate suffering, he preferred to withhold total commitment to design.

Gray, on the other hand, knew from Scripture the attributes of God, and therefore could accept the errors, evil, and suffering of Nature within the same theological context that he did for humans. And that explanation relates to the second factor upon which they disagreed: the relationship of free will and predestination or, as Gray put it in the title of one of his articles, design versus necessity.24 As Darwin's questions about the man killed by lightning and the gnat eaten by a swallow had indicated, Darwin could not reconcile the seeming randomness of certain particular events with an overall, foreordained plan. Either everything was determined or nothing was.

For Gray, the options were not so mutually exclusive. First, Gray took a more global view of design than Darwin did. Gray saw design providing the overall, general plan, but not requiring specific details. Darwin, on the other hand, understood design to be in the details. Gray argued that just as not all actions of human beings, who are purposeful agents, are "'products of design'; many are contingent or accidental,"25 so he could view some phenomena in Nature to be the result of contingent or accidental forces. Thus Gray could accept the elimination of unfavorable variations, for example, in the same way he could accept that, for the elect, God could work through suffering. God caused neither--they are simply a part of a fallen world--but he can use both.

Lessons We Can Learn

I believe that there are at least two lessons that those of us involved in current debates about these matters can learn from this discussion about evolution and design that took place between Darwin and Gray. First, we need to be cognizant of which way we are arguing: are we arguing from design to God or from God to design? If the former, then we must be careful to include the whole of Nature--physical and biological, "good" and "bad," ugly and beautiful--and be prepared to answer questions of suffering, evil, and the like. If the latter, then, it seems to me, we must be prepared to accept the fact that science may be done identically by the Christian and the non-Christian, with identical "results," but the connotative meaning will be different. For the non-Christian, the results may be either ends in themselves or the starting points for future work. For the Christian, they are evidences that lead us to greater praise of God.

The Intelligent Design movement as well as those
opposed to the ID approach need to examine and learn
the history of Natural Theology and design.

Secondly, the Intelligent Design movement as well as those opposed to the ID approach need to examine and learn the history of Natural Theology and design, reading both the advocates and the opponents. We have much to learn from Augustine, Ray, Paley, Hume, the authors of the Bridgewater Treatises, Lord Kelvin, and others. These thinkers will help us strengthen our arguments, refine our logic, and understand the limitations of our perspectives.

Finally, we can follow the pattern of civility and humility that both Gray and Darwin displayed as they sought to understand each other's position, to acknowledge strengths in argumentation and to point out weaknesses in reasoning--possibly resulting in part from their knowledge of the history to which I just referred. Their letters were filled with words like "dear" and "friend," and signed with such words as "cordially" and "affectionately." Differences of opinion--clearly and forcefully stated--did not distort or disrupt their relationship. Gray's testimony was respected by Darwin, and Darwin's real confusion was accepted by Gray. They continued to reach out to each other, and their relationship actually served as a bridge that each could cross in their journey toward Truth. We could do worse than emulate their pattern of debating vigorously yet loving genuinely as we interact with one another on this subject that has yet to be fully resolved.


19. Asa Gray, "Scientific Worthies: Charles Darwin," Nature 10 (June 4, 1874): 81.
20. Charles Darwin, The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, ed. Francis Darwin (New York: Basic Books, Inc., 1959), 367.
21. Darwin, More Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, 395.
22. Michael Roberts, "Darwin's Doubts About Design" in Science & Christian Belief 9 (2 October 1997): 126.
23. See also Gray's argument against Agassiz in "Natural Selection not Inconsistent with Natural Theology," 126.
24. Asa Gray, "Design versus Necessity: Discussion between Two Readers of Darwin's Treatise on the Origin of Species, upon its Natural Theology" in Darwiniana, 51-71. The article was originally printed in American Journal of Science and Arts 30 (1860): 226-39. The two readers were Daniel Treadwell and Asa Gray.
25. Asa Gray, "Evolutionary Teleology" in Darwiniana, 299.

Dr. Sara Joan Miles is an historian of science and Founding Dean Emerita of Esperanza College, Eastern University, St. Davids, PA. Before her retirement from Eastern in 2005, Dr. Miles taught in the History and Biology departments there, and previously taught biology, history and served as Health Professions Counselor at Wheaton College. She holds an M.R.E. from Texas Christian University, an M.S. in Biology from the University of Illinois, and Ph.D. in History of Science from the University of Chicago. Miles did additional graduate work in anthropology at Hartford Seminary, and served as a missionary-teacher for three years in Zaire. She is a current board member of the Presbyterian Association on Science, Technology and the Christian Faith and a Fellow of American Scientific Affiliation.

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George Bernard Murphy - #71675

August 4th 2012

Now I admit at the outset that I am out of my depth with this comment but on this paragraph

“And that explanation relates to the second factor upon which they disagreed: the relationship of free will and predestination or, as Gray put it in the title of one of his articles, design versus necessity.24”

....... I think the current M-theory,. “the final “string theory”... envisions multiple realities ,... with multiple pasts histories and multiple futures for any given event.


What does that mean? Heck I don’t know….. but it would seem to bear on this question. [Check Briane Greene’s recent stuff.]

Roger A. Sawtelle - #71678

August 4th 2012


If I understand it correctly the multiple realities of string theory disolves God, Meaning, and causality, because whatever you do in this world you will do the opposite in an alternative world. 

Thus both Romney and Obama will be winners in November and none of the gold medals at the Olympics are real, just for our particular aspect of reality. 

String theory science sides with Darwin.  All is random. 

George Bernard Murphy - #71686

August 4th 2012

Well I don’t know Roger.

 But there was a big argument  a few years ago over the question of whether cause and effect could be disolved.

 It was between between Stephen Hawking and Leonard Susskind a few year ago. I think it is still up on Youtube under the name “Hawking Paradox”.

 It had to do with whether information was lost in a black hole. If it were lost then cause and effect relationship would disappear,[they said].

 Susskind won the debate and cause and effect relationship remains [I think]!

HornSpiel - #71685

August 4th 2012

Thanks for this interesting and informative series in Gray and Darwin it puts a human face on the controversy, and shows how the cuurent debate is really not the same as that at the time. In part two you write:

“Evangelical Christians in the nineteenth century were generally not biblical literalists, nor did they believe in a young earth.

Is is unfortunate that evangelical Christains are now more proundly ignorant of natural history than back in the 19th century. It come with a distrust and sckeptism towards science which admittedly resulted from certain attacks on religion in the name of Science. It’s the Huxleys not the Darwins who should be on trial.

George Bernard Murphy - #71687

August 4th 2012


I think you are right. Huxley used Darwin to attack church leaders for reasons unrelated to science.

 Darwin was pretty passive.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #71688

August 4th 2012


It must be noted that more than evolution is responsible for the evangelical stance in defense of the Bible. 

One factor was higher citicism of the Bible which used the Source Theory to study Genesis, which goes against traditional Mosaic authorship.  Also scholars raised questions about the Flood, the crossing of the Red Sea, and destruction of Jericho.

Another is philosophical idealism which supported theology, but resisted scientific thought, which favors materialism. 

Evangelicals felt attacked from all sides, scientific, philosophical, and Biblical.  They retreated into the Bible to which they absolute truth and authority. 

Their issue with evolution is not scientific.  It is theological, concerning the nature and authority of the Bible, and philosophical, concerning the nature of reality.  That is why scientific arguments do not work for the most part when discussing evolution with evangelicals.



HornSpiel - #71693

August 4th 2012

The question is Why do evengelicals tend to distrust science (and scientists)?

Is it higher citicism of the Bible, which tried to use methods of science to examin the history and textual material of Chritianity? Not that in itself. I was the implicit anti-supernatualism of so many of the investigators. Albert Schweitzer (Quest for the Historicalv Jesus) comes to mind. They were, many of them, super smart and good people (and German).

So they make a good case against traditional Mosaic authorship. That may be highly probable, just like say evolution is, but that does not inevitably lead to the conclusion that the Bible is not inspired or trustworthy, just as evolution does not.

When it comes to proclaiming the Good News one needs to lead with the heart, not the head.

George Bernard Murphy - #71698

August 5th 2012

Well some of the distrust of scientists was justified.

 When you go back and look at the Scopes trial the behavior of the ACLU’s lawyer Clarence Darrow was terrible.

He sabotaged the “great debate” by presenting his side and then preventing Bryan from speaking.

 I have Wm Jennings Bryan’s unspoken final speech. He published it the final week and then died.

 He said all of science cold be true but men would still need GOD BECAUSE SCIENCE COULD STILL BE USED FOR GOOD OR EVIL,...... AND GOD TAUGHT MEN TO BE GOOD.

Bryan was silenced,,,,,,“survival of the fittest” became eugenics with “sterilization of the unfit”........ then came the Nazi “super-race” idea  and WWll.

Bryan’s “ungiven” speech foresaw that and opposed it.

 Darrow should have let him speak at the trial.

Jon Garvey - #71694

August 5th 2012


You’re both largely on the money here, I think. The key seems to be that both in higher criticism and much evolutionary science, naturalistic presuppositions, touted as “science”,  guaranteed an anti-supernaturalist set of conclusions.

If your a prioris include premises like the exclusion of predictive prophecy or miracle on principle and the assumption of an evolutionary account of Israel’s religion, then the results of a highly subjective technique like source criticism are (to allude to C S Lewis) “assured.” Source criticism was less contentious in Homeric studies where, paradoxically, it was largely abandoned as methodologically suspect much sooner.

In biology, if the Huxleys of the world are loudly rejoicing in the death of God, and also constructing a version of the past based on that “fact”, the results are equally certain.

If those positions begin to hold complete sway in academia, despite what has only now become accepted about their metaphysical biases, it’s hardly surprising that much late 19th century Evangelicalism embraced anti-intellectualism. The intellectuals had already embraced metaphysical anti-Evangelicalism.

GJDS - #71697

August 5th 2012


I would add to this discussion, by pointing out what to me amounts to a propaganda/media campaign, by a small minority of advocates with scientific training, which is blatantly untrue; the claim that science (and scientists have accepted this) has proven various aspects of a number of matters. I mention as an example the origins of life, or perhaps others state it as the tree of life (e.g. Koonin et al,“The ancient Virus World and evolution of cells” Biology Direct 2006, 1:29) and the assumption that all scientists regard evolution as proven, true, and can be applied (or is relevant) to many areas of science. This is preposterous. We are told that social behaviour, and mental activity, are now understood, just to mention another example, when in fact there is considerable disagreement (e.g. SCIENCE, Agreeing to Disagree, vol 293, 2009). I have previously mentioned the case of a former President of the American Chemical Society publishing non-sense concerning the formation of optical isomers via neutron stars and meteors bringing virus to ‘seed’ life. I find this behaviour  damage the Sciences and the way they are perceived by the community. I understand various religious people and organisations are also troubled by these matters.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #71700

August 5th 2012


1. I think that we are in basic agreement that this issue is not primarily about science, but about philosophy or worldview.  Thus if BioLogos thinks that it can solve the problem by teaching good science, it is mistaken.

2.  That said there are serious problems on both sides, as we have said.  We can not put the blame on the other side unless we take responsibility for our own faults.  This is consistent with Christianity which seeks not victory over our opponents, but Reconciliation with them.     

3.  As in most disputes the people on the extremes throw the most mud, but the people caught in the middle get the dirtiest.  It is up to us who are in the middle to stand up to those on both sides who are throwing mud.

4. The biggest problem with standing up for the moderate middle is that there is no clear alternative today to Materialism vs Idealism which is the basic conflict between science vs religion.  This is why we who are in the middle need to work this out to restore sanity to the church and the world in these turbulent times.   

Merv - #71701

August 5th 2012

Roger, I like your picture of the extremists throwing the most mud while those standing between get the dirtiest.  Quite a picture, that.

Regardin GJDS’ comments about the extravagent claims of some outspoken scientists, there is also some responsibility for this among the press and all of us whose information diet tends to reward those press outlets that provide the juiciest morcels.  And real science which will always be accompanied by error bars, probabilities, and cautionary qualifications does not sell nearly so well as the certain sounding pronouncements, the grandiose claims & such.  It also doesn’t help that a good fight sells much better than relatively mild “plodding along together” in our struggle to clear away some fog.  History books are punctuated by wars, not “peaces”.  So I suggest that real science and the daily contributions of Christians involved in real science remain largely unnoticed by the most of us.  But when enthusiasts perceive science or theology to be threatened they retreat into sweeping claims, attempting to put down the aggressor.


Merv - #71702

August 5th 2012

uh-oh.   “morcel” should have been:  morsel

HornSpiel - #71724

August 6th 2012


Thanks for your comments. To bring the discussion directly back to the article. What this series shows us is that, although did hold certain metaphysical views as a result of his studies, he held them fairly lightly evidenced by his close relationship with Asa Gray.

What I would like people, especially those on the anti-TE side to realize is that really there is no such thing as Darwinism—to strike that term from the discussion. Darwin, conscientiously tried to promote the scientific theory of evolution, not any metaphysical inferences, in his publishes works. What I think both the TE, ID and even YEC  positions can agree on is opposition to Huxleyism. The real issue is of metaphysics inferences backed up by the status and authority of science and certain scientists.

BioLogos would really do this community a service by commissioning a series that focuses on Huxley, like this one does on Darwin.

GJDS - #71741

August 6th 2012


I can understand you using the term Darwinism to show a distintion from a scientific theory. I would point out however, that if we focus on the notion of a scientific theory, and of scientific laws as you rightly suggest, we would encounter many difficulties when discussing evolution. I have pointed out the ‘unreasonable’ breadth such a discriptive notion has, in that it seeks to speak as a scientific theory covering many disciplines (including molecular chemistry). For a scientific theory to be regarded as such it must measure to a very high standard (such as for example quantum mechanics and molecular modelling based on this as applied to chemistry and physics, and with various advances, as it will be increasingly applied to molecular biology). Evolution simply cannot claim this status - by the obvious fact that it is not used in this way, nor can it ever be formulated in a manner that would enable it to be used at any time in the way quantum chemistry is sued. It is simply a descriptive notion.

It is important for scientists to understand the difference between metaphysical inferences as it is equaly important to understand the distinction that I am making when referring to scientific theory. This does not mean that various practitioners would not hypothesise and speculate in accordance with Darwins views, as they obvioulsy do. They need to see what a limited place this thinking has to science in general, and thus make their claims less contentious. I note that in a number of papers I have looked through recently, the authors are more likely to make a passing reference to evolution rather than treat their results as confirming any specific aspect of a scientific theory. I have also come accross a paper in which the author describes himself as a heretic in relation to evolution. I think these facts are “food for thought.”

Roger A. Sawtelle - #71728

August 6th 2012


I am sure your comparison of Darwin and Huxley has validity, however I think the real example here is Asa Gray, who was able to express his ideological differences with Darwin while working with him and supporting him scientifically. 


HornSpiel - #71760

August 7th 2012

I agree Asa Gray is an excellent example of a Christian who was not only committed to looking dispassionately at the facts, but not afraid of exploring theories that explained them.

My point of looking at Huxley is that we as Christians need to fight the right enemy—bad philosophy masquerading as science. I would like to know more about how Darwin got on with Huxley. He has been called Darwin’s bulldog. I think we know what that means, but how did he get that title? Was Darwin aware that he ever had a bulldog? If Huxley was a bulldog, what was Gray? I’d like to think he was his friend.

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