Asa Gray and Charles Darwin, Part 2

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Asa Gray and Charles Darwin, Part 2

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 Charles Darwin rejected biological design was due to the preponderance of pain and death that he observed in the natural world. Asa 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.

Part 1 of this essay began by describing the relationship of Asa Gray and Charles Darwin. Today's Part 2 describes Darwin's struggle with the problem of natural evil and design in nature.

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.

Evangelical Christians in the nineteenth century were generally not biblical literalists, nor did they believe in a young earth. In other words, the religious opposition to Darwin did not arise from perceived problems between Darwin's theory and a literal reading of Genesis. Rather, following the publication of Origin of Species, it centered on what seemed to be the randomness of natural selection, the appearance of new organisms by chance, and therefore the exclusion of divine purpose or design in Nature.7 It was the teleological question that Gray addressed in his review and about which he and Darwin corresponded over many years.

Darwin responds to Gray's review of Origin of Species

Darwin's response to Gray's review, a copy of which he received prior to its publication, was very positive. Darwin even hoped that it could become a preface in a second American edition of On the Origin of Species on which Gray worked. In a letter later in the year to James Dwight Dana, Darwin said: "No one person understands my views & has defended them so well as A. Gray;--though he does not by any means go all the way with me."8 The "all the way" included teleology, and Darwin wrote this to Gray concerning his attempt to retain design:

It has always seemed to me that for an Omnipotent & Omniscient Creator to foresee is the same as to preordain; but then when I come to think over this I get into an uncomfortable puzzle something analogous with "necessity & Free-will" or the "Origin of evil," or other subject quite beyond the scope of the human intellect.9

Three months later he picked up the discussion with these comments:

With respect to the theological view of the question; this is always painful to me.--I am bewildered.--I had no intention to write atheistically. But I own that I cannot see, as plainly as others do, & as I should wish to do, evidence of design & beneficence on all sides of us. There seems to me too much misery in the world. I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent & omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars, or that a cat should play with mice. Not believing this, I see no necessity in the belief that the eye was expressly designed. On the other hand I cannot anyhow be contented to view this wonderful universe & especially the nature of man, & to conclude that everything is the result of brute force. I am inclined to look at everything as resulting from designed laws, with the details, whether good or bad, left to the working out of what we may call chance. Not that this notion at allsatisfies me .... But the more I think the more bewildered I become; as indeed I have probably shown by this letter.10

"I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent & omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars, or that a cat should play with mice." - Charles Darwin

Darwin invokes William Paley

Shortly after this letter to Gray, Darwin wrote Charles Lyell on the same subject and said:

I have said that natural selection is to the structure of organised beings, what the human architect is to a building. The very existence of the human architect shows the existence of more general laws; but no one in giving credit for a building to the human architect, thinks it necessary to refer to the laws by which man has appeared. No astronomer in showing how movements of Planets are due to gravity, thinks it necessary to say that the law of gravity was designed that the planets should pursue the courses which they pursue.--I cannot believe that there is a bit more interference by the Creator in the construction of each species, than in the course of the planets.--It is only owing to Paley & Co, as I believe, that this more special interference is thought necessary with living bodies.11

In mentioning "Paley & Co," Darwin was referring to William Paley and other natural theologians, who had argued that nature--through the organization and adaptations of living organisms--demonstrated the existence of an intelligent creator. Darwin had studied Paley while in university, and Gray had also been influenced by the work of Paley, whose eighteenth-century opus Natural Theology was an important component of nineteenth-century American philosophy and was still used as a text at Harvard when Gray began teaching there in 1842.

William Paley

Paley's Argument from Design ultimately boiled down to this:

Premise 1: God's will is for us to be happy in this life and the next.

Premise 2: We can discover God's will either by consulting Scripture or by consulting "the light of nature." Both ways will lead to the same conclusion.

Premise 3: The will of God with regard to any action can be found by inquiring into its "tendency to promote or diminish the general happiness."

Conclusion 1: God creates to promote the general happiness of all creatures.

Conclusion 2: Organisms are perfectly adapted to their environment by the Creator.

The corollary of this last conclusion was that perfect design, from the structure and functioning of an organ to the structure of the universe, is evidence for God.

Confronting the reality of suffering and death in nature

For Paley, Nature provided the evidence for the existence of God, but Darwin had difficulty with this argument. His difficulty centered on what might best be referred to as issues surrounding theodicy, i.e., are natural selection and its results consistent with design by a benevolent God or do they imply that, if designed, God is capable of malevolent intent. In a July 3, 1860, letter to Gray, Darwin explicitly raises the issue. He writes:

One word more on "designed laws" & "undesigned results." I see a bird which I want for food, take my gun & kill it, I do this designedly.--An innocent & good man stands under tree & is killed by flash of lightning. Do you believe (& I really should like to hear) that God designedly killed this man? Many or most person do believe this; I can't & don't.--If you believe so, do you believe that when a swallow snaps up a gnat that God designed that that particular swallow should snap up that particular gnat at that particular instant? I believe that the man & the gnat are in same predicament.--If the death of neither man or gnat are designed, I see no good reason to believe that their first birth or production should be necessarily designed. Yet, as I said before, I cannot persuade myself that electricity acts, that the tree grows, that man aspires to loftiest conceptions all from blind, brute force.12

What Darwin wanted was Design without suffering, teleology without agony, purpose without pain.

Darwin and Gray discuss Design

This issue becomes the focus of discussion following the third article of a series that Gray published in The Atlantic Monthly in July, August, and October of 1860. When these articles were reprinted as a chapter in Gray'sDarwiniana, the chapter was titled "Natural Selection not Inconsistent with Natural Theology." The passage that focused the discussion for Darwin was this: "We should advise Mr. Darwin to assume, in the philosophy of his hypothesis, that variation has been led along certain beneficial lines."13

After stating that the article was "admirable," Darwin responded to Gray in these words:

But I grieve to say that I cannot honestly go as far as you do about Design .... [Y]ou lead me to infer that you believe "that variation has been led along certain beneficial lines."--I cannot believe this; & I think you would have to believe, that the tail of the fan-tail was led to vary in the number & direction of its feathers in order to gratify the caprice of a few men.14

In September, Darwin responded to a question from Gray and informed him of his correspondence with Lyell on the subject of Design. In a lengthy passage, he wrote:

Your question of what would convince me of Design is a poser. If I saw an angel come down to teach us good, & I was convinced, from others seeing him, that I was not mad, I should believe in design. If I could be convinced thoroughly that life & mind was in an unknown way a function of other imponderable forces, I should be convinced.... I have lately been corresponding with Lyell, who, I think, adopts your idea of the stream of variation having been led or designed. I have asked him (& he says he will hereafter reflect & answer me) whether he believes that the shape of my nose was designed. If he does, I have nothing more to say. If not, seeing what Fanciers have done by selecting individual differences in the nasal bones of Pigeons, I must think that it is illogical to suppose that the variations, which Nat. Selection preserves for the good of any being, have been designed. But I know that I am in the same sort of muddle (as I have said before) as all the world seems to be in with respect to free will, yet with every supposed to have been foreseen or preordained.15

Finally, in December, Darwin sent up the white flag, conceding that "if anything is designed, certainly Man must be; one's 'inner consciousness' (though a false guide) tells one so; yet I cannot admit that man's rudimentary mammae ... & pug-nose were designed .... I am in thick mud;--the orthodox would say in fetid abominable mud."16 From this point on, the topic is not as central in their correspondence.

Following the publication of Darwin's book on orchids, however, he asked Gray to look at the last chapter, since Darwin believed that it bore on the design question. Gray's response was found in both his review of the book and in a letter to Darwin. In his review, he praised Darwin for having "brought back teleological considerations into botany." He concluded:

We faithfully believe that both natural science and natural theology will richly gain, and equally gain, whether we view each varied form as original, or whether we come to conclude, with Mr. Darwin, that they are derived:--the grand and most important inference of design in nature being drawn from the same data, subject to similar difficulties, and enforced by nearly the same considerations, in the one case as in the other.17

Gray may have believed that Darwin "brought back teleological considerations into botany," and Darwin may have swung that way in his book on orchids, but by 1867 Darwin had definitely swung back to the other side. In his concluding remarks for The Variation of Animals and Plants Under Domestication, he wrote:

However much we may wish it, we can hardly follow Professor Asa Gray in his belief that "variation has been led along certain beneficial lines," like a stream "along definite and useful lines of irrigation." If we assume that each particular variation was from the beginning of all time preordained, then that plasticity of organisation, which leads to many injurious deviations of structure, as well as the redundant power of reproduction which inevitably leads to a struggle for existence, and, as a consequence, to the natural selection or survival of the fittest, must appear to us superfluous laws of nature. On the other hand, an omnipotent and omniscient Creator ordains everything and foresees everything. Thus we are brought face to face with a difficulty as insoluble as is that of free will and predestination.18

In Part 3, the final post in this series, Dr. Miles will explore how Asa Gray was able to embrace evolution without rejecting the idea of design in nature.


7. Following the publication of Descent of Man, a second problem arose for evangelicals, centered on how humans could be moral beings, created in the Image of God, if they were continuous with the animal kingdom. I will not be addressing that issue in this paper.
8. Charles Darwin, The Correspondence of Charles Darwin 8, 1860 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 303. 
9. Ibid., 106. 
10. Ibid., 224. 
11. Ibid., 258. 
12. Ibid., 275. 
13. Asa Gray, "Natural Selection not Inconsistent with Natural Theology" in Darwiniana (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1963), 121-2. 
14. Darwin, The Correspondence of Charles Darwin 8, 496. 
15. Charles Darwin, The Correspondence of Charles Darwin 9, 1861 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 267-8. 
16. Darwin, The Correspondence of Charles Darwin 9, 369. 
17. Cited in Darwin, The Correspondence of Charles Darwin 9, note 11, 430. 
18. Charles Darwin, The Variation of Animals and Plants Under Domestication (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1896), 428.




Miles, Sara Joan. "Asa Gray and Charles Darwin, Part 2" N.p., 3 Aug. 2012. Web. 23 February 2017.


Miles, S. (2012, August 3). Asa Gray and Charles Darwin, Part 2
Retrieved February 23, 2017, from

About the Author

Sara Joan Miles

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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