Asa Gray and Charles Darwin, Part 3

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Asa Gray and Charles Darwin, Part 3

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 evolutionand 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."20And 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.


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BioLogos Editorial Team

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