Science & Education

, Volume 21, Issue 7, pp 959–975 | Cite as

Making a Theist out of Darwin: Asa Gray’s Post-Darwinian Natural Theology

  • T. Russell Hunter


In March of 1860 the eminent Harvard Botanist and orthodox Christian Asa Gray began promoting the Origin of Species in hopes of securing a fair examination of Darwin’s evolutionary theory among theistic naturalists. To this end, Gray sought to demonstrate that Darwin had not written atheistically and that his theory of evolution by natural selection had not presented any new scientific or theological difficulties for traditional Christian belief. From his personal correspondence with the author of the Origin, Gray well knew that Darwin did not affirm God’s “particular” design of nature but conceded to the possibility that evolution proceeded according to “designed laws.” From this concession, Gray attempted to develop a post-Darwinian natural theology which encouraged theistic naturalists to view God’s design of nature through the evolutionary process in a manner similar to the way in which they viewed God’s Providential interaction with human history. Indeed, securing a fair reading of the Origin was not Gray’s sole aim as a promoter of Darwinian ideas. In Darwin’s theory of natural selection, Gray believed he had discovered the means by which a more robust natural theological conception of the living and evolving natural world could be developed. In this paper I outline Gray’s efforts to produce and popularize a theistic interpretation of Darwinian theory in order to correct various misconceptions concerning Gray’s natural theological views and their role in the Darwinian Revolution.


Natural Selection Darwinian Evolution Natural Theology Darwinian Theory Christian Theology 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


  1. Beatty, J. (2006). Chance variation: Darwin on orchids. Philosophy of Science, 73, 629–641.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Beatty, J. (2008). Chance variation and evolutionary contingency: Darwin, simpson, the simpsons, and gould. In M. Ruse (Ed.), The oxford handbook of philosophy of biology. USA: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  3. Bowler, P. J. (2007). Monkey trials and gorilla sermons: Evolution and Christianity from Darwin to intelligent design. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  4. Bowler, P. J., & Morus, I. R. (2005). Making modern science: A historical survey. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  5. Brooke, J. H. (1991). Darwin and religion: Correcting the caricatures. Science & Education, 19, 391–405.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Browne, J. (2002). Charles Darwin: The power of place. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.Google Scholar
  7. Burkhardt, F., et al. (ed.). (1985–2010). The correspondence of Charles Darwin, Vol. 18. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  8. Campbell, J. A. (1989). The invisible rhetorician: Charles Darwin’s third party strategy. In Rhetorica, Symposium on the Rhetoric of Science (Vol. 7. No. 1, pp. 55–85). Berkeley: University of California Press.Google Scholar
  9. Collins, F. S. (2006). The language of god. New York: Free Press.Google Scholar
  10. Collopy, P. S. (2006). Correspondence between Asa Gray and George Frederick Wright. Transcriptions of the Wright Papers.Google Scholar
  11. Croce, P. J. (1995). Science and religion in the era of William James: Eclipse of Certainty, 1820–1880. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press.Google Scholar
  12. Darwin, C. (1859). On the origin of species. London: John Murray.Google Scholar
  13. Darwin, C. (1862). On the various contrivances by which British and foreign orchids are fertilised by insects, and on the good effect of intercrossing. London: John Murray.Google Scholar
  14. Darwin, C. (1868). The variation of animals and plants under domestication. London: John Murray.Google Scholar
  15. Dennett, D. (1996). Darwin’s dangerous idea: Evolution and the meaning of life. NY: Simon & Schuster.Google Scholar
  16. Desmond, A. (1999). Huxley: From devil’s disciple to evolution’s high priest. London: Perseus Books.Google Scholar
  17. Desmond, A., & Moore, J. (1991). Darwin: The life of tormented evolutionist. New York: Warner Books.Google Scholar
  18. Dupree, A. H. (Ed.). (1963). Darwiniana: Essays and reviews pertaining to darwinism. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  19. Dupree, A. H. (1988). Asa Gray: American botanist, friend of Darwin. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.Google Scholar
  20. Ghiselin, M. T. (1996). The triumph of the Darwinian method. Berkeley: University of California Press.Google Scholar
  21. Gillespie, N. C. (1979). Charles Darwin and the problem of creation. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  22. Gould, S. J. (1992). Impeaching a self-appointed judge. Scientific American, 267, 118–121. This was a review of Darwin on Trial by Philip Johnson, the so-called grandfather of the modern intelligent design movement.Google Scholar
  23. Gray, A. (1860a). Review of on the origin of species by means of natural selection, or the preservation of favored races in the struggle for life, by Charles Darwin. American Journal of Science and Arts, 29, 153–184.Google Scholar
  24. Gray, A. (1860b). Darwin on the origin of species. Atlantic Monthly, 6, 109–116.Google Scholar
  25. Gray, A. (1860c). Darwin on the origin of species. Atlantic Monthly, 6, 229–239.Google Scholar
  26. Gray, A. (1860d). Discussion between two readers of Darwin’s Treatise on the origin of species, upon its natural theology. American Journal of Sciences and Arts, 30, 226–239.Google Scholar
  27. Gray, A. (1860e). Darwin and his reviewers. Atlantic Monthly, 6, 406–425.Google Scholar
  28. Gray, A. (1861). Natural selection not inconsistent with natural theology: A free examination of Darwin’s treatise on the origin of species and its American reviewers. Boston: Ticknor and Fields.Google Scholar
  29. Gray, A. (1874a). Evolution and theology. Nation, 18, 44–46.Google Scholar
  30. Gray, A. (1874b). What is Darwinism? Nation, 18, 348–351.Google Scholar
  31. Gray, A. (1874c). Scientific worthies: Charles Robert Darwin. Nature, 10, 79–81.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Gray, A. (1876). Evolutionary teleology. In Darwiniana: Essays and reviews pertaining to Darwinism.Google Scholar
  33. Gray, A. (1880). Natural science and religion: Two lectures delivered to the theological school of Yale college. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.Google Scholar
  34. Hermann, K. W. (1999). Shrinking from the brink: Asa Gray and the challenge of Darwinism, 1853–1868. Kent State University (Unpublished doctoral dissertation).Google Scholar
  35. Hermann, K. W. (2002). The gulf between design and descent: Charles Darwin’s rejection of Asa Gray’s apologia. Facets of Faith and Science: Vol. IV: Interpreting God’s Action in the World. University Publishing Association.Google Scholar
  36. Hoeveler, J. D. (2007). The evolutionists: American thinkers confront Charles Darwin, 1860–1920. Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield.Google Scholar
  37. Hunter, T. (2009). Rethinking Asa Gray’s “Natural Selection not inconsistent with Natural Theology.” University of Oklahoma (Unpublished Master’s Thesis).Google Scholar
  38. Huxley, L. (1900). Life and letters of Thomas Henry Huxley. London: MacMillan and Co. Limited.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Irvine, W. (1955). Apes, angels, and Victorians. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc.Google Scholar
  40. Kingsley, F. (1893). Charles Kingsley, his letters and memories of his life. New York: MacMillan & Co.Google Scholar
  41. Livingstone, D. (1984). Darwin’s forgotten defenders: The encounter between evangelical theology and evolutionary thought. Vancouver: Regent College Publishing.Google Scholar
  42. Lurie, E. (1960). Louis Agassiz: A life in science. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  43. Lyell, C. (1863). Geological evidences for the antiquity of man; with remark on theories of the origin of species by variation (2nd ed.). Philadelphia: George W. Childs.Google Scholar
  44. Mayr, E. (1991). One long argument: Charles Darwin and the genesis of modern evolutionary thought. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  45. Menand, L. (2001). The metaphysical club. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.Google Scholar
  46. Miles, S. J. (2001). Charles Darwin and Asa Gray discuss teleology and design. PSCF, 53, 196–201.Google Scholar
  47. Moore, J. (1979). The post-Darwinian controversies: A study of the protestant struggle to come to terms with Darwin in Great Britain and America, 1870–1900. New York: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Numbers, R. L. (1977). Creation by natural law: Laplace’s Nebular hypothesis in American thought. Seattle: University of Washington Press.Google Scholar
  49. Numbers, R. L. (1998). Darwin comes to America. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  50. Numbers, R. L. (2006). The creationists: From scientific creationism to intelligent design. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  51. Numbers, R. L. (2007). Science and Christianity in pulpit and pew. New York: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. Ospovat, D. (1995). The development of Darwin’s theory: Natural history, natural theology, and natural selection, 1838–1859. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  53. Roberts, J. H. (1988). Darwinism and the Divine in America: Protestant intellectuals and organic evolution, 18591900. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.Google Scholar
  54. Ruse, M. (1979). The Darwinian revolution: Science red in tooth and claw. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  55. Ruse, M. (1996). Monad to man. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  56. Ruse, M. (2000). The evolution wars: A guide to the debates. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.Google Scholar
  57. Ruse, M. (2003). Darwin and design: Does evolution have a purpose? Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  58. Ruse, M. (2006). Darwinism and its discontents. New York: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  59. Ruse, M., & Travis, J. (2009). Evolution: The first four billion years. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  60. Russet, C. (1976). Darwin in America: The intellectual response, 1865–1912. San Francisco: Abelard-Schuman Ltd.Google Scholar
  61. Shapiro, A. (2009). William Paley’s lost “Intelligent Design”. History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences, 31, 55–78.Google Scholar
  62. Tipler, F. (2004). Refereed journals: Do they insure or enforce Orthodoxy? In W. A. Dembski (Ed.), Uncommon dissent: Intellectuals who find Darwinism unconvincing. Wilmington, Delaware: ISI Books.Google Scholar
  63. van Wyhe, J. (ed.). (2002). The complete work of Charles Darwin Online.
  64. van Wyhe, J. (2007). Mind the gap: Did Darwin avoid publishing his theory for many years? Notes and Records of the Royal Society, 61, 177–205. (published online 27 March 2007).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  65. Zimmer, C. (2001). Evolution the triumph of an idea. New York: HarperCollins.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of OklahomaNormanUSA

Personalised recommendations