One interesting subject of current debates surrounding evolutionary biology is the relationship between evolution and design. Evolutionists like the philosopher Daniel C. Dennett make the concept of design central to their depictions of evolutionary theory, while others, such as the late paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould, avoid the same conceptions. At the same time, creationists—including most prominently members of the intelligent design movement—feature the apparent evidence for design in the world as evidence against evolution. The teleology of evolution is thus a compelling subject for consideration.
The draw of evolutionary teleology is not new, however. To the contrary, the relationship between design and change, in a sense between order and chaos, has been of interest to philosophers throughout history, and to biologists throughout the history of evolutionary biology. Two notable late-nineteenth-century thinkers in this field were Asa Gray and George Frederick Wright.
Gray was America’s most distinguished botanist and Fisher Professor of Natural History at Harvard University. He was particularly interested in botanical taxonomy and thus in the formation of species, and, once convinced of the worth of Darwinian theories of evolution, was Charles Darwin’s strongest intellectual ally in the United States. Gray was also a committed evangelical Christian, a Calvinist interested in the interpretations of New School Protestantism. His American Journal of Science review of Darwin’s Origin of Species in 1860 and three related Atlantic Monthly articles formed an early examination of the religious implications of Darwinism, and held that scientific theories deal only with secondary causes and are thus distinct from theology. Nonetheless, Gray argued, “a theistic view of Nature is implied in his book”; the theory of evolution by natural selection is areligious (or perhaps agnostic, if a theory can be), but Darwin’s expression of it is not.
Wright had a distinctly different background. His father, Walter Wright, was a farmer in Whitehall, New York and a believer in the New School theology of some Presbyterian and Congregational churches. This theology emphasized humanitarian activism on the part of its adherents, and the Wrights were committed abolitionists. Walter Wright had many connections to Oberlin College in Ohio: its founders had come from his neighborhood in upstate New York, and its president was the leading abolitionist and New School theologian Charles Grandison Finney, who had been involved in evangelical Christianity in New York before the college was founded. George Wright was sent to Oberlin, from which he graduated in 1859. He then studied in Oberlin’s theology school, from which he graduated in 1862.
In addition to emphasizing social activism, Finney’s theology “stressed the authority of the Bible and the factual, evidentiary nature of religious belief.” Wright left his theological studies with a distaste for the growing field of biblical criticism and a conviction that science and religion could form a single consistent worldview. To this he added an interest in inductive logic, the subject of his first published work in 1871. Over the course of Wright’s lifetime, these interests and convictions drove him first to become Gray’s critical ally in formulating a Christian view of Darwinism, and later the resident scientist involved in the publication of The Fundamentals, a series of pamphlets that was the namesake of the fundamentalist movement.
The period of Wright’s life immediately following graduation also had a substantial influence on his future, though. Upon graduation in 1862, Wright became pastor of Bakersfield, Virginia. He occupied this post for ten years, during which he spent his spare time reading the Bible and works of theology, philosophy and science—including The Origin of Species—and exploring the region around Bakersfield. Wright was enormously successful at relating his hobbies to his professional life—each of this pastimes educated him for his future as a professor, lecturer, and writer on the relationship between science and religion.
It was in Bakersfield that Wright began his lifelong interest in geology; he wrote that due to his small salary he “had to make a virtue of necessity and dispense with expensive vacations, and get my recreation in studying the topography and geology of the interesting region in the vicinity.” He became “something of an authority on the glacial deposits of a most interesting region,” and remained one of the world’s most respected—and, with his 1892 publication of Man and the Glacial Period, popular—glaciologists throughout the late nineteenth century.
In 1872 Wright moved to Andover, Massachusetts, home of Andover Theological Seminary, to preach at the Free Church. There he again became involved in projects that would continue throughout his life, and notably met Edwards A. Park, editor of the theological journal Bibliotheca Sacra, with whom he had already corresponded. Park asked Wright to compose “a series of articles stating the arguments for and against Darwinism, and showing the bearing of that theory upon the doctrine of design in nature, and upon theological opinions in general.” It was at this point that Wright’s involvement with evolutionary teleology began.
Wright’s life was thus a series of many interesting periods, but that during which he collaborated with Asa Gray is among the most historically compelling. Gray read Wright’s 1871 article on “Grounds of Confidence in Inductive Reasoning” in the New Englander, and Wright read Gray’s many anonymous articles on Darwinism, including a negative review of Charles Hodge’s What Is Darwinism? in The Nation. Wright learned that Gray was the author of these articles in 1874, when he wrote an inquiring letter to the editor of The Nation and received a reply from Gray. It is unclear whether Wright knew Gray before receiving this letter, as by his own account it was his article which “was the means of attracting to me the attention of Professor Asa Gray.”
In any case, Wright and Gray soon struck up a correspondence and, both living in Massachusetts, began visiting each other frequently. A sequence of letters beginning in mid-1875 describes the development of Gray’s book Darwiniana, the flagship of Gray and Wright’s Christian Darwinism. Wright began this dialogue by writing that
a fresh perusal of your Atlantic Monthly articles impresses me anew with the great value not only of them, but of what else you have written upon that subject. The infidel class of Darwinian expositors have had the ear of the public entirely too much, and have needlessly added to the alarm of orthodox people.…
There is yet an immense amount of predjudice [sic] and misconception upon this subject to be removed. It was your Christian faith and your clearness of conception and statement that, when once I had access to a library where I could find out what had been written on the subject, were the most important factors in leading me to my present views. If ministers could more easily secure your writings, it would lead, I have no doubt, to a more reasonable considerations of the subject than now prevails.
This excerpt reveals Wright’s concern that the loudest voices in the discourse concerning the origins of life were those of atheistic and agnostic evolutionists on one side and Christian creationists on the other. Christian evolutionists such as Gray could write honestly about how they reconciled their religion with their science, and could thus end this debate. Wright thus wrote to ask that Gray republish his anonymous essays and reviews in a book so as to make them more accessible. The audience in which Wright was most interested was clergy like himself, and Gray responded with this in mind.
It may be that the time has come in which a collection of my popular articles on Darwinism &c would be useful. Your thinking so would go far to make me believe it. But then, you are one of the moderate number of people who have carefully read them and one of the few who well understand and appreciate them because you have given the subject an attentive consideration, and who are awake to the harm that comes from theologians and ministers denouncing a view that scientific men are more and more receiving as probably true.
I should like to know how Prof. Park regards the proposition.
I will say that while I am not unwilling to collect them for reprinting in case they are called for, it would not quite do for me, in the position I occupy (I mean as a man of science) to republish them in a collected form, without entering anew and further into some of the pending questions, to do which could seriously interrupt the legitimate work with I have in hand, to which I am deeply pledged. I suppose I could add, and should be disposed to add a note or two, especially one upon teleology from a Darwinian point to view, a subject upon which there is something still to be said, though I do not see the way to say it conclusively. You will probably do it better than I ever can.
At present, I think I should let them alone, unless there comes what you ministers recognize as a call for them, and such a call I should defer to.
If such as Prof. Park and yourself were to ask it, I would see if a publisher could be got to take them up.
But you don’t know how I dislike to have my name twisted about.
I excerpt so much of this letter here because it says a great deal about both Gray and Wright as people and as intellectuals. It illustrates first Gray’s great respect for Wright as someone who has given evolution “an attentive consideration” and who recognized the deep trouble faced by both science and religion when theologians denounce reputable science. This is a view well phrased by Galileo Galilei, who wrote that it would be “a terrible detriment for the souls if people found themselves convinced by proof of something which it was made a sin to believe.”
In this letter Gray comes off as somewhat ambivalent about actually republishing the letters, though. He states that he would have to modify his writings somewhat, and does not have time to do so without infringing on his “legitimate” scientific work. Gray’s use of the word legitimate is itself interesting, as it implies that his popularizing and philosophical works on Darwinism are illegitimate—which, in a sense they are, having been fathered anonymously by a man who was not a professional philosopher. A more serious interpretation, though, is that they lack the empirical rigor that characterized Gray’s purely scientific work.
Gray also brings up his interest in writing about Darwinian teleology if he does publish the book, but backs off from doing so “unless there comes… a call for them.” In a sense this call already came in the form of Wright’s letter, but Wright reinforced it by speaking with other theologians and finding a wide demand for such a book. Gray’s final concern is for his anonymity, which he valued highly, but he eventually agreed to take credit for his writing and publish the book provided he did not have to revise existing essays.
A month and a half later, Gray wrote in more detail about both the importance of teleology and his busy schedule.
The important thing to do is to develop a right evolutionary teleology, and to present the argument for design from these exquisite adaptations as in such a way as to make it tell on both sides—with Christian men, that they may be satisfied with—and perchance may learn to advance—Divine works effected step by step—if need be—in a system of nature,—and the anti-theistic people, to show that without the implication of a superintending wisdom nothing is made next, and nothing credible.
Gray’s ambitions for evolutionary teleology are great, but his goals also reflect his—and Wright’s—concerns about the state of discourse on evolution. Gray’s central evolutionary idea was that evolution was driven by God, and that, though natural selection was the primary mechanism, “God guided development by means of supernatural selection.” The ideas of most Christians were wrong not because they gave God too great a role, but simply because they did not accurately describe natural history; the ideas of “the anti-theistic people” were similarly wrong because they did not accurately describe the theological truths of Christianity, including the role of miracles in the history of the world. In one of his anonymous essays Gray wrote that “events and operations in general go on in virtue simply of forces communicated at the first, but… now and then, and only now and then, the Deity puts his hand directly to the work.”
Gray also complains in this August 1875 letter that he has little time to work on revising his essays because of “daily technical work” and that he has no chance to “turn… matters over in my mind.” In addition, he writes that he has “conferred with Houghton &co about reprinting my papers,” but that they were unwilling to publish his works unrevised. It was three months before the topic of publication came up again, but in the meantime Gray wrote about other things.
Gray expresses particular anger, as well as a good sense of humor, in writing about a minister who wrote to him to protest his Darwinian views.
A minister out in […] has written me taking me seriously to task for altering my opinions after the age of 45, and for abetting disorder by supporting theories that disturb the harmony of opinion that ought to prevail among scientific men.
He is one of those people who think that if you shut your eyes hard it will answer every purpose—indeed, from the ease with which he confronts Darwinism, I suppose he finds no call even to shut his eyes.
The scorn with which Gray treats this position is one he seemingly expected Wright to share when he wrote, and demonstrated that they were not only unupset by the prospect of “disturb[ing] the harmony of opinion” in science, but were not bothered about disagreeing with other Christian leaders. Gray had already expressed the view, of course, that Darwinism was increasingly “the harmony of opinion… among scientific men,” so the minister was wrong as well. What seems to have genuinely bothered Gray, from the context of this and other letters, was the eye-shutting of the minister with whom he disagreed, the lack of careful and serious consideration of the merits of Darwinism.
A couple months later Gray finally returned to the subject of publication, though, having attained a little help from a colleague.
Prof Morse tells me, that, learning from me that I was thinking of collecting & reprinting my essays & reviews pertaining to Darwinism, he took the liberty to speak to the Appletons and he read me a note in which that firm expressed a desire to publish any book of the sort I might propose.
So, I suppose I must draw along health, and decide to set about it. I think it would, however, be well for you, as an Andover Clergyman to write to the Appletons, and let them know what you think of the importance or desirability of my gathering up, completing, & presenting the views I hold, & in the very language in which I have from time to time presented them.
If you think there is an audience waiting for them among the clergy and the thoughtful religious persons, it might fortify the Appletons in their disposition to take it up. And, I dare say they may rather like to publish something of a complexion different from some of their publications.
D. Appleton & Company published a variety of scientific works, including the magazine Popular Science Monthly, and the American editions of Charles Darwin and Herbert Spencer. The “complexion” of their other publications was thus an areligious one; the works of Spencer in particular were considered by many Protestant intellectuals such as Gray and Wright to consist of bad philosophy unreconcilable with their religion, and Gray criticized them in his essays. Given that this was their catalog, Gray was perhaps somewhat surprised that the Appletons were interested in publishing his book, and gave Wright the job he wanted anyway: convincing them that other ministers were interested in the relationship between biology and theology enough to buy Gray’s book.
Within a few months, Gray was able to compile works to include in the book. In early 1876 he wrote to Wright that “I hope in a few days to have my article on Darwinian Teleology ready to read to you, & I rely on your critical acumen.” At this point he had also sent most of the material for the book to the publishers.
Over the next few months Gray and Wright edited the book together, and their letters consist of comments on specific passages and discussions of proofs, particularly those of the table of contents and index, which Wright prepared, and the preface, which Gray wrote in June 1876 specifically for the book. In this preface he echoes Wright in explaining that his writings might have value to those who are interested in the views of “one who is scientifically, and in his own fashion, a Darwinian, philosophically a convinced theist, and religiously an acceptor of the ‘creed commonly called the Nicene,’ as the exponent of the Christian faith.” Gray concluded his preface with a diplomatic expression of his frustrations in the state of discourse regarding science and religion: “‘Truth emerges sooner from error than from confusion,’ says Bacon; and clearer views than commonly prevail upon the points at issue regarding ‘religion and science’ are still sufficiently needed to justify these endeavors.”
Given Gray’s claim in a letter that Wright “will probably do it better than I ever can,” it seems that he imagined Wright to be among those who would provide these “clearer views,” and Wright wrote many books in an attempt to do so. Several of these books were published by the Appletons, who evidently continued their involvement in books expressing a religious perspective on science. Gray and Wright continued to correspond on topics across the range of science and theology and to meet and talk frequently. Wright expressed his appreciation for Gray’s mentorship and for their collaboration in the dedication to his second book, Studies in Science and Religion, which discussed many of the subjects about which Wright and Gray had corresponded.
To Prof. Asa Gray, whose discussions of natural theology are as persuasive as his contributions to botany are authoritative, this volume is inscribed, with the affection and esteem of the author.
Asa Gray, Darwiniana: Essays and Reviews Pertaining to Darwinism (1876).
Steve Jones, Darwin’s Ghost: The Origin of Species Updated (1999).
David N. Livingstone, Darwin’s Forgotten Defenders: The Encounter between Evangelical Theology and Evolutionary Thought (1987).
James R. Moore, The Post-Darwinian Controversies: A study of the Protestant struggle to come to terms with Darwin in Great Britain and America 1870–1900 (1979).
William James Morison, George Frederick Wright: In Defense of Darwinism and Fundamentalism 1838–1921, Vanderbilt University PhD dissertation (1971).
Ronald L. Numbers, “George Frederick Wright: From Christian Darwinist to Fundamentalist,” Isis 79 (December 1988).
Jon H. Roberts, Darwinism and the Divine in America (1988).
George Frederick Wright Papers, Oberlin College Archives.
George Frederick Wright, Studies in Science and Religion (1882).
George Frederick Wright, Story of My Life and Work (1916)