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Gray, Asa (1810–1888)


Asa Gray was a leading American interpreter of Charles Darwin's theory of evolution. Born in Sanquoit, in central New York, he became deeply interested in botany as a youth. Although he received a medical degree from Fairfield Medical School in 1831, he decided to devote his life to botanical studies, in which field he soon gained an international reputation. Harvard University appointed him Fisher professor of natural history in 1841, a post he held for over forty years. His writings both popularized the subject of botany and advanced it scientifically. Through his correspondence with Charles Darwin in 1856 and 1857, Gray obtained a preview of the theory of evolution by natural selection. When the Origin of Species was published, Gray wrote one of the first reviews, in the American Journal of Science and Arts (March 1860). This review, with several other essays on evolution, was reprinted under the title Darwiniana (1876).

Gray's attitude to Darwin's theory was open-minded but cautious. He regarded it as a plausible scientific hypothesis, although far from conclusively proved. As an explanation of the diversification of species, it was markedly superior to the doctrine of special creation. However, it did not really explain the origin of species because it failed to give a satisfactory account of the cause of variations. Gray thought that Darwin was often rash in drawing conclusions that outran the evidence, as when he asserted that all species must have descended from "four or five primordial forms" and when he contended that man's mental powers must have had an evolutionary origin. This last contention "accumulates improbabilities beyond belief."

Against those who said that the Darwinian theory implied atheism, Gray argued that "it is neither atheistical in statement nor in intent." The theory could be given a nontheistic interpretation, but it could equally be given a theistic one. A central question was the presence or absence of design in nature as a whole, and this question was one for the natural theologian or the philosopher, not for the biologist. Gray himself favored a theistic interpretation, since the idea of a Designer of the universe "is most natural to the mind." It was not even true to say that Darwin's theory was mechanistic. It assumed that adaptations produced by natural selection are useful to organisms, enabling them to achieve certain ends, and this assumption clearly reintroduced purpose or teleology into natural history. "If purpose in this sense does not itself imply design, it is certainly compatible with it and suggestive of it."

Gray's cool analysis of Darwinism coupled with his espousal of theism irked some of Darwin's militantly agnostic supporters, though not Darwin himself, who valued Gray as a friend and searching critic.

See also Darwin, Charles Robert; Darwinism.


works by gray

Darwiniana: Essays and Reviews Pertaining to Darwinism. Cambridge, MA, 1876. New edition with an introduction by A. H. Dupree, Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1963.

Scientific Papers. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1889.

Natural Science and Religion. New York: Scribners, 1880.

Letters of Asa Gray. Edited by Jane Loring Gray, 2 vols. Boston and New York: Houghton, Mifflin, 1893.

works on gray

Dupree, A. H. Asa Gray: 18101888. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1959.

Robinson, B. L. "Asa Gray." Science 62 (1925): 4546.

T. A. Goudge (1967)

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