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.
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.
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: 1810–1888. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1959.
Robinson, B. L. "Asa Gray." Science 62 (1925): 45–46.
T. A. Goudge (1967)
"Gray, Asa (1810–1888)." Encyclopedia of Philosophy. . Encyclopedia.com. (February 19, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/gray-asa-1810-1888
"Gray, Asa (1810–1888)." Encyclopedia of Philosophy. . Retrieved February 19, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/gray-asa-1810-1888
Encyclopedia.com gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).
Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.
Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, Encyclopedia.com cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use Encyclopedia.com citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:
Modern Language Association
The Chicago Manual of Style
American Psychological Association
- Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most Encyclopedia.com content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
- In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.