Evolution v. Creation: Asa Gray, in the “Atlantic Monthly” for June, 1860, Reviewed Darwin’s “Origin of Species” and Clearly Explained Why Science Can Never Be Satisfied with a Supernatural Explanation of Origins

Below is one of the clearest “apologies” for the separation of science from the supernatural that I have ever encountered—and it was written a hundred and fifty years ago.

In June of 1860, Asa Gray, in The Atlantic, reviewed favorably Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859), and Gray made a very astute observation about the human need to seek CAUSES, which makes non-supernatural evolutionary explanations of origins, if science is to progress, inevitable.

In short, Gray, in this exquisitely well-wrought passage, says that science, and human curiosity, can never find sufficient the answer, “God did it”:

Why not hold fast to the customary view, that all species were directly, instead of indirectly, created after their respective kinds, as we now behold them,-and that in a manner which, passing our comprehension, we intuitively refer to the supernatural? Why this continual striving after “the unattained and dim,”— these anxious endeavors, especially of late years, by naturalists and philosophers of various schools and different tendencies, to penetrate what one of them calls “the mystery of mysteries,” the origin of species? To this, in general, sufficient answer may be found in the activity of the human intellect, “the delirious yet divine desire to know,” stimulated as it has been by its own success in unveiling the laws and processes of inorganic Nature,-in the fact that the principal triumphs of our age in physical science have consisted in tracing connections where none were known before, in reducing heterogeneous phenomena to a common cause or origin, in a manner quite analogous to that of the reduction of supposed independently originated species to a common ultimate origin,-thus, and in various other ways, largely and legitimately extending the domain of secondary causes. Surely the scientific mind of an age which contemplates the solar system as evolved from a common, revolving, fluid mass,— which, through experimental research, has come to regard light, heat, electricity, magnetism, chemical affinity, and mechanical power as varieties or derivative and convertible forms of one force, instead of independent species,— which has brought the so-called elementary kinds of matter, such as the metals, into kindred groups, and raised the question, whether the members of each group may not be mere varieties of one species,- and which speculates steadily in the direction of the ultimate unity of matter, of a sort of prototype or simple element which may be to the ordinary species of matter what the protozoa or component cells of an organism are to the higher sorts of animals and plants,— the mind of such an age cannot be expected to let the old belief about species pass unquestioned. It will raise the question, how the diverse sorts of plants and animals came to be as they are and where they are, and will allow that the whole inquiry transcends its powers only when all endeavors have failed. Granting the origin to be supernatural, or miraculous even, will not arrest the inquiry. All real origination, the philosophers will say, is supernatural; their very question is, whether we have yet gone back to the origin, and can affirm that the present forms of plants and animals are the primordial, the miraculously created ones. And even if they admit that, they will still inquire into the order of the phenomena, into the form of the miracle. You might as well expect the child to grow up content with what it is told about the advent of its infant brother. Indeed, to learn that the new-comer is the gift of God, far from lulling inquiry, only stimulates speculation as to how the precious gift was bestowed. That questioning child is father to the man,- is philosopher in short-clothes.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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