Asa Gray's Thoughts on Evolution

These are some quotes from an article I recently read.

The Quotes

Theologians have a short and easy, if not wholly satisfactory, way of refuting scientific doctrines which they object to, by pitting the authority or opinion of one savant against another.
Probably from the lack of familiarity with prevalent ideas and their history, the theologians are apt to suppose that scientific men of the present day are taking up theories of evolution in pure wantonness or mere superfluity of naughtiness; that it would have been quite possible, as well as more proper, to leave all such matters alone. Quieta non movere is doubtless a wise rule upon such subjects, so long as it is fairly applicable. But the time for its application in respect to questions of the origin and relations of existing species has gone by. To ignore them is to imitate the foolish bird that seeks security by hiding its head in the sand. Moreover, the naturalists did not force these questions upon the world; but the world forced them upon the naturalists.
This doctrine [evolution] ... is fully compatible with dogmatic as well as natural theology ... it explains moral anomalies, and accounts for the mixture of good and evil in the world, as well as for the merely relative perfection of things; and ... "the whole scheme which God has framed for man's existence, from the first that was created to all eternity, collapses if the great law of evolution be suppressed."
Now, all former experience shows that it is neither safe nor wise to pronounce a whole system "thoroughly atheistic" which it is conceded may be held theistically, and which is likely to be largely held, if not to prevail, on scientific grounds. It may be well to remember that, "of the two great minds of the seventeenth century, Newton and Leibnitz [sic], both profoundly religious as well as philosophical, one produced the theory of gravitation, the other objected to that theory that it was subversive of natural religion; also that the nebular hypothesis - a natural consequence of the theory of gravitation and of the subsequent progress of physical and astronomical discovery - has been denounced as atheistical [sic] even down to our day." It has now outlived anathema.
Finally, ought not theologians to consider whether they have not already, in principle, conceded to the geologists and physicists all that they are asked to concede to the evolutionists; whether, indeed, the main natural theological difficulties which attend the doctrine of evolution - serious as they may be - are not virtually contained in the admission that there is a system of Nature with fixed laws. This, at least, we may say, that, under a system in which so much is done "by the establishment of general laws," it is legitimate for any one to prove, if he can, that any particular thing in the natural world is so done; and it is the proper business of scientific men to push their enquiries [sic] in this direction.
It is not, perhaps, for us to suggest that the theological army in the past has been much too encumbered with impedimenta for effective aggression in the conflict against atheistic tendencies in modern science; and that in resisting attack it has endeavored to hold too much ground, so wasting strength in the obstinate defense of positions which have become unimportant as well as untenable. Some of the arguments, as well as the guns, which well served a former generation, need to be replaced by others of longer range and greater penetration.
Now, the evidence of geology to-day [sic] is, that species seem to come in suddenly and in full perfection, remain substantially unchanged during the term of their existence, and pass away in full perfection. Other species take their place apparently by substitution, not by transmutation. But you will ask me, "Do you, then, reject the doctrine of evolution? Do you accept the creation of species directly and without secondary agencies and processes?" I answer, No! Science knows nothing of phenomena which do not take place by secondary causes and processes. She does not deny such occurrence, for true Science is not dogmatic, and she knows full well that, tracing up the phenomena from cause to cause, we must somewhere reach the more direct agency of a First Cause.
My Christian friends, these schemes of reconciliation become daily more and more distasteful to me. I have used them in times past; but now the deliberate construction of such schemes seems to me almost like trifling with the words of Scripture and the teachings of Nature. They seem to me almost irrelevant, and quite foreign to the true, humble, liberal spirit of Christianity; they are so evidently artificial, so evidently mere ingenious human devices. It seems to me that if we will only regard the two books in the philosophical spirit which I have endeavored to describe, and then simply wait and possess our souls in patience, the questions in dispute will soon adjust themselves as other similar questions have already done.

My Thoughts

Any idea when this article was published? January 15, 1874. It was written by Asa Gray and published in The Nation.

Now, imagine where we would be if we had listened to Asa Gray.

He raises some good points about "God of the gaps" apologetics. (I'll note here that atheists just use "Science of the gaps" arguments and say gaps in scientific knowledge will be resolved eventually. But more on that later.) Christianity will never thrive in the modern world unless it can be perceived as reconcilable with science. Which it can be, if people stop and think. Let's assume that the theory of evolution is completely false. So what? Why argue? Whose salvation does it affect? Why should we portray ourselves as backwards and superstitious people? Fortunately or unfortunately, I don't know of that many successful conversions coming from the Intelligent Design movement; what I do know is that there is a lot of scorn for ID advocates (especially Young-Earth Creationists) that is probably hurting Christianity, regardless of how old the Earth actually is.

Objections to evolution on scientific grounds should be raised; I don't think there's an open and shut case for it. What do I believe about evolution? I'm not a biologist, and I don't feel like devoting days of my life to studying it. So I don't know. What I do know is that our faith in Christ can't depend on this. The manufactured conflict between Christianity and science is not a novel development, and I see no reason to continue manufacturing it.

That being said, evolution cannot be proved (I prefer "proven," but Blogger gives me a red line). You can line up evidence for and against it, but in the end, you're going to need faith, because it already happened. Hmm... Sounds familiar.


Spaceman Spiff said...

Interesting... when I was reading this, I was honestly thinking, man this is really really old news, because I don't really know of any proper theologians today who argue against evolution (though I know Plantinga has argued that if we are to think we have any tendency towards truth, it must have been guided). Sure there are fundamentalists, but why they argue probably has little to do with rational thinking, either pragmatic or theological.

As far as both your own comments and Glass's I have a tough time seeing the pragmatic sort of arguments as admissible into any discussion. Who cares how people see Christianity? Isn't it more important just to focus on what Christianity really is?

In other words, I don't really think the fact that Christianity wouldn't flourish if it is *seen* as incompatible with science is an argument for anything one way other the other; if Christianity actually is incompatible with science then it should be seen as such and probably rejected.

At the very least the people who would consider incompatibility with science grounds for rejection should in fact reject it. Believing Christianity on false premises shouldn't be seen to benefit anyone, should it?

In any case I agree that Christianity is not incompatible with science, so the pragmatic discussion is somewhat moot.

Look forward to your response.

The Speaker of the Dead said...

Well, in my experience, the ID movement has been very prominent in Christian "thinking." I think it's important that being a "theistic evolutionist" or whatever is not making a heretical concession to naturalism or anything.

It is important to focus on what Christianity is. But how people perceive Christianity completely affects whether or not they will be willing to even consider what Christianity really is.

If Christianity is falsely seen as incompatible with science, it is very important, in my mind. I guess this is sort of like "becoming all things to all men."

I'm not recommending we believe Christianity on false premises. But what can the ID movement gain? I don't think they've convinced anyone outside of their camp, and they have repelled people from Christianity. So unless they think that anti-evolutionism is necessary for salvation, I think they should just drop it.

Evolution quotes said...

Great quotes collection. Thanks for sharing!!