Natural Science and Religion

THERE are theological creeds and there are scientific creeds.

One scientific creed in its essential elements runs as follows : —

“ I believe in the great age of the world ; the existence of a susceptibility to variation in living forms ; the action of natural selection, in aid of a grand scheme of development from the lower to the higher; and the continuity between the vegetable and animal kingdoms.”

Another creed differs from this only in not expressing a belief in a supernatural scheme of development. And still another creed, which may be denominated the guarded scientific creed of the trinitarian theologian, runs as follows: —

“ I believe in the great age of the world, with sentiments of respect still for the first chapter of Genesis. I believe that each species of living form is a separate creation, and that the Creator from time to time has filled the earth with new forms of life.”

The first of these creeds, we gather from his lectures, is that of Dr. Gray. In one place he says: “ The great antiquity of the habitable world and existing races gave some anxiety fifty years ago, but is now, I suppose, generally acquiesced in, — in the sense that existing species of plants and animals have been in existence for many thousands of years; and as to their associate, man, all agree that the length of his occupation is not at all measured by the generations of the biblical chronology, and are awaiting the result of an open discussion as to whether the earliest known traces of his presence are in quaternary or in the latest tertiary deposits.”

In another sentence he speaks of the change of view in which the Bible is now regarded. At one time it was held that Holy Scripture must speak with authority on points of natural science which occurred in its context. At the present time the most that is claimed is that the teachings of Scripture and science are not incompatible. And the lecturer states his belief that “ the fundamental note of the Old Testament is the declaration of one God, maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible, — a declaration which, if physical science is unable to establish, it is equally unable to overthrow.” Leaving the dangerous ground of theological discussion, however, Dr. Gray passes to a discussion of purely scientific beliefs. His own studies have been largely upon the continuity between the animal and vegetable kingdoms. Movements of plants which could not be explained by the action of heat or of elasticity, and which closely resembled the movements of the lower forms of animal life, early attracted his attention. He expresses his conviction that “ the animal and vegetable lines, diverging widely above, join below in a loop. At one time cellulose, which makes up the bulk of a vegetable, was thought to be peculiar to the vegetable kingdom, but it is now found to enter into “ the fabric of certain animals not of the very lowest grade.” Chlorophyll, also, which constitutes the green of leaves, is found in sea anemones and planarias, “ which are as certainly animals as are oysters and clams.” It has been discovered, moreover, that chlorophyll performs the same office — that of decomposing carbonic acid and evolving oxygen gas—in the case of the green leaf and in that of the lower forms of animal life. Next, the digestive organs of plants are alluded to, especially in the case of Dionæa and Drosera. The latter plant, which is common along our northern sea-coast, and is found in abundance at Mt. Desert, digests flies which alight upon its sticky leaves, and the Dionæa is capable of movements which can imprison a restive fly securely in its traplike leaves.

The movements of tendrils of plants are likened to certain actions of animals, and, rising from the observed facts to a broad generalization, Dr. Gray shows that both plants and animals are alike in their function of storing up energy at the expense of the sun, and the doctrine of the conservation of energy binds them together in a close relationship. He traces the building up of cell walls, the growth of component cells, and the continued structure which is “ animated and operated by a common life of higher grade than that of any of its components.” There is no doubt that the author of these lectures is thoroughly imbued with the doctrine of development. The lowest animals differ from vegetables only in greater capability of motion; the higher animals are superior to the lower in possessing a greater range of “ unconscious feeling; ” and man rises above the brutes in his gift of reflective reasoning. “ The beginning of organization is individuation, or tendency to individualize. The completed self is man.”

Dr. Gray then touches upon the mooted point of successive creation of species, and leaves no doubt of his belief in the opposed doctrine of development. At one time, not very remote, species were supposed to be absolutely fixed, and to have descended to us from the time of Noah’s Ark. This belief has been gradually changing. Once the capacity to interbreed was the criterion of species, but now it is found that this test is of use only in the “ discrimination of the higher grade of varieties from species. Now, in fact, some varieties of the same species will hardly interbreed at all; while some species interbreed most freely, and produce fully fertile offspring.” In the absence of any true test, naturalists have gradually come to the conclusion “ that species as well as varieties were natural developments.” Dr. Gray alludes to the fact, also spoken of by Darwin, that Dr. Wells, the author of the theory of dew, while resident in America, hit upon the idea of natural selection. The reader will perceive from these lectures that natural selection is no longer a hypothesis or a theory. It is the expression of a number of observed facts, or, as the author says, “ it is a truth of the same kind as that we enunciate in saying that round stones will roll down hill further than flat ones.” The hypothesis based upon natural selection is that the operation of the struggle for life and the survival of the fittest accounts for the rise and ramifications of living forms, and the progress from lower forms to higher. It is shown that the hypothesis says nothing upon the question of the introduction of life, but concerns itself only with the development of forms which we can study. Here a direct issue is made with those who invoke miracles to account for the introduction of new species. The lecturer treats his audience tenderly here, but leaves no doubt of his conviction that the doctrine of evolution contains a higher and grander conception of deity than can be held by those who believe in successive creations. Those who are impelled to preach upon natural selection and Darwinism would do well to read the portions of the lectures which carefully define the meaning of these expressions ; for there is nmch looseness of interpretation of them in the pulpit. In the first place, we have a tendency to variation. This tendency to variation gives us natural selection, and natural selection leads to Darwinism proper, which endeavors to explain why we have species.

Another interesting point of Darwinism Dr. Gray touches upon, but does not commit himself to, namely, “ that the variation of plants and animals, out of which so much comes, is indefinite or all-directioned and accidental.” Darwin believes that this assumption is warranted by the facts. It is evident that if the tendency to variation is indefinite the result will be many-sided, and will radiate according to no fixed laws. Dr. Gray thinks that since it is generally agreed that the variation is from within, and is in answer to certain external impressions, the connection between these external impressions and the internal response must constitute certain laws of limit. He also deprecates the idea, entertained by many, that Darwinian evolution is a function of the time, — in other words, that the variation must take place among all existing species, and must be connected in some way with the time. “ Evolution,” he quotes, “ is not a course of hap-hazard and incessant change, but a continual readjustment, which may or may not, according to circumstances, involve considerable changes in a given time.” The mind of a physicist connects the conclusions of Dr. Gray in relation to the action of variation with the new theories in conservation of energy which deal with chemical equilibrium. In the concluding lines of the first lecture there is an eloquent plea for broad views of our kinship with the varied lower forms of life about us. “ We are sharers not only of animal but of vegetable life, — sharers with the higher brute animals in common instincts and feelings aud affections. It seems to me that there is a sort of meanness in the wish to ignore the tie.” When we read these words, we are reminded of the touches of sympathy for the brute creation in that fine poem of Arnold, The Light of Asia. Thus it is that the broad sympathies of the naturalist and of the poet unite in one stream.

In the second lecture, On the Relations of Scientific to Religious Belief, dogmatism and bigotry, though not referred to by name, are delicately and happily contrasted with the attributes of an open and receptive mind. There is one sentence in this lecture which expresses the difficulty a scientific man has in getting upon a common ground of interchange of opinions with the unscientific sectarian. This sentence runs as follows:

The proofs upon which both biological and theological investigations have to rely are largely probabilities, some of a higher, some of a lower order, and much that is accepted for the time is taken on trial or on prima facie evidence. Much is or should be held under suspense of judgment, a state of mind eminently favorable to accurate investigation. As to those who can forthwith assort the contents of their minds into two compartments, one for what they believe and the other for what they disbelieve, neither their belief nor their denial can be of much account.”

Dr. Gray shows that modern physical conceptions of states of matter rest upon the same degree of faith as ultimate religious ideas. No one ever saw an atom; yet we are led by various facts to build up a hypothesis which is daily on trial in our laboratories. Many facts tend to prove the existence of a subtle ether whose properties are entirely different from a gas in any condition of which we have knowledge. We have faith in our belief, for many lines of reasoning tend to prove the existence of atoms and the ether. No one can rigidly prove the existence of a God, as one can prove a geometrical proposition. No one can prove the existence of an atom by steps free from assumption; yet there are higher methods of reasonable proof than are contained in any one school of human philosophy. The highest mathematical analysis breaks away from the thralldom of Cartesian coördinates, and deals with probabilities. The difficulty which a scientific man has in addressing the non-scientific sectarian is therefore very great. There is a wide-spread desire for expressions of authority in religious teachings. This longing for something definite, something which breathes of authority, something which puts to rest anxious doubts and fears, constitutes the stronghold of many sects. The scientific man finds very few who can tread the heights where he leads, and can balance themselves even for a moment where he has learned to walk with an open mind. In the progress of development men and women may be found who can acquire a balance of philosophical faith which can guide and illumine their path through this life of doubts and perplexities ; but the average man and woman cannot obtain this philosophical basis ; they feel themselves safe only under the teachings of authority. We therefore doubt whether the utterances of a scientific man, however reverential they may be, can be put in a form which will not be criticised by some of the religious organs of the day.

The acceptance of authority cramps the reasoning powers on the points at issue between religion and science. One critic objected to the lectures of Dr. Gray on the ground that they implied that God needed rest after having made the world, and therefore had not set things right from time to time. The want of maturity of thought in such criticism as this is very evident. Yet from the reasons which we have already given, such want of acumen must be expected.

A late critic attacks Dr. Gray’s metaphysics, and attempts to show that he is afraid to relinquish the doctrine of supernatural interference in favor of " the fundamental principle of modern science that every event has, and has ever had, its adequate physical consequent since the beginning.” This indisposition to relinquish the doctrine of interference, taken with Dr. Gray’s avowed belief in miracles, is thought by the critic to destroy the force of the argument which the lectures were written to set forth. A metaphysician can perhaps find points to attack in these lectures; but we question if intellectual culture in its broadest sense would gain more by detecting logical fallacies in these lectures — limited, necessarily, in scope by the exigencies of time and place — than by accepting the frank, spontaneous testimony of a great naturalist of a belief working within him, which he finds not to be inconsistent with what science reveals. We have personally no trust in the power of metaphysicians to set scientibic men and theologians aright. It must be recognized that the religious stronghold is in faith and reliance upon a spiritual faculty which is more or less developed in every human creature. Every thinking man knows that there is within him this faculty for growth in spiritual things. On the other hand, rigid methods of proof form the basis of all secure advance in science : sentiment is put aside, and faith must be supported by experiments the truth of which every one can test. Dr. Gray is a receptive man, and believes in the possibility of both religious and scientific growth. To a metaphysician his utterances may not tally with any system of logic ; but how can there be materials for the metaphysician to readjust from a logical point of view when science is in its infancy, and we do not know whether there may not be a break in the present order of things ? We are ignorant of the mechanical equivalents of men’s thoughts. Psychology to-day has no system of absolute measurements, and Dr. Gray can be pardoned, from the present state of our ignorance, in retaining a belief in miracles, or in certain forms of supernatural interference, at the same time that he gives the reasons of his belief in the theory of the conservation of energy and the development theories of the day, as far as he perceives them to be operative.

The strength of these lectures is, we repeat, in their exposition of the attitude of Darwin as an attitude of suspense of judgment; in their clear presentation of the continuity of the animal and vegetable kingdoms. While the metaphysician cannot reconcile the glow of religious faith evidenced in this book with the scientific logic set forth, the true worker in science, who realizes the marvelous power given to man to develop in all directions, spiritually as well as intellectually, will recognize a fullness and receptiveness in the lecturer which will have its force, and cannot be supplanted by the limited results of the limited reasonings of any school of philosophy.

  1. Natural Science and Religion. Two Lectures delivered to the Theological School of Yale College. By ASA GRAY. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons. 1880.