Friday, August 14, 2009

Darwin and Asa Gray on stage

I think the correspondence between Darwin and Asa Gray should get more attention. It is an excellent example of a civilized intellectual discourse over the implications of evolution for religion. Here is a review of Re: Design by Craig Baxter, a play based the correspondence between the two men (from Science, Aug 7, 2009). But it starts with this fantastic quote from Darwin:
I am conscious that I am in an utterly hopeless muddle. I cannot think that the world, as we see it, is the result of chance; & yet I cannot look at each separate thing as the result of Design.

–Charles Darwin to Asa Gray, 26 Nov. 1860

The American botanist Asa Gray was one of the first people in whom Darwin confided his theory on the origin of species; Darwin even discussed his doubts with Gray. Now, archived letters between the two have been brought back to life in Craig Baxter's play Re:Design, which tracks the intersection of their lives and their science. The playwright constructed most of the piece with quotes taken verbatim from the prolific correspondence between the two scientists. He has stitched them into a compelling story that traces the growth of Darwin's theories and his friendship with Gray. Baxter notes that "[Gray] made Darwin's ideas acceptable to the religious side in the States. He was very significant in the spread of [evolutionary] ideas to that continent."
The play was written in 2007 as part of the Darwin Correspondence Project. This gotta be a big project. When I visited the Down House, there was a mention at the exhibit that Darwin wrote over 14,000 letters during his lifetime. And trust me - those letters were not similar to 2-line e-mails (or tweats - for the hip blog readers). Rather, he took time to write those letters - and his correspondence with Asa Gray is a fantastic example:
The friendship and obvious warmth between the protagonists is the play's most touching aspect. Despite their differences, Darwin and Gray always manage to find common ground. Baxter found their relationship inspirational, because they did not come to loggerheads over evolution versus religion—an all-too-often polarizing topic. He hopes that their example can teach us much about "how intellectual debate can be."
You can learn more about the Darwin Correspondence Project here and about the play here. Read the full review here (you may need subscription to read it).


Atif Khan said...

It seems that 19the century had far more tolerance than 21st century for ideas like evolution.

Sabio Lantz said...

It is always odd for me to realize how little about modern evolutionary theory Darwin understood. Evolution is not random, but that was not to be understood thoroughly for decades to come. Interesting.

Salman Hameed said...


I wouldn't go as far. I think it is more about the personalities of these two figures rather than the centuries. I think there is an over all better recognition of rights for individuals today than it was in the 19th century.

Well..yes, it is easy to forget that we are talking about an idea 150 years old - which is a looong time in science. But, yes, Darwin's theory did have an element of progress in it (a hint of Lamarck) - but it got stripped out (correctly - from what we know today) with the neo-Darwinian synthesis. But would Darwin's tone regarding religion be different today? Probably not.

Atif Khan said...


I would like to differ here because I think religious fanaticism and extremism is much more deeply rooted in eastern hemisphere of the world now than it had been few decades ago. I might be wrong here but so far that is what I have observed.

Salman Hameed said...

"I would like to differ here because I think religious fanaticism and extremism is much more deeply rooted in eastern hemisphere of the world now than it had been few decades ago."

Yes, perhaps, it should be placed into a regional context. Is there less tolerance, in general? Its a messy question - with problems with all sorts of definitions, etc. I would still venture out to say that over all there is better recognition of other individuals - and that is one of the reasons we find acts of intolerance so outrageous today. But, indeed, groups like the Taliban (with their casual beheadings) perhaps are evidence against such a view.

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