The question of design in nature is highly controversial today, in part because of heated debates over the science curriculum in US schools. Darwin remains central to much of this debate. The theory of evolution by natural selection is often the main target of education reforms that seek to introduce alternative ‘theories’ in biology courses. His work also provides the opponents of creationism with a decisive naturalistic alternative to design. Stephen Jay Gould, Richard Dawkins, and other ‘neo-Darwinians’ have claimed to be following the principles of Darwin’s theory in their insistence on the randomness of evolutionary change. Yet other evolutionary theorists, such as Simon Conway Morris, emphasise directionality or convergence in biological processes. Such directionality, they argue, may not be evidence of design, but it leaves the question of ultimate purposes open, and so allows room for religious belief.
Darwin discussed design at length in correspondence. His letters reveal that his views on design were subtle and changed significantly over time. The letters also show that many of Darwin’s supporters, as well as some of his critics, continued to view evolution as purposeful, and as directed toward the improvement of species and individuals. The correspondence contains lively and long-running conversations on related issues, such as the meaning of ‘natural selection’, which some of Darwin’s readers regarded as an intelligent agent.
The correspondent with whom Darwin had the longest-running debate about design was the Harvard botanist Asa Gray. The entire extant correspondence, about 300 letters written between 1854 and 1881, is now available for the first time through this website. Many of these letters are appearing here in advance of the printed edition of Darwin’s correspondence. A dramatisation of their correspondence, called Re:Design and written by Craig Baxter, was commissioned by the Project; information about that, including video and versions of the script which can be used for not-for-profit performance, is also available here.
Also available is a series of reviews of Darwin’s works in which Gray discussed the implications of Darwin’s theories for natural theology.