John Ray (1628-1705)

One of the most eminent naturalists of his time, John Ray was also an influential philosopher and theologian. Ray is often referred to as the father of natural history in Britain.

John Ray was born on November 29, 1627, in the village of Black Notley, Essex, England. His father was a blacksmith, and his mother was known as a healer and herbalist; perhaps it was from her that Ray gained his love of nature, and especially of plants. Entering Cambridge University in 1644, Ray rapidly became expert in languages, mathematics, and natural science; he became a Fellow in 1649, a Lecturer in 1651, and a junior Dean in 1658. In 1660 he was ordained a priest in the Anglican Church. Soon after, for political reasons, he left Cambridge. Between 1660 and 1671 he made many trips throughout England, and one trip to Europe, to collect plants, animals, and rocks. He also did experimental work in embryology and plant physiology; among other things, he proved that the wood of a living tree conducts water. His researches received so much renown that Ray was inducted into the newly-formed Royal Society of London, one of the world's first scientific societies, in 1667. Poor health eventually restricted his travels, and he spent the last decades of his life corresponding with the leading scientists of his time, such as Oldenburg, Lhwyd, Lister, and Hooke, and writing book after book on languages, theology, and natural history. He died on January 17, 1705.

Starting in 1660 with his Catalogue of Cambridge Plants, and ending with the posthumous publication of Synopsis Methodica Avium et Piscium in 1713, Ray published systematic works on plants, birds, mammals, fish, and insects, in which he brought order to the chaotic mass of names in use by the naturalists of his time. Like Linnaeus, Ray searched for the "natural system," a classification of organisms that would reflect the Divine Order of creation. Unlike Linnaeus, whose plant classification was based entirely on floral reproductive organs, Ray classified plants by overall morphology: the classification in his 1682 book Methodus Plantarum Nova draws on flowers, seeds, fruits, and roots. Ray's plant classification system was the first to divide flowering plants into monocots and dicots. This method produced more "natural" results than "artificial" systems based on one feature alone; it expressed the similarities between species more fully. Ray's system greatly influenced later botanists such as Jussieu and de Candolle, and systems based on total morphology came to replace systems based on only one feature or organ system.

A devout Christian, Ray expounded his belief in "natural theology," the doctrine that the wisdom and power of God could be understood by studying His creation, the natural world. This doctrine can be traced back to the Bible, but Ray expressed it so fully and clearly that he started a long tradition of natural theology in England and abroad. As Ray wrote in 1660:

There is for a free man no occupation more worthy and delightful than to contemplate the beauteous works of nature and honour the infinite wisdom and goodness of God.
In two major works written late in his life, The Wisdom of God Manifested in the Works of the Creation (1691) and Three Physico-Theological Discourses (1692), Ray expounded his views of the creation, organization, and eventual fate of the Earth and the life on it. The Wisdom of God Manifested in the Works of the Creation was especially popular and influential; it was translated into several foreign languages, and was reprinted for over fifty years after its publication. Both of these books were based on sermons Ray had delivered at Cambridge. Such deep religious feeling may seem out of place in scientific writing today, but Ray's work actually represented a huge advance for science. Whereas many medieval and later theologians had taught that the natural world distracted pople from salvation and should be avoided, Ray affirmed powerfully that Nature was a worthy subject for study and reason, and that such activity was pleasing to God. Ray cautioned against blind acceptance of authorities: in The Wisdom of God, he wrote:
Let it not suffice to be book-learned, to read what others have written and to take upon trust more falsehood than truth, but let us ourselves examine things as we have opportunity, and converse with Nature as well as with books.
Also, because of Ray's belief in natural theology, he spent a great deal of time pondering the relationships of organismal form to function. Living things showed adaptations to their environments, which for Ray were signs of God's design and hence worthy of study. Unlike Linnaeus, who focused almost exclusively on classification for its own sake, Ray began to use classification to address questions in physiology, function, and behavior. The Wisdom of God is filled with excellent observations and questions about organisms' behavior and function.

Ray's theories about fossils were mixed, but he always supported the theory that fossils were once living organisms. Some fossils, perhaps, had been formed in the Biblical flood, when "the fountains of the deep" had washed marine organisms onto the land through great fissures. However, Ray did not believe that all fossils, or even most fossils, had been formed in this way. Ray's scientific objections to the Deluge -- that fossil were found in discrete beds, and that a flood would have washed fossils away from land, not onto land -- echo those of Leonardo da Vinci over a century earlier. Rather, Ray explained most fossils with this hypothesis: during the creation of the world, the Earth had been covered by a single ocean, where the fossil organisms had once lived, which had slowly receded to expose the land. Other fossils might have been formed when the ocean floor was raised by "subterraneous Fires and Flatuses" (that is, volcanoes and earthquakes), although Ray thought these were rare events. Ray's ideas were opposed to other prevailing theories of the origin of fossils: that they were lusi naturae, "games of nature"; that they were formed by some sort of creative force or "Plastick Virtue" acting on the Earth; or that they had been made by God for His pleasure, or by God as models for living organisms, or by the Devil to tempt, frighten, or confuse people.

But what to make of fossils that resembled no living organism? Ray explained this as due to ignorance of the full range of living organisms. Like most scientists of his time and after, Ray was reluctant to accept the idea that God would allow any beings in his perfect creation to go extinct: "If it be said that these species be lost out of the world, that is a supposition which philosophers hitherto have been unwilling to admit." Ray thought that the strange forms seen as fossils might still be living on the Earth in unexplored places. But towards the end of his life, Ray began to wonder what those mysterious fossils might mean. Some of his doubts came from his correspondence with the Welsh naturalist Edward Lhwyd (1660-1709), who in 1695 sent Ray some plant fossils of a type that had never been seen. Could such forms have grown within the rocks, as Lhwyd was inclined to believe? Or might such fossils indicate a much older Earth than the one of traditional Christian theology? In a letter to Lhwyd about his plant fossils, Ray wrote:

Yet on ye other side there follows such a train of consequences, as seem to shock the Scripture-History of ye novity [newness] of the World; at least they overthrow the opinion generally received. . . that since ye first Creation there have been no species of Animals or Vegetables lost, no new ones produced. But whatever may be said for ye Antiquity of the Earth it self & bodies lodged on it, yet that ye race of mankind is new upon ye earth, & not older than ye Scripture makes it, may I think by many arguments be almost demonstratively proved. . .

Ray's theology is strikingly different from modern biological thought. Yet his goal of a natural system of classification inspired Linnaeus, and generations of systematists after Linnaeus, to collect, document, and classify organisms; Ray's work began to bring order to the study of species. Ray's use of total morphology to classify organisms would become a powerful tool in the hands of evolutionary biologists trying to infer evolutionary relationships. Ray's insight that fossils were once living organisms was a significant advance over most other theories of his time, and his prophetic questions as to what fossils might indicate about the Earth's age and history would be taken up by generations of paleontologists. Natural theology remained an influential doctrine for well over a century after Ray's death; inspiring naturalists to look at form in the context of function, it laid the groundwork for evolutionary studies of adaptation and fitness. Many of the 19th-century natural historians who influenced Darwin, such as Agassiz, Paley, Sedgwick, and Buckland, were followers of natural theology or strongly influenced by it.

Additional Information on John Ray can be found at this site created by John McKeown.