THE English naturalist John Ray (1627–1705) is not as well-known as he deserves to be. At a time when many people assume that religion and science are inherently inimical to each other, and when writers such as Andrea Wulf, in her biography of the romantic globe-trotting explorer Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859), are searching for heroes to inspire a sense of wonder at the natural world in response to the environmental challenges of today, John Ray has much to tell us.
The last detailed study of Ray was written by Charles Raven in 1942. The ornithologist Tim Birkhead, however, has entitled his recent history of ornithology The Wisdom of Birds, which is a nod to Ray’s most famous theological work, The Wisdom Of God. Indeed, Ray’s groundbreaking studies in botany, ornithology, and what was then termed natural philosophy offer an inspiring and integrated vision — with a deep theological and sacramental scope — of the precious natural world we inhabit.
RAY was born in 1628, the son of a village blacksmith in Essex. The intervention of the rector of the parish secured him a place at a grammar school in Braintree, which opened up a pathway to Cambridge University. A Fellowship followed, and ordination beckoned, although he delayed this until 1660, owing to the uncertain religious and political situation.
On the surface, he was following a conventional academic trajectory for any man of faith and intellect of that era: he lectured in Greek, mathematics, and the humanities, and even dabbled in such relative novelties as Anglo-Saxon. He also began to pursue an interest in scientific research and experimentation, including anatomy and chemistry (which had begun to shed its alchemical preoccupations).
His achievements were set against the backdrop of a turbulent century — he was 15 when the English Civil war broke out — and he benefited from the foment of the times, particularly from the new scientific ideas which were looked on with suspicion before the war and (to a lesser extent) after the Restoration, but which thrived during the conflict and under Cromwell.
He was also fortunate to be at Cambridge University at a crucial time for intellectual experimentation, but then to be freed from the institution’s narrowing constraints during the reign of Charles II; for, in 1662, Ray resigned his university Fellowship when the King demanded that all clergy declare the invalidity of all oaths sworn since the end of the reign of Charles I.
Ray’s refusal to take the oath, and subsequent resignation, set him free to pursue his favoured scientific studies. Thanks to the support of friends and patrons, decades of productivity followed.
HISTORIANS are now questioning the commonly held view that modernity emerged as a consequence of the eclipse of religion by science rather than through a complex and fruitful (if occasionally fractious) dialogue that lasted centuries. Ray’s career is a case in point.
When he arrived at Cambridge in the 1640s, Ray entered a circle where the ideas of Vesalius and Descartes were taking hold; but he saw no contradiction between investigating the lineaments of creation while honouring the Creator himself. For Ray and his colleagues, seeking to understand the mechanics of creation was a religious vocation.
The significance of Ray’s life and work lies in the thoroughness of his pursuit of this vocation, and the techniques of close observation and theorising which he employed, besides the philosophical and theological justifications that he provided.
WHEN Ray began to work with his friend and sponsor Francis Willughby in the 1660s, no work had yet been done to sort birds into species. Aristotle, long considered the scientific authority, had divided birds into three categories: those living on land, those living beside water, and those living on water.
As recently as 1600, Aldrovandi had proposed an idiosyncratic scheme in which birds were grouped according to such qualities as whether they bathed in the dust, or had hard bills. The work of classification undertaken by Ray, which was based on close observation of form and anatomy, is described by Tim Birkhead as no less than “revolutionary”.
Ray and Willughby also produced short literary descriptions that are both charming and accurate. He wrote of the goldcrest, for example: “This is the least of all birds found with us in England. The top of the head is adorned with a most beautiful bright spot (which they call a crest) of a deep saffron or pale scarlet colour.” Ray went on to catalogue and differentiate 500 species of bird.
HE IS equally renowned for his botanical studies. He first set about studying and cataloguing plants in the neighbourhood of Cambridge he was while still a Fellow there, but, over the next 40 years, he extended his knowledge to include plant life from across much of Britain and on the Continent.
He recorded and observed plants in a variety of habitats, describing them with such precision that, even today, it is possible to recognise many species from his data-rich accounts alone. He also used his remarkable depth of knowledge to construct a system for differentiating one species from another, providing scientific names for them in anticipation of the classification work of Carl Linnaeus.
Before Ray’s work, as in the case of birds, there had been no successful attempts to define a species. Ray came up with a system that is today called “the Six Rules of Classification”, and laid the groundwork for what came to be known as taxonomy.
AND yet, in all the areas of natural history to which he gave his attention, he did far more than simply record and name: he searched for common underlying principles and affinities, and he did so joyfully and with a sense of wonder and the conviction that he was revealing a tiny bit of the mystery of God.
One of his most frequently quoted remarks is on the purpose of butterflies: “You ask me, what is the use of butterflies? I reply, to adorn the world and delight the eyes of men: to brighten the countryside like so many golden jewels. To contemplate their exquisite beauty and variety is to experience the truest pleasure. To gaze enquiringly at such elegance of colour and form, devised by the ingenuity of nature and painted by her master’s pencil, is to acknowledge and adore the imprint of the art of God.”
Ray wrote these words towards the end of his life, when his health was failing; so they should not be mistaken for an outburst of naïve poetic sentiment. Neither do they reflect the kind of instrumentalist and anthropomorphic view of the purpose of creation which came to be associated with thinkers such as William Paley.
Instead, they confirm that Ray followed St Augustine and the Cambridge Platonists in believing in a creative impulse within nature implanted by God — a theory that opened the door to the later discoveries of Darwin. But his words also leave no room for doubting that an intense form of religious contemplation was also integral to Ray’s scientific quest.
At the end of her study of Humboldt, Wulf writes that the “connection between knowledge, art and poetry, between science and emotion, is more important than ever before” as we face the environmental challenges of our times. Ray, too, was driven by what Wulf describes as “a sense of wonder for the natural world — a sense of wonder that might help us today realise that we only protect what we love”.
The Revd Ian Tattum is Vicar of St Barnabas’s, Southfields, and Priest-in-Charge of St John the Divine, Earlsfield, in south London.