Joseph LeConte: Evolution and its Relation to Religious Thought


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On 06 July 1901, Joseph LeConte (1823–1901) passed away at Yosemite Valley, CA.

After studying at Franklin College in Athens, GA, and the New York College of Physicians and Surgeons, NY, LeConte made his first expedition as a biologist with his cousin, John Lawrence LeConte (1825–1883), traveling over a thousand miles along the Upper Mississippi River in a birchbark canoe in 1844. This experience led him to study for a second graduate degree in the natural sciences, completed in 1851, under the guidance of notable American biologist Louis Agassiz (1807–1873) at Harvard University.

Teaching at the University of South Carolina during Civil War and encountering various hardships, he moved to the University of California, Berkeley in 1868, where he worked with John Muir (1838–1914) and helped establish the Sierra Club. His published works included scientific papers on geology and ecology, and the textbooks Elements of Geology (1878), Religion and Science (1874), and Evolution and its Relation to Religious Thought (1888).

“… evolution is the process by which the Divine plan is carried out. These two views, that which refers phenomena directly back to the primal intelligence, & that which refers them back to secondary & intermediate causes have always existed and will always exist. They do not exclude each other. They are two formulas for the same thing; the one the formula of religion, the other the formula of science. The one formula is an expression of the domain of faith, the other of the domain of knowledge…

“We see around us everywhere invariable laws. Now, intelligence in the presence of invariable laws, or acting through invariable laws, can attain results only by contrivance. It is impossible that there should be invariable laws without contrivance, or contrivance without invariable laws. We are hampered, conditioned, limited on every side, by the inviolable laws of Nature, and, in order to attain results, we are compelled to resort to indirect methods, to mechanical and other contrivances, in accordance with these laws… Now, Deity himself, if He acts by laws, must bring about results by what seem to us contrivances. Shall we then speak of Him, the unconditioned, as conditioned by the laws of Nature? With our limited faculties, we cannot do otherwise. We cannot speak of Him, we cannot even think of Him except under conditions. But, observe the difference betwixt Him and us, in this regard.

“These laws of Nature, which condition man, are external to him, and therefore, in the nature of a law of necessity. But, to the Deity, they are not external; they are the laws of his own being—they are the modes of operation of his own will, perfect, because He is perfect, invariable, because He is unchangeable. Thus, then, the laws of Nature are to Him not a law of necessity, but a law of freedom.”

At his retirement at age seventy-six, an article noted: “The college students, all of whom look upon him with affectionate reverence, made the event an occasion for presenting him, in a simple yet impressive way, with a beautiful tribute of their esteem. Very appropriately Professor LeConte’s old lecture room in South Hall had been selected as the place for making the presentation, It was the room in which for so many years he has delivered, with a clearness and simplicity of style bordering almost on the sublime, his celebrated lectures on geology and evolution, lectures which no one who has ever been to Berkeley can forget. Willing hands had transformed the lecture desk and blackboard into a mass of flowers, in the midst of which were placed the tokens of remembrance offered by the whole student body.”

LeConte, Joseph. Religion and Science. (New York, NY: D. Appleton & Co., 1880), 60-61.
“Joseph LecConte: Seventy-Six Years of Honored Life.” The San Francisco Call. (28 Feb 1899): 10. Image: University of Georgia.


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