–John Dewey, 1934

I am fascinated by the varied and surprising ways in which Darwin’s theory of evolution inflected American environmental thought and activism in the 19th and 20th centuries. Residing at the intersection of the history of science, the history of ideas, and environmental history, my research explores the origin and development of pragmatic naturalism as an environmental ethics in the United States.

Darwinian selection theory challenged the idea that humans somehow existed outside of the natural world. Although many objected to natural selection on religious or theistic grounds, others wondered about its implications for naturalism. Scientists and philosophers in the United States who were amenable to Darwin’s theory struggled with its latent materialism. If the human species was a product of evolutionary laws, rather than divine fiat or some form of vitalism, then it appeared difficult to explain the phenomena of consciousness and free will. The natural world seemed to be comprised of nothing more than matter mindlessly obeying physical laws. Naturalizing the mind rendered nature and human experience utterly meaningless.

–Chauncey Wright to Charles Darwin, 1872

Asa Gray, Chauncey Wright, William James, and John Dewey were drawn to Darwin’s naturalism, but they did not fall victim to a pessimistic understanding of the natural world. These thinkers crafted a pragmatic naturalism that did not divorce humans from the environment, nor did it reduce human experience to physical causation alone. The human mind was an emergent feature of natural processes. Values, meaning, culture—in a word, experience—was a product of evolution. Humans were unique in their ability to consciously shape some natural processes, but they were entangled in a larger system of relations they would never fully understand, let alone control.

Image with illustration of Bailey.

Pragmatic naturalism would find its way, through various avenues, into the work of Liberty Hyde Bailey, Aldo Leopold, Wendell Berry and other environmental thinkers in the twentieth century. Environmentalists channeled Gray and the pragmatists as they struggled to articulate an ethics that was neither anthropocentric nor ecocentric. 

A former student of Gray’s, Bailey was the first to apply pragmatic naturalism in the realm of environmental philosophy. Taking Darwin seriously, he argued that there was no firm line dividing culture and nature. If humans were entangled in natural processes, he reasoned, then any system of values that ignored the environment would be incomplete. Reminiscent of Wright, James, and Dewey,  he believed the evolution of the human mind introduced localized teleology and aesthetic experience into the natural world. As with James, who celebrated the idea of an ‘open’ universe, and Dewey, who suggested the possibility of ‘natural piety,’ Bailey saw reason to respect and stand in awe of the countless relations that bound humans to the environment.


–Liberty Hyde Bailey, 1915

Looking through the lens of intellectual history, one can trace a clear line, or contrail (to use Char Miller’s excellent phrasing), from Darwin to the pragmatists and environmental thought and activism in the United States. At the same time, real differences between thinkers and ideas do signal the need to be cautious when drawing such comparisons. As historians have already pointed out, the American environmental tradition does appear divided by competing ideas and changing contexts. Some activists are anthropocentric while others are ecocentric, some belong to ‘progressive era conservation’ while others grow out of ‘modern environmentalism,’ some are Presbyterians while others are Baptists, some appear ‘arcadian’ while others are ‘imperial,’ and so on. These lines of division, while useful in many ways, have become too deeply embedded in our historical imagination. Complexity need not indicate discontinuity nor incoherence.

–Bill Devall, 1988


Redwoods on California’s north coast.

Pragmatic naturalism touches a diverse range of seemingly divergent thinkers and ideas—from Gifford Pinchot to ecofeminism—suggesting the American environmental tradition is more coherent than historians might otherwise imagine. Both Bailey and Devall shared the assumptions of pragmatic naturalism, but their ideas took different forms because each had a unique relationship to the environment. Bailey stood in awe of nature’s beauty in his backyard. He grew up on a pioneer farm in Michigan, which is where he learned to associate gardens and farms with the wilderness at his backdoor. As a result, his environmentalism focused on helping gardeners and farmers in an effort to preserve nature. Devall, on the other hand, was a Kansas transplant in Humboldt County—he was floored by his exposure to the redwoods on California’s north coast. Those ancient trees presented a stark reminder of how small of a role humanity played in past natural processes. Those impressions left an ‘ecocentric’ mark on his approach to pragmatic naturalism. Neither of these figures, however, were ecocentric nor anthropocentric, at least not fundamentally. 

Image from a collection of poems by Bailey.

Exploring the connections that bind the pragmatic naturalists has two important implications for historians. First, it suggests the existence of a continuous environmental imagination at work in the twentieth-century United States (and likely beyond). Second, it challenges the belief that environmental history necessitates a form of materialism in method. Environmental historians can, and should, consider the importance of those more ethereal causal agents known as ideas and culture. Environmental history is just as much about forests, rivers, oceans, and mountains as it is capitalism, social democracy, feminism, literary realism, or racism. Likewise, the intellectual historian should be sensitive to the uncountable ways nature shapes how we see and think about the world. Nature has unmistakable causal agency. 

Clearly a product of the tradition I am writing about, I can’t help but conclude with an observation Dewey or Bailey would have made about ideas and nature—these terms merely designate different perspectives in the fabric of history, they do not mark different substances or fundamental ontologies. As with everything else that contributes to the plurality of human experience, ‘ideas’ and ‘nature’ begin and end with the same natural processes.