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John Ray

This has been submitted as an entry in the Encyclopedia of Evolutionary Psychological Science, and it is offered here for your delectation and delight…

Title of entry: John Ray

Synonyms: John Wray; Joanne Raio, Joannis Raii [Lat.]

Figure 1: Woodcut frontispiece of John Ray, 1693, from Synopsis methodica animalium quadrupedum et serpentini generis, source: Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain


John Ray (1627/81705, known as Wray until 1670) was an English clergyman whose work in natural history led to the modern scheme of the classification of species. Born of a blacksmith and his pious wife at Black Notley in Essex, Ray studied at Trinity College, Cambridge where he subsequently held several teaching and administrative positions. He was ordained in 1660 after flirting with nonconformity, in order to maintain his college connection (Mandelbrote 2005). Ray was a member of the newly-formed Royal Society, and was subsequently honored by the foundation of the Ray Society in 1844.

Ray’s contributions to biology and philosophy are manifold, but the most significant ones are his contribution to the design argument for the existence of God in natural theology, and to the definition of the notion of a species, which was the first singularly biological definition.

Much of Ray’s natural history work was funded directly by Frances Willughby, son of a wealthy family from Warwickshire. Willughby and Ray collaborated in both zoology and botany, although an agreement was made that Ray should focus on botany and Willughby on zoology (Mickel 1973). After traveling with Willughby, Ray moved to his estate at Middleton. Willughby died in 1672, and left a bequest to Ray that allowed him to continue his researches, as well as publishing Willughby’s own research, so long as he tutored Willughby’s two sons. Ray married Margaret Oakley, a member of the household, and lived at the estate.

After Willughby’s mother, Lady Cassandra, died in 1675, Frances’ widow removed her sons from Ray’s care, and effectively ejected him and his wife from the household. They moved back to his birth village and he remained there until his death. He had four daughters, who aided his research when they were older.

Natural Theology

Ray’s most widely read work was his The wisdom of God manifested in the works of creation, which he published at 64, just four years after Newton’s Principia (Ray 1691; Berry 2011). The book was a revision of sermons and talks he had given over twenty years earlier while at Cambridge, and forms one of the major foundations of the rise of natural theologyi. Unlike Newton’s later posthumously published writings on scripture, Ray was quite orthodox in this work.

However, Ray had to justify natural history as something that could be adopted faithfully. He asserted that to contemplate the works of God is part of the business of a Sabbath-day (Ray 1691, p. 124). Arguably, his success in this respect made natural history popular with the leisure classes, and so added to its growth in popularity over the subsequent decades. This generated a popular and learned tradition of doing theology through natural history in the British tradition.

Ray was convinced that everything had a purpose if not a human purpose, then a divine one (Berry 2011, 329f). But he did not insist, as his contemporaries (such as Gilbert White) tended to, that all of nature was provided by a beneficent deity for humans:

It is a generally received opinion that all this visible world was created for Man [and] that Man is the end of creation, as if there were no end of any creature but some way or other to be serviceable to Man … But though this be vulgarly received, yet wise Men nowadays think otherwise.

(Ray 1691, 127f.)

According to Berry, Ray held these physico-theological views at the very beginning of his scientific career, in the 1660s. These views led to the rise of natural theology leading directly to William Paley’s Natural theology in 1802, which was in turn influential upon Darwin’s early investigations.

Wilkins and Linguistics

Bishop John Wilkins’ An essay towards a real character and a philosophical language (1668; 2002) was an ambitious project to classify not only all organisms, but all ideas (and it was the foundation for Phillip Mark Roget’s Thesaurus). In reviewing the contributions of Wilkins, Ray, and Linnaeus to the history of systematics, Stearn wrote:

The botanical tables prepared by Ray for Wilkins had to fit the latter’s formal prescribed scheme, i.e. herbaceous plants had to be divided into three groups as nearly equal as possible, these then divided again into nine groups and the species then in pairs. So artificial a classification was inevitably unsatisfactory from a botanical standpoint; indeed, only a botanist with Ray’s detailed knowledge of plants and his obliging nature would have had the ingenuity and kindness to construct one at all.

(Stearn 1986, pp. 111-113)

He contracted Ray to do the species lists, but as Stearn notes, had a very rigid logical schema into which these tables (indented lists with braces) had to fit. This garnered significant criticism from Robert Morison (16201683), Professor of Botany at Oxford, who both attacked the artificiality of Wilkins’ scheme, and claimed that Ray had plagiarized his own work (Stevenson 1947, p. 253). Ray was stung by this, being still very junior in botany, and thus began his careful and systematic method of classifying and enumerating species of plantsii.

Wilkins’ system was part of what has come to be known as the Universal Language Project (Wilkins 2018, chapter 4), and Ray and Willughby contributed somewhat, under the influence of Ralph Cudsworth and the Cambridge Platonists. Ray published Collection of English words not generally used (1674) and Trilingual dictionary, or nomenclator classicus (1675) (Cram 2016). More to the point, Wilkins used the standard Latin terms for inclusive and included groups of things, genus and species (roughly equivalent to our set’ and subset’), and thus Ray was forced to refer to living things as species in genera. This was not original to him, as Bauhin had used it much earlier, given that both the terms were vernacular’ in academic Latin, and the Aristotlelian logic was common to the educational curriculum of the time, but it led directly to his defining, for the first time, a purely biological notion of species.

Species and Systematics

Ray’s greatest claim to fame is his work in botany, and in particular his publication first of a flora of Cambridgeshire, and then of Britainiii, starting a tradition of florae in botany. Subsequent to these works, he published the Historia Plantarum in 1686, with volume 2 in 1688. His Methodus Plantarum Nova (Ray 2015, second edition 1703) introduced the distinction between monocotyledons and dicotyledons, although he also retained much of the older Aristotelian classification of plants as herbaceous, woody (ligneous), and so on.

In the Historia Plantarum, Ray wrote:

In order that an inventory of plants may be begun and a classification of them correctly established, we must try to discover criteria of some sort for distinguishing what are called “species”. After a long and considerable investigation, no surer criterion for determining species had occurred to me than distinguishing features that perpetuate themselves in propagation from seed. Thus, no matter what variations occur in the individuals or the species, if they spring from the seed of one and the same plant, they are accidental variations and not such as to distinguish a species. For these variations do not perpetuate themselves in subsequent seeding. … But variations that never have as their source seed from one and the same species may finally be regarded as distinct species. Or, if you make a comparison between any two plants, plants which never spring from each other’s seed and never, when their seed is sown, are transmuted one into the other, these plants finally are distinct species. For it is just as in animals: a difference in sex is not enough to prove a difference of species, because each sex is derived from the same seed as far as species is concerned and not infrequently from the same parents; no matter how many and how striking may be the accidental differences between them; no other proof that bull and cow, man and woman belong to the same species is required than the fact that both very frequently spring from the same parents or the same mother. Likewise in the case of plants, there is no surer index of identity of species than that of origin from the seed of one and the same plant, whether it is a matter of individuals or species. For animals that differ in species preserve their distinct species permanently; one species never springs from the seed of another nor vice versa.

(Ray 1686, Vol. I, 40, Trans. Edmund Silk. Quoted in Beddall 1957, pp. 133–134).

While species had been used routinely in natural history to denote kinds of living beings, Ray’s is the first definition of the term that applies solely to living things (in contrast to species of minerals, etc.), and his definition relies upon (i) reproduction or generation (propagation through seed), and (ii) similarity of progeny to parents, pace sexual differences. In this respect he formalises the practice of the past century of botany and zoology, but he also indicates operational tests for specificity, and for distinguishing between varieties and species. I have called this traditional sense of living species the generative notion of species (Wilkins 2018).

Moreover, he denied that species were mutable, and that they would go extinct, or at least that we could know this (Lankester 1846, pp. 207–214). He rejects the variation in species as evidence of new species, ascribing it to changes in climate, etc., which are accidental differences. As to extinction, he asks

whether … any species lost or destroyed? To which I answer, 1. That though it is absolutely and physically possible, yet it is highly improbable, that any species should be lost. 2. Though some species should be destroyed, yet it is impossible morally that any man should be sure thereof.

It is unclear if he thought this because of some adherence to the principle of plenitude that God would fill the world with all kinds that he could, and would not permit them to be lost. In Wisdom, he held that no new species would be produced by spontaneous generation, which he rejected, but he also allowed that fossils were remnants of species. His argument depended upon the principle Nature makes nothing in vain(Miscellaneous Discourses, 1692). Hence no fossil teeth, bones, or leaves, would be made unless they were remnants of past organisms. Nevertheless, he still thought they might live in some other part of the world, such as deep oceans. He objected that the loss of species out of the world,

which Philosophers hitherto have been unwilling to admit, [meant] esteeming the destruction of any one Species a dismembering of the Universe, rendering it imperfect: whereas they think the Divine Providence is especially concerned to secure and preserve the Works of Creation… .

(Ray 1692, p. 119)


The extent of the influence of the genius of Ray on the science of natural history is far greater than can be estimated by the number or size of the volumes which he wrote, and is to be traced to his habit of acute observation of facts and the logical accuracy with which he arranged them. He made his knowledge of the structure and physiology of plants subservient to a great plan for their arrangement, and this plan, when carefully examined, will be found to contain the fundamental principles of all the more recent scientific systems in natural history, and to have laid the foundation of the views of a natural classification of the vegetable kingdom put forward in later times.

(Lankester 1846, pp. viii-ix)

Edwin Lankester’s estimation of Ray’s importance in 1842 was not retained in the era after Darwin, despite his influence over those who preceded Darwin and Darwin himself. In botany, Ray established some of the basis for Linnaeus’ classification of plants, and was inclined to use empirical methods first and foremost in describing species. In natural theology, his Wisdom set the tone and many of the arguments that resulted in the later examples of that genre. But his greatest contribution remains as critical today as when he first made it: the biological definition of species. It is at once a traditional definition, one that later influenced Cuvier and established the fixity of species as a viable and perhaps only orthodox view until the end of the eighteenth century, and also one that at its base is still employed by systematists: a species is a lineage of reproductive linkages that tend to produce progeny that closely resemble their parents. This is the prior meaning of common descent that Darwin employed later.


Beddall, Barbara G. (1957). “Historical Notes on Avian Classification”. In: Systematic Zoology 6.3, pp. 129–136.

Berry, R. J. (2011). “John Ray, physico-theology and afterwards”. In: Archives of Natural History 38.2, pp. 328–348.

Cram, David (2016). “Francis Willughby and John Ray on Words and Things”. In: Virtuoso by Nature: The Scientific Worlds of Francis Willughby FRS (1635–1672). Ed. by Tim Birkhead. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, pp. 244–267.

Gillespie, Neal C. (1987). “Natural history, natural theology, and social order: John Ray and the “Newtonian ideology””. In: Journal of the History of Biology 20.1, pp. 1–49.

Lankester, Edwin (1846). Memorials of John Ray, consisting of his life by Dr. Derham; biographical and critical notices by Sir J. E. Smith, and Cuvier and Dupetit Thouars. With his Itineraries, etc. London: Printed for the Ray Society.

Mandelbrote, Scott (2005). “Ray [formerly Wray], John (1627–1705), naturalist and theologian”. In: Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford UK, New York: Oxford University Press.

Mickel, Clarence E. (1973). “John Ray: Indefatigable Student of Nature”. In: Annual Review of Entomology 18.1, pp. 1–17.

Ray, John (1686). Historia Plantarum Species hactenus editas aliasque insuper multas noviter inventas & descriptas complectens: In qua agitur primò De Plantis in genere, Earúmque Partibus, Accidentibus & Differentiis; Deinde Genera omnia tum summa tum subalterna ad Species usque infimas, Notis suis certis & Characteristicis Definita, Methodo Naturæ vestigiis insistente disponuntur; Species singulæ accurate describuntur, obscura illustrantur, omissa supplentur, superflua resecantur, Synonyma necessaria adjiciunctur; Vires denique & Usus recepti compendiò traduntur / Auctore Joanne Raio, E Societate Regiâ, … Vol. I. London: Clark.

— (2015). Methodus Plantarum Nova. Issue 176 of Ray Society. London: Ray Society.

— (1692). Miscellaneous Discourses Concerning the Dissolution and Changes of the World: Wherein The Primitive Chaos and Creation, the General Deluge, Fountains, Formed Stones, Sea-Shells found in the Earth, Subterraneous Trees, Mountains, Earthquakes, Vulcanoes, the Universal Conflagration and Future State, are largely Discussed and Examined. London: Samuel Smith.

— (1691). The Wisdom of God manifested in the works of the creation. Being the substance of some common places delivered in the Chappel of Trinity College, in Cambridge. London: Samuel Smith.

Sloan, Phillip R. (1972). “John Locke, John Ray, and the problem of the natural system”. In: Journal of the History of Biology 5, pp. 1–53.

Stearn, William T. (1986). “The Wilkins Lecture, 1985 John Wilkins, John Ray and Carl Linnaeus”. In: Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London40.2, pp. 101–123.

Stevenson, Ian P. (1947). “John Ray and his Contributions to Plant and Animal Classification”. In: Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences II.2, pp. 250–261.

Wilkins, John, Bishop of Chester (2002). An essay towards a real character and a philosophical language. Bristol: Thoemmes.

— (1668). An essay towards a real character and a philosophical language. (An alphabetical dictionary, wherein all English words … are either referred to their places in the Philosophical tables, or explained by such words as are in those Tables.) London: Sa. Gellibrand, and for John Martyn, printer to the Royal Society.

Wilkins, John S. (2018). Species: the evolution of the idea. 2nd. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press.


i  In which the existence and nature of God is derived from the “book of Nature” rather than the book of revelation; one of the other major initiators was Robert Boyle, whose essays on reason and religion suggested that the empirical turn in natural history was appropriate for people of faith (Gillespie 1987).

ii  Sloan 1972 gives a good account of both the results of Wilkins’ strictures, and the reactions of Morison and Rivinus.

iii  (The former in 1660, Catalogus Plantarum circa Cantabrigiam nascentium, the latter in 1677, Catalogus Plantarum Angliae (Lankester 1846, pp. 111–113).