Darwin's Jews: Online Reader

Isaac Mayer Wise



  1. Introduction
  2. Primary source: The Cosmic God
  3. Excerpts from The Cosmic God
  4. Select bibliography
  5. Discussion forum


1. Introduction ⇧ top

Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise (1819-1900) was born in Bohemia, part of the Austrian empire, and received a traditional education in Prague. He emigrated to the U.S. in 1846, where he became a congregational rabbi, eventually settling down in Cincinnati. He has been described as the father of Reform Judaism in the United States and it is certainly the case that he was in the vanguard of synagogue reform, introducing among other things mixed pews, choral singing and confirmation. He founded in 1854 and edited the English language journal The Israelite, which became the leading organ for Reform Judaism; compiled the standard Reform prayer book, Minhag America in 1857; and was behind the establishment in 1875 of the Reform Jewish rabbinical training college, Hebrew Union College, Cincinnati. On the other hand, he was very much a moderate reformer, refusing to countenance the findings of biblical criticism and seeking always to reconcile the more radical and conservative wings of the emerging movement.

It was in Cincinnati in the autumn and winter of 1874-5 that Wise gave a series of public lectures, excerpts of which were published in The Israelite, and also in Cincinnati daily papers including The Enquirer, which a year later were published as the book The Cosmic God: A Fundamental Philosophy in Popular Lectures (1876). Some have suggested that there is little if anything Jewish about the work. Certainly, while Wise frequently cites the Bible he rarely mentions the rabbinic literature or articulates what could be regarded as an obviously Jewish position. Wise himself asserted that the minimization of the Jewish aspect was a deliberate tactic, but, as we shall see, it is in fact possible to trace the influence of Jewish mysticism in some of his ideas, or at least in the language he used to present them. Throughout his career, Wise was concerned to encourage the integration of his congregants with the non-Jewish world around them, to reassure them that in the New World there was no need to perpetuate the Old World fears of Christianity. It is not surprising then, to see him engaging with Darwin’s ideas, and, although he was concerned about the implications of Darwinism, his approach was to offer an alternative evolutionary theory that would avoid their unpleasant consequences for theology, rather than to censor them. His style was formal, dense, quite technical, occasionally bombastic, and very wide-ranging, drawing heavily upon German idealism (e.g. Kant, Hegel, Hartmann), evolutionary science and philosophy (e.g. Darwin, Huxley, Haeckel, Spencer), history (both Jewish and profane), and biblical literature for countless examples to illustrate his philosophical points. For the most part, Wise offered a good treatment of the scientific literature although there was, as we shall see, a tendency to argue from gaps in contemporary knowledge in order to find a space for his Cosmic God.


2. Primary source ⇧ top

Isaac Mayer Wise. The Cosmic God: A Fundamental Philosophy in Popular Lectures. Cincinnati: Office American Israelite and Deborah, 1876. (16.6MB, PDF) [Source: American Jewish Archives, Cincinnati]


3. Excerpts ⇧ top

Isaac Mayer Wise. The Cosmic God: A Fundamental Philosophy in Popular Lectures. Cincinnati: Office American Israelite and Deborah, 1876.


Some men of learning and genius like Messrs. Vogt, Haeckel, Moleschott, Huxley, Darwin, Buechner and others, have imposed a hypothesis on science, which reduces man, on the scale of organic beings, to an ape, casually and mechanically improved, or some similar animal, no longer extant as a living organism or dead fossil, i.e. an imagined animal, one constructed by phantasy on the strength of induction, legitimate, or illegitimate, is supposed to have been the ancestor of man, and several kinds of apes. The monkeys not having improved themselves from casual and mechanical causes unknown, are still irredeemable monkeys. Some of them, however, having casually and mechanically gone through a series of improvements and changes, then by laws of inheritance and correlation have become human beings, and with them the history of mankind begins. Permit me to call this main hypothesis Homo-Brutalism, as it has hitherto been given no name at all. [p.47]

In a moral point of view the Darwinian hypothesis on the descent of man is the most pernicious that could he possibly advanced, not only because it robs man of his dignity and the consciousness of pre-eminence, which is the coffin to all virtue, but chiefly because it presents all nature as a battle-ground, a perpetual warfare of each against all in the combat for existence, and represents the victors as those worthy of existence, and the vanquished ripe for destruction.     So might is right, the cardinal sin is to be the weekest [sic] party. If this is nature’s law, and man is an improved beast, then war to the knife, perpetual war of each against all, is also human law, and peace in any shape is illegitimate and unnatural. Therefore in all cases of expulsion, assassination or slaughter, among individuals or nations, the vanquished party was doomed in advance, by a law of nature; and the victors having enforced the laws of nature are neither culpable nor responsible for their deeds. [p.51]

[W]ith Mr. Darwin the origin of species depends entirely on the presence of will in every individual of the two kingdoms of organisms. The ornaments and improved songs of the male bird, for instance, are purposely acquired to please and captivate the attention of the female; which demonstrates will. Prehensile organs and defensive appendages grow out of the animal’s body, according to Darwinism, by the repeated exertions of the animal’s will. In fact, the whole system of Darwinian evolution is based upon the principle of teleology, carried into every detail or organism, always tacitly postulating the presence of active will in every organic individual. If we could accept Darwinism as an established fact, teleology and the existence of will would be proved eo ipso [by the thing itself]. Therefore if the Darwinists subscribe not to Schopenhauer’s dogma – i.e., will is the world’s substance – they must anyhow admit its inherent and permanent existence in every organic being. [129]


Organic life is a phenomenon entirely different from all others. It is not the complex of the known forces of light, heat, sound, electricity, attraction or mechanical motion, much less of the atomic forces… Life had a beginning on this globe, and all our knowledge testifies that it could appear in organic matter only, in the cell or cells. The cell either made itself, which no naturalist will admit, or there must be vital force… [B]y which force is inorganic matter transformed into organic, the inanimate into animate? The answer would be again vital force.’ [p.97]

It is not a conglomeration or complex of forces, because it produces effects, such as assimilation, production, will, consciousness, and emotion, in which none of the known physical forces are detectable. Hence it is a peculiar force. Can any naturalist, scientist, chemist, physicist, or philosopher tell us, why we should not call it vital force? [p.106]

Evidently we have before us in every living organism a force which governs the others for this specific purpose. Every constant relation of elements or bodies to one another, points to an overruling force in action for this specific purpose. In the organic kingdoms, the immense variety of elementary relations to form and, sustain here a tree, there a shrub, here an herb and there a blade of grass, here a mollusk, there a radiate or articulate, here a reptile, fish, bird, or mammal, and there a man, all made up of the same elements, governed by the same forces, necessitates us to adopt an overruling force which subjects matter and force, in order to assume this shape and no other, to be so large at its birth and grow so far and no farther, have this form, surface and color and, no other, develop and live so long and no longer. All these limitations and modifications point to a special force at work which we call vital force. This vital force bears no similarity to the other natural forces, to electricity, light, heat, sound, or mechanical motion… Every plant and every animal develops its arch type with a certain degree of freedom and variability, which must be the effect of a cause not at work in the inorganic world, for which we have no better name than vital force. [pp.94-95].

The construction of these tens of thousands of chemically different cells, made of the same elements, to make up the various kinds of vegetable and animal organism, and in each organism the different parts, and the parts of parts, fitted together by the blastema or matrix in the animal, is the fundamental mystery of organic life, for which none of the known forces of nature give us the least account. And yet these cells grow,  fill up, divide, live, change perpetually their constituents in the organic body only, and are transformed into inorganic matter as soon as life is defunct. So we have before us unquestionably a series of phenomena most wonderful and intricate, entirely different in kind from all others known to science, and peculiar to themselves only; phenomena which point forcibly to a different agent, for which we have but one name, and this is vital force. [p.97] 

That there are leaps and gaps in the system is simply because the species have no genetic relations – they are all ideal, and ideal only. The evolutions were not external, they were internal in nature, with their cause in the vital force, hence in perpetual connection with the whole of nature, and especially this ocean, land and atmosphere; which were by no means systematic in their various formations, in our sense of mechanical system. The crust of the earth is full of violent transitions, eruptions, catastrophies, sudden revolutions without systematic connection with previous conditions. [p.116]

[T]he cause of evolution is in the internality and not in the externality of nature, in the vital force itself, and not in the morphic structures it produces, in the psychical substance and not in matter, then the facts advanced by Darwin, Baumgartner, Wigand and the others, fit it very well. Nature, or rather its central force, may have employed all those means, combat for existence, natural selection, variability, descendency, correlation, heterogeneous generation, metamorphosis of germs, and a hundred other means, psychological or mechanical, under different states, circumstances and combinations of influences, external or internal, to reach its object and to realize itself, although neither or all of these auxiliary means account for the origin of species, and the appearance of man on earth as the complex of the whole organism. [pp.116-117]

Mr. Darwin appears to imagine this earth, land and ocean, as rather a small patch, overstocked from the beginning by a vast number of living beings, with scanty provisions of food made for them, so that the combat for subsistence was perpetual. On our real earth, however, after so many thousand years of increase in the animal kingdom, the soil still offers plenty for the support of all, and not one half of it can be used yet. There it an affluence and superabundance in nature, which Mr. Darwin evidently did not take into fair consideration, or else he could not possibly have laid so much stress on the combat for subsistence. [p.117]

Still, all of this entitles none to the conclusion, that there is no plan, no design, no grand object, no final cause or causes in nature. It rather suggests to every reasoner that, in order to construct a satisfactory teleology, the anthropomorphous conceptions of God and nature must be dropped. God is no man and nature no dame, and the household of nature must be measured objectively, by the facts which it presents, and not by our feelings, wishes, hopes, desires, or prejudices. [p.121]

[T]he universe, as far as we know, is one in order and harmony, [and therefore] the forces of nature must either converge to the one single purpose of sustaining permanently this order and harmony, or one superior force must control all of them, or else there must be continual conflicts in nature among elements and forces, which we know not to be the case. Consequently there is co-operation, co-ordination, and sub-ordination in nature, which is its law of laws, or force of forces... If the heart of a human being be too large, or his stomach too small relatively, according to the law governing his whole organism, then the order and harmony thereof is destroyed…. And if you then rise from the individual objects to the universe as a unit, you have before you always the same teleology, the same end, aim, purpose, and design of preserving the whole intact as a harmonious unit. There is the same final cause in the grand totality of nature as in every minute object thereof. [p.125]

Every stage of the earth’s formation, every individual object of nature, and every period of man’s history… is a teleological center, the end, aim, and object of a design and purpose, a logical sequence of prior causes, back to the first cause. In every stage of the earth’s formation and every period of history, as in every individual object of nature, as a necessary part of the cosmos, there is again the germ and efficient cause to the next following ones, and so on from the first impulse imparted to the elementary parallels, to the present stage of the earth and period of history… The fact is, while one ascertains the efficient causes of one stage or period, he exposes the final causes of the prior stages or periods. Whatever is efficient cause in any higher stage, was final cause in the lower one. This is the unmistakable architecture of nature and history. [p.159]

We may set down as a general principle: Every continuous chain of cause and effect in nature is teleological, resulting continually in teleological centers, which every individual being is… What is true in nature must also be true in history. The same chain of cause and effect must also be teleological; and each state of society, every day, every hour, and at every place, must be a teleological center. Analogy is certainly in my favor, and logic no less. For every state of society, being demonstrably the result of preceding efficient causes, is the ultimatum in the logical chain of legitimate conclusions, always the only logical result of all preceding links, and contained in them. So, the very last effect at any given time, is the very aim and object, or final cause, of all preceding causes and effects, down to the primary cause, and must be contained, therein potentially and intentionally, because logical in each and all. This is certainly premeditated teleology in the strictest sense of the term. Each state of society, in its turn, becomes again the cause of the succeeding one, and so on to the supposed end of history; hence the whole chain is logical and teleological. [p.134]

It is the Creator’s Sabbath. The work of liberation from matter and the triumph over it, begins in man, by him, and for him. He works on to accomplish the subjugation of matter, the resurrection of self-conscious spirit, the triumph of life over death, of light over darkness, of self-conscious intelligence over blind and inexorable powers of darkness; of freedom, love, and happiness over cold and barren necessity. This is the creation of history, the progress of the primary force to self-conscious existence in the human family... [p.161]


Vital force, which is also [divine] will and intellect, is the central force of this and every other planet... It overcomes inert matter, prevents its dissolution in heterogeneous elements, and stands in perpetual relation to and in harmony with itself in all planets and suns, according to its own eternal laws. It is perpetually and continuously at work to govern matter, and to liberate itself from matter, to become itself again, i.e., conscious and self-conscious, in individualized lives. [p.171]

overcomes and metamorphozes matter gradually and systematically prepares organic buds on the tree of life, unfolds them to blossoms of consciousness, and ripens them to fruits of self-consciousness. Conscious centers are produced by the same force which created the material substance, preserves and governs it, and individuates itself therein. It is the psychical force becoming itself again. It is its victory over matter. [p.114]

You see the single points of dissemblance in anatomy are not supposed to constitute fully the dissemblance of man and ape. Take them altogether, and they do establish the point. We have before us in man an entirely anomalous structure of chemical and morphotic peculiarity. We have before us a bipedal, erect, and speaking being, with hands which Aristotle called the instrument of instruments, an external appearance different from all animals, head, eye, and countenance peculiar to themselves only, which none can rationally explain except by another cause; another cause must be at work in the construction of man, another at the construction of animals. It is various differentation of vital force. Yet, if there were no structural dissemblances between man and ape, if man were completely ape-like in his body; his mind, his intelligence, his moral feelings and his works would fully distinguish him and entitle him to the consciousness that man is a man for all that, and nothing can be compared to him. We have no confreres among the animals. They can not think with us, hence they can not feel with us. [p.61]

[I]t is certainly an error to speak of the language of animals. Still, in this connection, it could make no difference to us if animals had language. It would merely prove that animals must possess mind; and the superiority of human language would be the evidence of the superiority of the human mind… If we ask, how did language originate? The reply is simple and given correctly in the Bible. When Adam saw the various animals, his mind was necessitated to form ideas of them, which became images in his imagination and words in his intelligence. So language originated, man named objects, actions, relations, feelings, and thoughts; and it is of divine origin only as far as man’s mind is. The languages and dialects have their origin in the geographical separation of the various tribes. Also in this point the Bible advances the correct idea. [p.34]

Mr. Darwin’s theories of natural and sexual selections, if there is any truth in them, fully demonstrate will and individuality in every man, animal and plant. The volitions are so numerous that no number can express them; and yet each proceeds from some organism and not from the other, and establishes its individuality.

       Next in the chain of individual and independent manifestations we come to the very limit of all natural science… we come to the fact of consciousness. I do not refer here to the wonderful self-consciousness of the reasoning man; I merely refer to the consciousness of the lowest or highest animals. It feels cold or warm, pain or pleasure, sees red or blue, extensions or forms, hears sounds and distinguishes them, tastes sour or bitter, smells pleasant or offensive, and is conscious that it feels, sees, hears, tastes, or smells so and not otherwise,        and is conscious of its own individuality. All physical forces do not account for the simplest sensation much less for the consciousness thereof, and least of all for the necessary reflection, I am conscious, hence I am an individual, and none can feel, see, hear, tastes or smell for me. No body can participate in my pain or pleasure; he can only sympathize with me, if he has experienced similar feelings in his own consciousness. So we know a priori that each individual is a thing complete and independent in itself.

       Last, but not least in this review of facts, we come to the influence of emotions on each particular organism… Who will describe the numerous and various cases of persons, pining away in painful emotions, or being enlivened by gladness or happiness; or how differently these various emotions effect different persons and different animals? None can, because, there is freedom and independence in every organism. It all depends on the individual and independent of all persons and friends.

       Here then is individuality in the self-sustaining organism, will, consciousness, cause and effect of the emotions; and each characteristic of individuality is a manifestation of individual freedom and independence. Therefore vital force is not only one and universal but also individual... [pp.105-106]…

While any generation or individual makes mankind’s knowledge and experience his own, he unites himself with all the personalities of the past. While he lives and co-operates with the generation in which he lives, he makes its knowledge and experience his own, and unites himself with all the personalities of his age. So the work of perpetual re-union of all personalities, of all ages, goes on continually, elevating the self-consciousness and moral principle of mankind and re-acting perpetually on each individual. As the self-consciousness of humanity in its totality is an attribute of the eternal Deity, so the personal self-consciousness, the personality, is a self-conscious idea in the Deity, hence immortal as such. This is the fundamental idea to a philosophy of history. The growth of the self-consciousness of mankind and the proportional growth of the individual are always and continually the final cause of creation and history. To establish the efficient causes which produced this final cause is the main work of a philosophy of history. [p.179]

Self-consciousness comprises not only all the mental functions of man, but also his moral character. Self-conscious beings only can be moral, for they and they only, know that the moral law, the categoric imperative, is the law of their own nature. To be moral signifies to obey the moral law as it is, and because it is a component part, a constituent of human nature. Morality from any other motive is far from perfection. There may be, and I have no doubt there are moral traits in all living beings, as Mr. Darwin and other biologists maintain, since the nature of the first cause is universally the same; there may be, and I have no doubt there are, moral traits in all human beings, however degraded or savage; but morality in the proper sense of the term depends on self-consciousness. One can be moral knowingly and wittingly only, that he obeys the laws of his own nature as a free agent. Therefore the various degrees of self-consciousness make also the various degrees of morality, so that with the loftiest self-consciousness only, the highest degree of morality is possible. Here is the philosophical foundation of ethics, but we cannot discuss it here, and will only add that the loftiest self-consciousness is in God, therefore also the perfection of morality.

         Where is the cause of all that? Where and how do consciousness, self-consciousness, and moral conscience awake in the living being, and what is the nature of that anomaly? They are not in the materialist’s matter, in atoms, and atomic forces; hence the materialist replies, I do not know… [T]he first cause is self-conscious and moral; its derivative forces are unconscious in their materialization in nature, to break through matter, and by the gradual process of evolution make it fit of becoming organisms for self-conscious manifestations of intelligence; and in them the first cause becomes itself again in the differentiated state which is its victory over matter, while all the time the conscious and unconscious, the moral and immoral, are present in the self-consciousness and morality of the first cause which is God for ever. [pp.175-176]. 

The contraction or compression, we have noticed as the continuous activity of the primary [vital] force, of the impulse imparted originally to inert matter. Expansion, is the inherent tendency of matter, to dissolve into its primary elements, to fall apart and become cosmic… We observe the same fundamental action in the cell or even protoplasm, contraction and expansion, and by it accretion and secretion, internal motion and external limitation. This is the fundamental function of all organic life. Then it re-appears in animal instinct, in man’s selfishness and social nature, as well as his struggle for personal freedom and patriotism, to be at the same time an independent individual and a dependent citizen of a large, populous, and powerful community, which is the primary cause of all history, with its two similar elements of conservatism and progressionism. It is always the same fundamental principle of contraction and expansion, only that a variety of new functions of the same cause become phenomenal under new circumstances. [pp.157-158]

The law of history is progressive, and man not only remains in quality always the same, but the vast majority is conservative and opposed to every progressive step. – Yet history preserves all that is good, true, and useful, continually increases its stock, spreads, utilizes and promulgates it, contrary to the will of the masses, and in spite of all egotism and prevailing stupidity…

       And yet no man schemes it, none does it with forethought and conscious design, it is all, contrary to human will and prediction, still done by human agency. Who designs this grand and marvelous drama of history, chooses the actors, shifts the scenes and conducts its execution, if man does not do, not will, not contemplate it? There is but one answer to which reason is necessitated; and this is the Logos of History does it in its invisible, silent and ever efficient power, and this Logos of History is not only extra-human, it is super-human, because it designs shapes, and puts into execution the destinies of all men and all generations, it presides over man, and all must submit to its laws.

       And now human reason turns upon gross materialism and says: “Here is teleology in history, to deny it is madness. Here is end, aim, design, purpose, and proper execution, not by one or all men, but independent of all.[“] – There must be will and intellect extra-human, superhuman, universal and bound to no organism. It is identical in its laws with the extra-organic will and intellect, in nature, hence both, are one and the same spiritual force. All your construction of atoms and atomic forces will positively not account for the existence of one sensation, much less for the grand drama of history; and the last resort, after all, is the existence of an extra-mundane spirit, as far as matter is concerned, which is no more unknowable than force or matter. Whether this super-human life, freedom, will, intellect, and justice, universal and differentiated is a mere force, or the force of all forces… [and he ends by hinting that History’s God, the Logos, can be identified with Nature’s God]. [pp.147-148]

There is perpetual progression in history from lower to higher conditions, exactly as in this earth’s creation. – There are breaks, violent catastrophes and eruptions in the earth’s crust, and there are also in history apparently illogical, bloody, and disturbing eruptions, cessations and retrogressions, momentarily and locally; but in the totality of history, the progression from lower to higher conditions is perpetual, incessant, and logical. Yet human nature is the same forever in all its fundamental qualities. [p.137]

Every plant or animal that dies adds to the bulk of organic matter, and renders higher conditions of organism possible. Therefore after a sufficient bulk of animal matter had been laid up in the household of nature, and vital force, as the formal principle, had advanced to the organization of the perfect cell, that force could now bring forth everywhere, as the state of the ocean, land and atmosphere admitted, organisms adapted to each age and condition of the earth and its various parts.' [p.115]

It is not as clearly manifested in the life of the individual, and may not be enforced as rigidly; but nations, history and consciousness agree, live, grow, and flourish on their virtues; suffer, decline, or perish of their vices, and all that by agencies perfectly natural, though controlled by super-human causes. [p.141]. 


In materialism, matter is the substance, and the forces inherent in matter create, preserve and govern all which is in this universe mechanically and automatically. In spiritualism, spirit or mind is the substance, and the forces which create, preserve and govern all things in this universe, are manifestations of the will of that spirit, mind or intelligence. [p.71]

Harmony in the elements of our knowledge is the criterion for truth… As long as science and philosophy contradict one another in any point or points, their disharmony proves inaccuracy or incompleteness of cognition on the one side or the other, and the necessity of correction. Their harmony is the only criterion of truth in our possession. [pp.10, 14]

The universe, with the exception of matter, which is a very small fraction thereof, appearing to me synonymous with Deity so that the present volume is in the main a new evidence of the existence of Deity, I have called it The Cosmic God, in whom and by whom there is the one grand harmonious system of things, in whom and by whom nature is a cosmos and no chaos. [p.6]


4. Select bibliography ⇧ top

Cantor, GN & Swetlitz, M. 2006. Jewish Tradition and the Challenge of Darwinism, Chicago, University of Chicago Press.

Cherry, MS. 2001. Creation, Evolution and Jewish Thought. PhD Doctoral thesis, Brandeis University.

Heller, James G. Isaac M. Wise: His Life, Work and Thought.  New York: The Union of American. Hebrew Congregations, 1965.

Langton, Daniel. "Isaac Mayer Wise, Cosmic Evolution, and the Problem of Evil." In Chance or Providence? Religious Perspectives on Divine Action, edited by Louise Hickman, 79-94. Cambridge: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2014.

Wise, IM. 1876. The Cosmic God: A Fundamental Philosophy in Popular Lectures, Cincinnati, Office American Israelite and Deborah.

⇪ Home