The Book that Changes America: How Darwin's Theory of Evolution Ignited a Nation
By Randalll Fuller
New York Times Book Review, January 22, 2017
The first book by Richard Hofstadter, the leading historian of his generation (and, decades ago, my Ph.D. supervisor), was "Social Darwinism in American Thought," a study of the impact on American intellectual life of the scientific writings of Charles Darwin. Hofstadter related how businessmen, free marketeers and opponents of efforts to uplift the poor seized upon Darwin's seminal work, "On the Origin of Species," to justify social inequality during the Gilded Age. They invoked Darwinian ideas such as "natural selection," "survival of the fittest" and "the struggle for existence" to assert the innate superiority of the era's 1 percent and to define people at the bottom of the social order as innately ill equipped to succeed in the competitive race of life.
"Social Darwinism" has remained a byword for racism and a dog-eat-dog vision of society. But as Randall Fuller shows in "The Book That Changed America," this was not the only way Darwinian precepts were assimilated into American life and thought. Fuller, who teaches English at the University of Tulsa, is the author of a prizewinning study of the Civil War's impact on American literature. His account of how Americans responded to the publication of Darwin's great work in 1859 is organized as a series of lively and informative set pieces — dinners, conversations, lectures — with reactions to "On the Origin of Species" usually (but not always) at the center.
Fuller focuses on a group of New England writers, scientists and social reformers. He begins with a dinner party on New Year's Day, 1860, at the home of Franklin B. Sanborn, a schoolmaster in Concord, Mass. The guest of honor was Charles Loring Brace, a graduate of Yale and founder of the Children's Aid Society, which worked to assist the thousands of orphaned, abandoned and runaway children who populated the streets of New York City. Also present was Amos Bronson Alcott (Louisa May Alcott's father), a local school superintendent so garrulous that his neighbors would start walking in the opposite direction when they saw him coming to avoid an interminable discourse on one subject or another. Henry David Thoreau was there as well, taking a break from his hermit-like existence on Walden Pond. Brace brought to the gathering a copy of Darwin's new book, which he had borrowed from his cousin Asa Gray, a professor of natural history at Harvard. Fuller explores how these and other figures reacted to their encounter with Darwin's ideas.
Because of the Scopes trial of 1925, not to mention more recent controversies about teaching evolution in public schools, we are accustomed to thinking of Darwin's theory of evolution as antithetical to religion. Darwin rejected the biblical account of creation and proposed a natural mechanism based on accidental improvements in species to explain why some flora and fauna survived and others perished. Darwin, as Emily Dickinson observed, had "thrown 'the Redeemer' away."
Asa Gray, however, who had been "born again" as a young man in upstate New York, viewed evolution as compatible with religion. Or at least he tried very hard to reconcile them. Through magazine articles and lectures he did more to popularize the idea of evolution than any other American. Eventually, however, Gray began to worry that Darwin had made belief in God superfluous. To create a bridge between divine purpose and science, Gray proposed that God had created all the species and chosen evolution as the mechanism for their subsequent development. In a letter to Gray, Darwin pointed out that this idea was thoroughly unscientific. Science, he wrote, must deal in evidence, not speculation. But many Americans seized on Gray's formulation to embrace Darwin without sacrificing their religious convictions.
Fuller's most surprising revelation is the profound impact Darwin's portrait of a "teeming, pulsating natural world" exerted on Thoreau. In the years before he encountered the book, Thoreau had become "obsessed with the workings of nature," filling notebook after notebook with drawings and descriptions of the birds, plants, animals and trees he encountered in the Massachusetts woods. But not until he read Darwin did Thoreau attempt to create order out of the mass of information he had compiled. He began organizing the thousands of pages of his journals into what today would be called a giant spreadsheet. Thoreau died in 1862, leaving behind an unfinished manuscript on natural history inspired in large measure by reading Darwin.
Darwin's book said nothing about the origins and evolution of human beings. But, as Fuller notes, "it was almost impossible not to extrapolate his theory to people." Appearing on the eve of the Civil War, "On the Origin of Species" inevitably became caught up in the gathering storm over slavery and the place of blacks in American life. Nearly all of Fuller's cast of characters were abolitionists of one kind or another. Unlike later social Darwinists, they interpreted evolution to mean that progress was decreed by nature. Disadvantaged people, black as well as white, were no more fixed in their condition than other forms of life in a continuously improving world.
The 1850s was a decade when belief in blacks' innate inferiority was widespread. Some scientists insisted that the races had been created separately and remained unequal and unalterable. This view was not confined to the South. At Harvard, the Swiss-born biologist Louis Agassiz preached separate creation and strenuously denounced Darwin for implying that races could evolve. But others interpreted Darwin to mean that blacks and whites were members of the same ever-progressing species. Four years after the dinner party that begins the book, Charles Loring Brace published "The Races of the Old World," a rambling work of ethnography meant to demonstrate, among other things, that blacks were not "radically different from the other families of man or even mentally inferior to them." But, Fuller shows, Brace could not envision living in a biracial society. Blacks, he insisted, were permanently adapted to warm climates — a very un-Darwinian idea — and therefore should remain in the South after slavery ended.
Fuller is a lively, engaging writer, with an eye for fascinating details. His subjects wrote copious letters, kept diaries, gave speeches and recorded their conversations with one another. Fuller has mined this rich material with care and insight. Sometimes, to be sure, the desire to tell a good story leads him down detours that have little apparent connection to Darwin and his reception — discussions, for example, of 19th-century views of orphans and of Abraham Lincoln's emergence as a presidential candidate in 1860. Hovering over the account is the abolitionist martyr John Brown. Some of Fuller's subjects had a connection to Brown — Sanborn gave him financial assistance, and Thoreau delivered a widely reprinted eulogy. Brown's execution in December 1859 took place just as "On the Origin of Species" arrived in America. But what all this has to do with the reception of Darwin remains unclear.
Fuller's rather grandiose title promises more than a study of a few New England intellectuals can reasonably deliver. What was the reaction to Darwin in the South and West? What about among African-Americans? Writers for the black press, it should be noted, cited "On the Origin of Species" as proof of mankind's "progressive development," which would lead inevitably to the abolition of slavery. They saw the Civil War as the nation's own evolutionary struggle for existence. Surely, they too form part of the American response to Darwin.