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In a country on the brink of war, abolitionists found inspiration in On the Origin of Species

The Book That Changed America: How Darwin's Theory of Evolution Ignited a Nation

Randall Fuller
Viking
2017
312 pp.
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Randall Fuller’s lively new volume, The Book That Changed America, draws readers into the political and intellectual foment of antebellum America on the cusp of war. In just under 300 pages, he unfolds the story of how On the Origin of Species debuted in the United States on the eve of the Civil War and was read by a country torn apart by slavery and divided over whether the American union could (or should) survive the conflict. Moving deftly amid a diversity of familiar American figures, including novelists, poets, philosophers, zoologists, and botanists, Fuller captures their excitement, as well as their debates over Darwin’s ideas.

The book is an implicit and well-evidenced challenge to the way Darwinism is viewed in contemporary American contexts. Its greatest strength lies in its careful archival work, which sets a foundation for Fuller’s smooth and readable prose.

The Book That Changed America suggests that slavery and race—not religion—were the dominant issues on the minds of American intellectuals who read Darwin’s work in those early years. The circle of transcendental thinkers—including Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Louisa May Alcott—who were captivated by the book saw it as scientific support for their radical abolitionism. Together with naturalists, including Harvard’s Asa Gray, they believed that Darwin’s theory of natural selection provided scientific support for the unity of mankind.

Earlier scientific arguments over race had been dominated by American polygenists, who held that whites and blacks were separate species. Polygenists reasoned that modern racial science was proof that blacks were naturally fit for slavery. But antislavery transcendentalists believed that Darwin’s book demonstrated that all humanity had evolved from a single origin. In other words, argues Fuller, Darwin’s ideas fueled the abolitionists’ moral crusade.

However, the 20th century irrevocably transformed how Darwin and his theories were discussed in the American context. This was achieved first by the modern evolutionary synthesis of the 1930s and 1940s, which united genetics with natural selection, thus crowning Darwin as the father of evolutionary biology and enshrining natural selection as evolution’s primary mechanism. The architects of the modern synthesis worked and lived in American universities and were integral to placing Darwin at the center of American evolutionary science.

The 20th century also witnessed the rise of the modern American creationism movement. It initially debuted at the famous Scopes trial of 1925 and then with greater organization and political activism later in the century. American creationists viewed Darwinism as the linchpin of secular humanism. By the end of the century, they viewed Darwin as a major culprit in what they saw as America’s cultural degeneracy.

By focusing on the first years of Origin’s reception, Fuller is able to take readers back to a time before “Darwin was Darwin” and help us see that the naturalist’s ascendancy to religious controversy and scientific prominence was neither immediate nor obvious. However, his account does not deny that religion was at stake in the 19th century.

The transcendentalists who celebrated Darwin as an abolitionist were nevertheless confounded by his materialism. Fuller details this paradox most compellingly in the case of Thoreau, who read On the Origin of Species carefully, even obsessively. Using Thoreau’s recently published natural history journals, Fuller unveils how Thoreau was simultaneously enraptured and horrified by Darwin’s materialist empiricism. Was nature to be disenchanted by science?

Eventually the question was settled not by Darwin but by the Civil War. The idealism of Thoreau and Emerson had little place in the raw energy of Reconstruction and Gilded Age America. Here, we reach the primary fault of this otherwise excellent new history of Darwin in America. Fuller claims that Origin of Species was “the book that changed America.” At the time, American democracy was ripped apart by the question of slavery; did Darwin change the country, or was he merely swept along in a larger historical tide?

What’s more, only a few decades after 1859, the theory of natural selection faced challenges from neo-Lamarckian evolutionary models, as well as new discoveries in genetics. Darwin’s scientific ascent was by no means ensured at the end of the 19th century.

Fuller’s book offers us a vivid portrait of how On the Origin of Species debuted in America’s intellectual culture during a watershed moment in the nation’s history. Combined with the excellent writing, this alone makes the book easy to recommend to anyone interested in the story of evolution or Darwinism in the United States. Whether we are convinced that Darwin’s book “changed” America is another matter.

About the author

The reviewer is at the Department of Classics and World Religions, Ohio University, Athens, OH 45701, USA.