Randall Fuller, The Book That Changed America:
How Darwin’s Theory of Evolution Ignited a Nation (Viking)
In mid-December 1859, the first copy of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species arrived in the United States from England at a wharf in Boston harbor. Darwin’s book explained how plants and animals had developed and evolved over multiple millennia through a process Darwin termed “natural selection,” a process which distinguished On the Origins of Species from the work of other naturalists of Darwin’s generation. Although Darwin said little in the book about how humans fit into the natural selection process, the work promised to ignite a battle between science and religion.
In The Book That Changed America: How Darwin’s Theory of Evolution Ignited a Nation, Randall Fuller, professor of American literature at the University of Kansas, contends that what made Darwin’s insight so radical was its “reliance upon a natural mechanism to explain the development of species. An intelligent Creator was not required for natural selection to operate. Darwin’s’ vision was of a dynamic, self-generation process of material change. That process was entirely arbitrary, governed by physical law and chance – and not leading ineluctably . . . toward progress and perfection” (p.24). Darwin’s work challenged the notion that human beings were a “separate and extraordinary species, differing from every other animal on the planet. Taken to its logical conclusion, it demolished the idea that people had been created in God’s image” (p.24).
On the Origins of Species arrived in the United States at a particularly fraught moment. In October 1859, abolitionist John Brown had conducted a raid on a federal arsenal in Harper’s Ferry (then part of Virginia, today West Virginia), with the intention of precipitating a rebellion that would eradicate slavery from American soil. The raid failed spectacularly: Brown was captured, tried for treason and hung on December 2, 1859. The raid and its aftermath exacerbated tensions between North and South, further polarizing the already bitterly divided country over the issue of chattel slavery in its southern states. Notwithstanding the little Darwin had written about how humans fit into the natural selection process, abolitionists seized on hints in the book that all humans were biologically related to buttress their arguments against slavery. To the abolitionists, Darwin “seemed to refute once and for all the idea that African American slaves were a separate, inferior species” (p.x).
Asa Gray, a respected botanist at Harvard University and a friend of Darwin, received the first copy of On the Origin of Species in the United States. He passed the copy, which he annotated heavily, to his cousin by marriage Charles Loring Brace (who was also a distant cousin of Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of the anti-slavery runaway best-seller Uncle Tom’s Cabin). Brace in turn introduced the book to three men: Franklin Benjamin Sanborn, a part-time school master and full-time abolitionist activist; Amos Bronson Alcott, an educator and loquacious philosopher, today best remembered as the father of author Louisa May Alcott; and Henry David Thoreau, one of America’s best known philosophers and truth-seekers. Sanborn, Alcott and Thoreau were residents of Concord, Massachusetts, roughly twenty miles north of Boston, the site of a famous Revolutionary War battle but in the mid-19th century both a leading literary center and a hotbed of abolitionist sentiment.
As luck would have it, Brace, Alcott and Thoreau gathered at Sanborn’s Concord home on New Year’s Day 1860. Only Gray did not attend. The four men almost certainly shared their initial reactions to Darwin’s work. This get together constitutes the starting point for Fuller’s engrossing study, centered on how Gray and the four men in Sanborn’s parlor on that New Year’s Day absorbed Darwin’s book. Darwin himself is at best a background figure in the study. Several familiar figures make occasional appearances, among them: Frederick Douglass, renowned orator and “easily the most famous black man in America” (p.91); Bronson Alcott’s author-daughter Louisa May; and American philosophe Ralph Waldo Emerson, Thoreau’s mentor and friend. Emerson, like Louisa May and her father, was a Concord resident, and Fuller’s study takes place mostly there, with occasional forays to nearby Boston and Cambridge.
Fuller’s study is therefore more tightly circumscribed geographically than its title suggests. He spends little time detailing the reaction to Darwin’s work in other parts of the United States, most conspicuously in the American South, where any work that might seem to support abolitionism and undermine slavery was anathema. The study is also circumscribed in time; it takes place mostly in 1860, with most of the rest confined to the first half of the 1860s, up to the end of the American Civil War in 1865. Fuller barely mentions what is sometimes called “Social Darwinism,” a notion that gained traction in the decades after the Civil War that purported to apply Darwin’s theory of natural selection to the competition between individuals in politics and economics, producing an argument for unregulated capitalism.
Rather, Fuller charts out the paths each of his five main characters traversed in absorbing and assimilating into their own worldviews the scientific, religious and political ramifications of Darwin’s work, particularly during the tumultuous year 1860. All five were fervent abolitionists. Sunburn was a co-conspirator in John Brown’s raid. Thoreau gave a series of eloquent, impassioned speeches in support of Brown. All were convinced that Darwin’s notion of natural selection had provided still another argument against slavery, based on science rather than morality or economics. But in varying degrees, all five could also be considered adherents of transcendentalism, a mid-19th century philosophical approach that posited a form of human knowledge that goes beyond, or transcends, what can be seen, heard, tasted, touched or felt.
Although transcendentalists were almost by definition highly individualistic, most believed that a special force or intelligence stood behind nature and that prudential design ruled the universe. Many subscribed to the notion that humans were the products of some sort of “special creation.” Most saw God everywhere, and considered the human mind “resplendent with powers and insights wholly distinct from the external world” (p.54). Transcendentalism was both an effort to invoke the divinity within man and, as Fuller puts it, also “cultural attack on a nation that had become too materialistic, too conformist, too smug about its place in history” (p.66).
Transcendentalism thus hovered in the background in 1860 as all but Sanborn wrestled with the implications of Darwinism (Sanborn spent much of the year fleeing federal authorities seeking his arrest for his role in John Brown’s raid). Alcott never left transcendentalism, rejecting much of Darwinism. Gray and Brace initially seemed to embrace Darwinian theories wholeheartedly, but in different ways each pulled back once he fully grasped the full implications of those theories. Thoreau was the only one of the five who accepted wholly Darwinism’s most radical implications, using Darwin’s theories to “redirect his life’s work” (p.ix).
Fuller’s study thus combines a deep dive into the New England abolitionist milieu at a time when the United States was fracturing over the issue of slavery with a medium level dive into the intricacies of Darwin’s theory of natural selection. But the story Fuller tells is anything but dry and abstract. With an elegant writing style and an acute sense of detail, Fuller places his five men and their thinking about Darwin in their habitat, the frenetic world of 1860s New England. In vivid passages, readers can almost feel the chilly January wind whistling through Franklin Sanborn’s parlor that New Year’s Day 1860, or envision the mud accumulating on Henry David Thoreau’s boots as he trudges through the melting snow in the woods on a March afternoon contemplating Darwin. The result is a lively, easy-to-read narrative that nimbly mixes intellectual and everyday, ground-level history.
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Bronson Alcott, described by Fuller as America’s most radical transcendentalist, never accepted the premises of On the Origins of Species. Darwin had, in Alcott’s view, “reduced human life to chemistry, to mechanical processes, to vulgar materialism” (p.10). To Alcott, Darwin seemed “morbidly attached to an amoral struggle of existence, which robbed humans of free will and ignored the promptings of the soul” (p.150). Alcott could not imagine a universe “so perversely cruel as to produce life without meaning. Nor could he bear to live in a world that was reduced to the most tangible and daily phenomena, to random change and process”(p.188). Asa Gray, one of America’s most eminent scientists, came to the same realization, but only after thoroughly digesting Darwin and explaining his theories to a wide swath of the American public.
Gray’s initial reaction to Darwin’s work was one of unbounded enthusiasm. Gray covered nearly every page of the book with his own annotations. He admired the book because it “reinforced his conviction that inductive reasoning was the proper approach to science” (p.109). He also admired the work’s “artfully modulated tone, [and] its modest voice, which softened the more audacious ideas rippling through the text” (p.17). Gray was most impressed with Darwin’s “careful judging and clear-eyed balancing of data” (p.110). To grapple with Darwin’s ideas, Gray maintained, one had to “follow the evidence wherever it led, ignoring prior convictions and certainties or the narrative one wanted that evidence to confirm” (p.110). Without saying so explicitly, Gray suggested that readers of Darwin’s book had to be “open to the possibility that everything they had taken for granted was in fact incorrect” (p.110).
Gray reviewed On the Origins of Species for the Atlantic Monthly in three parts, appearing in the summer and fall of 1860. Gray’s articles served as the first encounter with Darwin for many American readers. The articles elicited a steady stream of letters from respectful readers. Some responded with “unalloyed enthusiasm” for a new idea which “seemed to unlock the mysteries of nature” (p.134). Others, however, “reacted with anger toward a theory that proposed to unravel . . . their belief in a divine Being who had placed humans at the summit of creation” (p.134). But as Gray finished the third Atlantic article, he began to realize that he himself was not entirely at ease with the diminution of humanity’s place in the universe that Darwin’s work implied.
The third Atlantic article, appearing in October 1860, revealed Gray’s increasing difficulty in “aligning Darwin’s theory with his own religions convictions” (p.213). Gray proposed that natural selection might be the “God’s chosen method of creation” (p.214). This idea seemed to resolve the tension between scientific and religious accounts of origins, making Gray the first to develop a theological case for Darwinian theory. But the idea that natural selection might be the process by which God had fashioned the world represented what Fuller describes as a “stunning shift for Gray. Before now, he had always insisted that secondary causes were the only items science was qualified to address. First, or final causes – the beginning of life, the creation of the universe – were the purview of religion: a matter of faith and metaphysics” (p.214). Darwin responded to Gray’s conjectures by indicating that, as Fuller summarizes the written exchange, the natural world was “simply too murderous and too cruel to have been created by a just and merciful God” (p.211).
In the Atlantic articles, Fuller argues, Gray leapt “beyond his own rules of science, speculating about something that was untestable” (p.214-15 ). Gray must have known that his argument “failed to adhere to his own definition of science” (p.216). But, much like Bronson Alcott, Gray found it “impossible to live in the world Darwin had imagined: a world of chance, a world that did not require a God to operate” (p.216). Charles Brace, a noted social reformer who founded several institutions for orphans and destitute children, greeted Darwin’s book with an initial enthusiasm that rivaled that of Gray.
Brace claimed to have read On the Origins of Species 13 times. He was most attracted to the book for its implications for human societies, especially for American society, where nearly half the country accepted and defended human slavery. Darwin’s book “confirmed Brace’s belief that environment played a crucial role in the moral life of humans” (p.11), and demonstrated that every person in the world, black, white, yellow, was related to every one else. The theory of natural selection was thus for Brace the “latest argument against chattel slavery, a scientific claim that could be used in the most important controversy of his time, a clarion call for abolition” (p.39).
Brace produced a tract entitled The Races of the Old World, modeled after Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, which Fuller describes as a “sprawling, ramshackle work” (p.199). Its central thesis was simple enough: “There is nothing . . . to prove the negro radically different from the other families of man or even mentally inferior to them” (p.199-200). But much of The Races of the Old World seemed to undercut Brace’s central thesis. Although the book never defined the term “race,” Brace “apparently believed that though all humans sprang from the same source, some races had degraded over time . . . Human races were not permanent” (p.199-200). Brace thus struggled to make Darwin’s theory fit his own ideas about race and slavery. “He increasingly bent facts to fit his own speculations” (p.197), as Fuller puts it.
The Races of the Old World revealed Brace’s hesitation in imagining a multi-racial America. He couched in Darwinian terms the difficulty of the races cohabiting, reverting to what Fuller describes as nonsense about blacks not being conditioned to survive in the colder Northern climate. Brace “firmly believed in the emancipation of slaves, and he was equally convinced that blacks and white did not differ in their mental capacities” (p.202). But he nonetheless worried that “race mixing,” or what was then termed race “amalgamation,” might imperil Anglo-Saxon America, the “apex of development. . . God’s favored nation, a place where democracy and Christianity had fused to create the world’s best hope” (p.202). Brace joined many other leading abolitionists in opposing race “amalgamation.” His conclusion that “black and brown-skinned people inhabited a lower run on the ladder of civilization” was shared, Fuller indicates, by “even the most enlightened New England abolitionists” (p.57).
No such misgivings visited Thoreau, who grappled with On the Origins of Species “as thoroughly and as insightfully as any American of the period” (p.11). As Thoreau first read his copy of the book in late January 1860, a “new universe took form on the rectangular page before him” (p.75). Prior to his encounter with Darwin, Thoreau’s thought had often “bordered on the nostalgic. He longed for the transcendentalist’s confidence in a natural world infused with spirit” (p.157). But Darwin led Thoreau beyond nostalgia.
Thoreau was struck in particular by Darwin’s portrayal of the struggle among species as an engine of creation. The Origin of Species revealed nature as process, in constant transformation. Darwin’s book directed Thoreau’s attention “away from fixed concepts and hierarchies toward movement instead” (p.144-45). The idea of struggle among species “undermined transcendentalist assumptions about the essential goodness of nature, but it also corroborated many of Thoreau’s own observations” (p.137). Thoreau had “long suspected that people were an intrinsic part of nature – neither separate nor entirely alienated from it” (p.155). Darwin now enabled Thoreau to see how “people and the environment worked together to fashion the world,” providing a “scientific foundation for Thoreau’s belief that humans and nature were part of the same continuum” (p.155).
Darwin’s natural selection, Thoreau wrote, “implies a greater vital force in nature, because it is more flexible and accommodating, and equivalent to a sort of constant new creation” (p.246). The phrase “constant new creation” in Fuller’s view represents an “epoch in American thought” because it “no longer relies upon divinity to explain the natural world” (p.246). Darwin thus propelled Thoreau to a radical vision in which there was “no force or intelligence behind Nature, directing its course in a determined and purposeful manner. Nature just was” (p.246-47).
How far Thoreau would have taken these ideas is impossible to know. He became sick in December 1860, stricken with influenza, exacerbated by tuberculosis, and died in June 1862, with Americans fighting other Americans on the battlefield over the issue of slavery.
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Fuller compares Darwin’s On the Origin of Species to a Trojan horse. It entered American culture “using the newly prestigious language of science, only to attack, once inside, the nation’s cherished beliefs. . . With special and desolating force, it combated the idea that God had placed humans at the peak of creation” (p.213). That the book’s attack did not spare even New England’s best known abolitionists and transcendentalists demonstrates just how unsettling the attack was.
Thomas H. Peebles
La Châtaigneraie, France
May 18, 2020