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'The Book that Changed America' tells the deeper story of Darwin in the US

Darwin's theories of evolution and natural selection would challenge the racial superiority of slavery and mold the minds of transcendentalists.

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The Book That Changed America:
How Darwin's Theory of Evolution Ignited a Nation
By Randall Fuller
Viking
304 pp.

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Charles Darwin was born on the same day as Abraham Lincoln in 1809, and a birthday is not all that the biologist shares with the president. Darwin too played a significant role in shaping Civil War-era America and the nation that was to come.

But his influence in the mid-19th century is largely forgotten today. When it comes to the Darwin Effect in this country, history buffs are likely to think of the Gilded Age's social darwinism, the Scopes Monkey Trial, and modern battles over the teaching of science.

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The hidden story is that the publication of "On the Origin of Species," Darwin's 1859 masterpiece, instantly produced "epochal change and unanticipated aftershocks," writes historian and University of Tulsa literature professor Randall Fuller in The Book That Changed America: How Darwin's Theory of Evolution Ignited a Nation.

Darwin's theories of evolution and natural selection would challenge the racial superiority of slavery and mold the minds of transcendentalists. His ideas also posed  "enormous threats" to the beliefs of the nation's leading minds, Fuller writes, "including their faith in God and their trust that America was a country divinely chosen for the regeneration of the world."

As Fuller explains in his engaging book, Darwin's book imploded in an America that was finding itself on the literary, scientific, and religious fronts and often blending the three. "Natural historians" and "natural philosophers" – aka scientists – wrote for literary journals and often pondered what their work revealed about God. Poets and philosophers, meanwhile, waxed on about new scientific advances.

In his book, Fuller focuses on five men who paid close attention to "Origin of Species" but did not all fell under its spell.

For some critics, like philosopher Bronson Alcott, father of Louisa "Little Women" May Alcott, Darwin's theories failed because they lacked soul, God, and divinity.

Indeed, as Fuller writes, "an intelligent Creator was not required for natural selection to operate." Fuller goes a bit further, potentially annoying readers who've found ways to synthesize science and faith, to write that when "taken to its logical conclusion," the idea of survival of the fittest "demolished the idea that people had been created in God's image."

To social reformer Charles Loring Brace, evolution was a godsend. He believed it provided a powerful rhetorical weapon in the arsenal against slavery. If humans evolved, every human was like every other human. The story of Adam and Eve suggests the same thing, of course, but without the scientific underpinning.

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Others picked up on this theme. In 1860, when Lincoln was elected and the Civil War loomed, the issue of slavery dominated almost all public discussion about Darwin's theories.

This evolution – of human ideas, not species – only went so far, however. Like today, believing in a shared bond across humanity in the 1850s and 1860s didn't necessarily translate into visions of racial unity. It was one thing to believe that blacks and whites were equal and quite another to accept blacks into, say, white neighborhoods.

Darwin himself didn't directly tackle the issue of human equality, let alone slavery, in "Origin of Species." But presumably, he hoped readers would connected the dots since he despised slavery and had himself seen its horrors during his travels.

In the swamps of Brazil, he heard a slave being tortured but was helpless to act. "To this day," he wrote, "if I hear a distant scream, it recalls with painful vividness my feelings."

Darwin, by the way, may not seem like a laugh riot in old photos. But he had a twinkly personality and was positively delighted when a clergyman wrote him a screed declaring that he was "delighted to see, from a recent photograph, that no man in England was more like the monkey he came from!"

As for the transcendentalists like Henry David Thoreau, Fuller writes that Darwin's theories could serve as a celebration of life and nature, not a wretched revelation of "painless change and purposeless death."

Indeed, Darwin "provided a scientific foundation for Thoreau's belief that humans and nature were part of the same continuum," intimately connected and affecting each other. "'The Origin of Species' had ... permanently reoriented his understanding of the woods and meadows surrounding Concord [Mass.]" At the same time, though, Thoreau found something missing in science, a failure to understand or embrace the essence of nature, the spirit within.

The anti-slavery crusader Brace, however, believed that religion and Darwinism could be reconciled, and he liked to think that "natural selection is a means of arriving at the best," and applies to "the moral history of mankind."

In other words, humanity would continue to improve because advancement was built into life itself.

Only time, lots of time, will tell if he's right. But we can hope that science will reconcile with religion a bit sooner, perhaps taking a page from Henry David Thoreau. In his final days, his worried aunt asked him if he'd made peace with God. "We," he replied, "never quarreled."


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