The Book That Changed America: How Darwin's Theory of Evolution Ignited a Nation
by Randall Fuller
302 pp.; $27.00
The Book That Changed America by Randall Fuller gives a well-researched and well-written account on the effect Charles Darwin's views had on the course of American philosophy. What it doesn't do nearly as well, despite its title, is explore the effect On the Origin of Species had on the country's mass culture and the general public's reaction to it.
When it was published and sent to America in late 1859, Darwin's On the Origin of Species was dropped into a nation already boiling with pro- and anti-slavery rhetoric. John Brown had just been tried and hung, and he was a hero to Northern abolitionists. So it's not surprising that Darwin's theory was viewed through the prism of the slavery debate.
Fuller's book primarily deals with the American intellectual elite living in Concord, Massachusetts, and closely associated with the scientific class at nearby Harvard University. This includes the pantheon of American philosophical, literary, and scientific thinkers, including Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Bronson Alcott and his daughter Louisa May, and Harvard botanist Asa Gray, who became the book's most notable American champion. Also included is Harvard's Louis Agassiz, perhaps America's foremost scientist at the time, and the one voice who did not accept Darwin's theories.
To those adopting Darwin's theory, his book was widely seen as a major weapon in defeating the idea that slavery was an institution set in place by God. Instead, all people, including blacks, shared a common descent. It's important to note that Darwin's book purposely did not deal with the descent of man (he would do so in his later book), although these implications were quickly drawn by readers. Actually, much of the...