INSIGHTS | BOOKS
sciencemag.org SCIENCE 356 27 JANUARY 2017 • VOL 355 ISSUE 6323
Randall Fuller’s lively new volume, The Book That Changed America, draws readers into the political and intel- lectual 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.
HISTORY OF SCIENCE
Darwin’s American ascendancy
In a country on the brink of war, abolitionists found
inspiration in On the Origin of Species
This week on the Science podcast,
Jennifer Golbeck digs into the science of
de-extinction with biologist Helen Pilcher
and recommends a clinician’s compassionate tale of psychosomatic disorders.
Bring Back the King
The New Science of De-extinction
Bloomsbury, 2017. 304 pp.
Is It All in Your Head?
True Stories of Imaginary Illness
Other Press, 2017. 291 pp.
The reviewer is at the Department of Classics and World
Religions, Ohio University, Athens, OH 45701, USA.
By Myrna Perez Sheldon
The Book That
Viking, 2017. 312 pp.
After an unsuccessful cloning attempt in 2000, the Pyrenean
ibex went extinct for a second time.
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 re-
ligion 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. j