But much of what is enthralling about Darwin’s life and work is lost when the public cheers or jeers in court. Complicated individuals become combatants. Sophisticated texts become ideological arenas. William Jennings Bryan versus Clarence Darrow, creation versus evolution, religion versus reason, the United States versus Modernity. It’s all a rowdy tournament, noisy with cheerleaders. Last year, the ACLU celebrated the 10th anniversary of Kitzmiller et al. v. Dover with “A Concert for Science and Reason” featuring Canadian rapper Baba Brinkman at the Appalachian Brewing Company.
Darwin’s first American trial was far more interesting. On the Origin of Species quietly crossed the Atlantic as a single book, thistle-green and gilded with two golden pyramids. The author had mailed it to his Harvard colleague Asa Gray, the premier botanist of his age. Gray in turn lent the book to his cousin-in-law Charles Loring Brace, the father of modern foster care. Brace then passed the book among his transcendentalist friends in Concord, Massachusetts — Amos Bronson Alcott, Franklin Sanborn, and Henry David Thoreau. These five men were among Darwin’s first American readers, and his book impacted each of them deeply and differently. Its American reception wasn’t a trial at all, but a seed planted into varied brains and a shared historical atmosphere, sprouting into lovely and prickly varieties of colors and shapes.
This is the story Randall Fuller tells in The Book That Changed America: How Darwin’s Theory of Evolution Ignited a Nation. Fuller has long been attracted to the ways in which a single book, individual, or event affects a cluster of writers differently. His first book examined how critics from Van Wyck Brooks to Sacvan Bercovitch inherited Ralph Waldo Emerson, and his second book traced the divergent effects of the Civil War on writers of the era. Both were academic studies, making The Book That Changed America Fuller’s first trade book. But his methodology translates well for a broader audience as he dwells in the rich differences of individuality to produce complex and captivating characters, bound together in a shared story.
The common drama facing Gray, Brace, Thoreau, Alcott, and Sanborn did not solely reside between the covers of Darwin’s book, but lurked in the struggle with slavery that would soon explode into the Civil War. Gray’s copy of On the Origin of Species arrived in Boston Harbor in December 1859, mere weeks after John Brown was hanged in Virginia for his failed attempt to stage a slave insurrection at Harper’s Ferry. All five of these men were against slavery — many had met Brown and some had even funded his insurrection — and all could not help but read Darwin’s new account of human origins with this conflict in mind. “[M]any other Americans,” Fuller notes, “linked Darwin’s theories with the controversy over race and slavery then raging throughout the nation.” By the end of On the Origin of Species’s first year in the United States, South Carolina would secede from the Union.
Darwin himself had inherited the intense abolitionist convictions of his family, solidified when he witnessed slavery firsthand in Brazil during the voyage of the Beagle. “I thank God, I shall never again visit a slave-country,” he reflected. But his theory also yielded ammunition for abolitionists. Given Darwin’s associations with social Darwinism, it might be surprising to discover that these American men found a powerful argument for human rights in On the Origin of Species. Before the book appeared, the still-emergent field of ethnology in the United States was dominated by the theory of polygenesis, the notion that the human races were separate species descended from different origins. This theory lent itself well to the racial hierarchies espoused by men like Louis Agassiz, the Swiss-born Harvard geologist who resisted Darwin’s theories for his entire life and felt disgust toward the African race.
By contrast, Darwin offered a viable argument for monogenesis, humanity’s common origins. Natural selection challenged the polygenesists’ sense of races as separate, static, and hierarchical. “Reviewers for the American popular press consistently understood Darwin as having provided a theory that showed that black and white people were related,” Fuller explains, and “antislavery newspapers praised the new book for its implicit attack on the popular ideas of Louis Agassiz and other ethnologists.” Charles Loring Brace (the man who brought Gray’s copy of the Origin to the transcendentalists in Concord) wrote the first work of Darwinian ethnography, The Races of the Old World (1863), a book which aimed to disprove theories of black inferiority by presenting a definition of race as fluid. (Yet like many other antislavery Americans, Brace also believed that the black race could never be integrated into the United States. He reasoned that their race had long ago adapted to Africa, and that they had been too abruptly transplanted into the United States to ever thrive there.)
Brace devoured On the Origin of Species. He reportedly read the book 13 times. With the magic-mushroom quality of works that unlock a paradigm shift in a reader’s mind, it began to color and morph everything he saw. While a missionary to New York City’s swelling immigrant population, he deployed Darwin when he confronted the brutal poverty of its Five Points neighborhood. Natural selection confirmed his conclusion that impoverished environments like Five Points (or slavery) exerted a profound and harmful influence on their inhabitants’ moral development.
As Brace struggled to make sense of this mass suffering, he also turned to Darwin to redeem it. If morality was molded by nurture, perhaps it was also partially shaped by nature. Perhaps some individuals were born with more moral temperaments than others. Couldn’t morality, then, also work according to natural selection? Inborn virtue, he reasoned, might be an adaptive advantage, one that would prevent humanity’s long-term degeneration. Moral individuals would overtake the immoral, and with it, the environments that aggravated this immorality. Poverty’s sting could be eased with the balm of long-term progress.
Brace’s reading of Darwin was selective, contradictory, and potentially harmful. Undoubtedly he would have witnessed how brutality and ferocity could provide a far sharper edge in the slums than morality. And what of the growing class of capitalists who stood to make a profit from cheap immigrant labor? Hadn’t morality proven here to be an adaptive disadvantage within the environment of capitalism? Further, long-term species-progress offered little respite to those currently trapped in a slum. In the face of intense suffering, Brace leaned on natural selection to provide more than it could: a “law of progress,” scientific confirmation of God’s providential hand. He needed a credible hope that poverty would eventually wash out of New York in what he took to be Darwin’s cleansing cosmos.
Franklin Sanborn, a latecomer to Thoreau and Alcott’s transcendentalist Concord, found more than an abolitionist argument in Darwin. He seized upon a historical mood. Sanborn’s insatiable drive to be le premier provocateur sent him careening alternatively down ridiculous and revolutionary avenues. He once used his own sewage to fertilize his garden. (“Neighbors complained of the stench; Sanborn complained of their parochialism.”) But he was also one of the “Secret Six” who supplied John Brown with funds for weapons. The restless Sanborn was most taken with Darwin’s portrait of a world that evolved through incessant struggle, a landscape that seemed to describe perfectly the United States’s own political unrest. As the battle with slavery grew ever more volatile through the 1850s, Darwin gave Sanborn a reason to view the growing conflict with optimism. Sanborn in turn embraced Brown as a will that catalyzed moral progress through conflict.
Despite their good intentions, Brace and Sanborn were not good readers of Darwin. They made the common mistake of overstretching his theory in the realm of politics and culture. Natural selection was not a theory of progress, but simply of change. It offered an explanation for the emergence of increasingly complex organisms but gave no guarantee of increasingly civil, intelligent, or moral ones. Cultural values of this sort had little role in the theory unless — as evolutionary biologists or pop psychologists will sometimes speculate — these values could somehow aid survival.
But desire inevitably colors the uses to which science is put, and alongside many orthodox Christians, Brace and Sanborn embraced what they saw as Darwin’s proof for providence. Whether for social Darwinism or revolutionary abolitionism, Darwin “provided an ordering principle for a society that seemed to grow more complex each year.”
Asa Gray was a scientist, and he would make no such mistakes. When Darwin sent him the Origin, he was as careful with the green book as when describing, dissecting, analyzing, and categorizing his North American flora. He saw clearly the strict limits that the author had hedged around his theory. When Gray listened to his idealistic young cousin Brace gush about Darwin, he protested. “When you unscientific people take up a scientific principle,” he admonished, “you are apt to make too much of it, to push it to conclusions beyond what is warranted by the facts.” As New England thawed from winter into spring, Darwin’s book floated its way through a wider audience that read it as eagerly as Brace. Harper’s, The North American Review, The New York Times, and many other journals reviewed the Origin. Many reviewers applied the theory to race, others celebrated what they saw as its proof for progress, while still others deemed it atheistical. None were written by scientists. In a three-part series for the newborn but popular Atlantic Monthly, Gray would set the record straight as Darwin’s American ambassador and a voice for science.
Gray’s articles for The Atlantic clarified Darwin’s theory for a popular audience with admirable precision and simplicity. They promoted an antiracist agenda by arguing unequivocally for humanity’s monogenesis. But Gray wanted to do more. “He wanted to suggest how the book seemed to bring the world to life,” Fuller says, “to make it pulse with meaning and significance.” But the question for Gray, a devout Presbyterian, was the same one that gnawed at many Christians and idealists who saw nature as creation, the reflection of divine law: what kind of meaning could one draw from Darwin’s universe of aimless chance and amoral conflict? Gray admitted that Darwin’s theory made little room for the idealist vision of nature which had given his life so much meaning. Then Gray himself began to doubt. He wrote to Darwin. Might natural selection be God’s tool? Darwin was skeptical. Nature was too cruel to be the contrivance of a benevolent and omnipotent God.
Gray is Fuller’s second-best portrait, a man who worries that he has opened a Pandora’s box out of motives at once noble, rational, and human. He wants to refute polygenesists’ racism, to honor good science, to head a great tradition of American botany. But it costs him. “Once the Origin of Species gained admission inside a reader’s head, it began to compete with all sorts of dearly held convictions,” Fuller writes in disturbing language, as if the theory was not a magic mushroom but a brain-burrowing parasite.
By his third article, Gray began to pull away from certain implications of the theory. He argued that natural selection left the issue of first causes (that is, God) where they were before. He emphasized that natural selection explained a “how” for human existence, not its “why.” Gray’s strategic hedging at times failed to meet his own standards for scientific inquiry, but “the simple truth,” Fuller concludes, “was that he found it impossible to live in the world Darwin had imagined.”
The famously ethereal transcendentalist Amos Bronson Alcott was, like Gray, a better reader of Darwin, and like Gray, it depressed him. He saw clearly the threat that Darwin’s universe posed to his own Platonic idealism. He was annoyed that so many friends once enlivened by idealism — Emerson, Sanborn, and Thoreau foremost — were so smitten with the theory. He felt that Darwin was but the latest and greatest instance of science’s proclivity for soul-souring empiricism, a vinegar that stripped nature and humanity of beauty and grandeur. Like all materialists, Darwin looked at existence “through a telescope from the wrong end,” missing the heavens for their gas and atoms. An idealist as much by temperament as metaphysics, Alcott set aside the book after reading it and went on his cheerful way. He preached the gospel of idealism long after the Civil War when, ironically, an audience seemed hungrier than ever for the meaning it offered in a postbellum, post-Darwin landscape.
Henry David Thoreau managed what the other four could not: he read Darwin both accurately and joyously. Besides perhaps Gray, “no American read the Origin of Species with as much care and insight.” After Thoreau first encountered Darwin in The Voyage of the Beagle in the early 1840s, he undertook his own voyage into Concord woods and filled thousands of pages with drawings and notes on its ecosystems, interspersed with transcendental meditations.
Fuller is best on Thoreau in part because he shades his portrait with its subject’s own empirical delight in “the heft and texture of experience.” Consider how Fuller unfolds the “pagan joy” of the Concord notebooks: “Thoreau admires the gossamer filaments that glisten in the sun when he tears apart a milkweed pod. He samples the bitter juice of unripe berries or amuses himself by measuring his strides as he slides across frozen rivers,” Fuller describes. “His interests branched apart, proliferated, carved new channels of thought. He delved into cartography and the magnetic variations of compasses. He studied geology,” he continues, and
[b]y 1860, his third-story attic room had become a private natural history museum, stuffed with birds’ nests, arrowheads, and more than a thousand pressed plants. On shelves made from driftwood he had gathered at Cape Cod, he kept the skins of reptiles, assorted pelts, rocks and stones, lichens, moss, and the carcass of a Cooper’s hawk as well as its spotted bluish-white egg.
Fuller sketches Thoreau much as Thoreau sketched Concord.
But what kind of higher meaning could Thoreau draw from Darwin’s theory, if Gray had failed? It could never be one rooted wholly in idealist metaphysics, as Gray realized, a fact which sometimes bothered Thoreau. He often worried that his growing empiricism was the sign of an aging brain, cooling from the volcanic transcendentalism of his youth into the crusts of middle age. Until his final years, Thoreau oscillated uneasily between science and transcendentalism, materialism and idealism. He managed a tentative reconciliation by locating “mystery and wonder within materialism […] a new kind of magic, a new source of awe.”
Squeezing Darwin’s theory for each drop of awe it could provide, Thoreau accomplished what his mentor Emerson called “creative reading,” the process of growing an accurate interpretation into a transformative one. Darwin had his own visionary moments in which nature buzzed with lavish, marvelous fecundity. Thoreau amplified them, invigorating the material world with transcendental soul. “We tend to think of Darwin’s theory as one of grim determinism, of pointless change and purposeless death,” Fuller notes, but this misses Darwin’s deeper insight that “life’s messy process, its extravagant creation and destruction, led to something worth celebrating.” For Darwin as much as Thoreau, the emergence of human beings in all of their contradictions was cause for joy, and his depiction of life as a dynamic process of “continual becoming” was not far from what Emerson hit upon in extraordinary essays like “Circles.”
Fuller ends on Thoreau’s young death from tuberculosis. Ironically, Darwin’s most creative reader would be the first to succumb to nature’s severity. Such an ending was saved from tragedy by Thoreau’s pagan joy, firm until his final hours of peace and even mirth. When his aunt asked if he had made his peace with God, he replied: “We never quarreled.” When another asked if he was ready for the next world, his answer was even more characteristic: “One world at a time.”
Kenyon Gradert is a doctoral candidate in English at Washington University in St. Louis.