A vibrant history of the reception of Charles Darwin’s ideas by American minds and spirits.
With the theory of evolution still generating controversy, Fuller (English/Univ. of Tulsa; From Battlefields Rising: How the Civil War Transformed American Literature, 2011, etc.), a Guggenheim and National Endowment for the Humanities fellow, focuses on the immediate response to Darwin’s On the Origin of Species by a handful of prominent American thinkers: Harvard botanist Asa Gray, first to read the book; his intellectual adversary Louis Agassiz; transcendentalists Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry Thoreau; ardent abolitionist and educator Franklin Sanborn; Bronson Alcott, “the most radical idealist in America”; and Charles Loring Brace, a social reformer who shared his cousin Gray’s copy with his New England friends. Drawing on his protagonists’ public and private writings and letters, steeped in mid-19th-century culture, Fuller creates a rich tapestry of personalities and roiling ideas. In radiant prose, and with a sure eye for the telling detail, the author reveals the shattering impact of Darwin’s book on religious thought, scientific inquiry, and especially on debates over slavery and, indeed, on the status of blacks on the evolutionary scale from beast to man. Even those who did not read the book itself, though it was easily available, had access to its ideas from reviews in important magazines, many of which “focused on the work’s ethnological implications” to racial theories or criticized Darwin for undermining religion. Gray, who championed Darwin’s ideas, tried mightily to reconcile them with his own theological convictions. Could natural selection “explain all of nature’s marvels?” he asked. Surely it would take some omnipotent designer to create the human eye. Fuller asserts that “every nuance and involution in the book” refocused Thoreau’s investigations into nature, and he shows how both pro-slavery advocates and abolitionists used Darwin’s theories to defend their positions. Lincoln was vilified in pro-slavery cartoons, portrayed as a gorilla or “the missing link between blacks and whites.”
A fresh, invigorating history of philosophical and political struggles.