The book that changed America: Darwin, Slavery, and God


The Book That Changed America is the title of one by Randall Fuller. It’s about Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, looking at its impact particularly in Concord, Massachusetts.

That wasn’t just Anytown, U.S.A. Concord was the center of America’s intellectual ferment. The protagonists in Fuller’s book include Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, Bronson and Louisa May Alcott, Franklin Sanborn, Louis Agassiz, and Asa Gray — all living in or near Concord and interacting with each other and with Darwin’s bombshell book.


It hit Concord almost simultaneously with another bombshell in late 1859: John Brown’s attack on the Harper’s Ferry arsenal and his subsequent execution. Brown was not, as often portrayed, a madman. He considered slavery a great sin that could be undone only through war, which he aimed to start. He was just about a year early.

America was already, of course, hotly divided over slavery, and Harper’s Ferry raised the temperature further. So did Darwin’s book.

How so? The only possible excuse for slavery was the idea of blacks’ racial inferiority. Thus their constant denigration as a degenerate, brutish species. And slavery apologists, being besotted with religion, had to believe God intentionally made blacks separately and enslavement-worthy. Efforts to prove their inferiority litters Nineteenth century science. (See Stephen Jay Gould’s The Mismeasure of Man.)

(Even most abolitionists thought blacks inferior. But they opposed slavery nonetheless because it was cruel and unjust. This applies to every pogrom, genocide, or other ethnically based abuse or exploitation. Even if its victims were lesser, degraded creatures — it’s never true, but even if it were — their mistreatment would still be cruel and unjust. The creatures proven inferior and degraded are the perpetrators.)

Anyhow, the races’ biological separateness continued to be a matter of intense science-oriented debate.* That’s where Darwin came in.

His book prudently refrained from specifically addressing human origins. (Darwin bit that bullet later in The Descent of Man.) Origin discussed living things in general, and all its numerous examples and case studies concerned non-human life. Many at the time imagined humans were something apart from all that. Yet many others were not so deluded, and they realized that if Darwin’s varied finches and so forth were all close cousins, branches of the same tree, obviously then so were whites and blacks. (We now know that blacks came first, and whites descended from them.)

Thus did Origin explode the moral underpinnings of slavery. And Darwin was not just another polemicist with an axe to grind. Not only was his a science book, it was powerfully supported and argued, hence a devastating blow.

Yet still it was disputed. Inevitably, for a book that gored cherished oxen. And slavery was not the only ox. The other was God himself.

Gods have always been the answer for natural and cosmic mysteries people couldn’t otherwise penetrate. That territory used to be huge. But science has progressively answered those mysteries, inexorably shrinking godly territory.

To naive eyes, the world might look designed, the only possible way to explain life’s diversity and complexity. Literature is filled with rhapsodizing on this theme. Though would any intelligent designer have so filled creation with pain and suffering? Calling this a mystery is no answer.

Thoreau had studied nature intensively, and likewise studied Darwin’s book. He got it, completely; it explained so much of what he’d actually observed. Fuller casts Thoreau as holding that the world is indeed filled with magic and mystery — just not the kind religion postulates.

But Darwin greatly demystified life. His theory was a revelation, a revolution. He called it “natural selection” and “descent with modification;” for short, evolution. His book explained it thoroughly and cogently; there’s hardly a word in it that doesn’t still hold up. A stupendous achievement of human intellect.

And once Darwin unveiled it, the idea of evolution was actually obvious. (I recall Richard Milner’s song, wherein other scientists of the time moan, “Why didn’t I think of that?!”) As Thoreau found, evolution instantly made sense of everything observable about the natural world, everything previously so puzzling. The great geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky put it thusly: “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.”

Yet, to this day, half of Americans reject it. Fuller’s book recaps the opposition to evolution as it played out at its advent, with famed scientist Louis Agassiz in the attack’s vanguard. Its essence remains unchanged. Evolution shrinks God almost to irrelevance. And not just in biology. If life is attributable to natural, not supernatural causes, couldn’t the same be true of the entire cosmos? To Agassiz, all this was something literally unthinkable.** As it is for his modern counterparts.

Likewise that we “come from monkeys” (or even lesser creatures). Some believe that degrades us. But “there is grandeur in this view of life,” connecting us to every other living thing. And our animal antecedents make us all the more remarkable. It’s sublime that a Darwin, descended from apes, could have the insight to see it. All we’ve achieved we’ve done ourselves, with no help from any god.

A reader of Fuller’s book must be struck by how one key mistake — belief in a god — traps you in a carnival house of mirrors, distorting everything about life and the world. Escape it and all becomes clear. This is the main reason why Agassiz and other scientists of the time failed to see what Darwin saw. Religion blinded them. And even when shown the light, they hold tight to their blindfolds. They torture facts, evidence, and logic, struggling to hammer the square peg of their belief into the round hole of reality.

I find it far better to just accept reality.

* Some even argued for different species on the basis (by analogy to mules) that mixed-race people tend to be sterile — simply untrue. Furthermore, the vast genre of argument that race mixing somehow “pollutes” and degrades the quality of the white race likewise contradicts manifest biological fact: mixing different gene pools improves strength and quality. It’s called hybrid vigor.

** Scientist Asa Gray entered the fray on Darwin’s side, but even he was unmoored by God’s banishment, coming up with the fallback idea that evolution is God’s method for managing life’s pageant. And even Darwin himself seemed queasy about a purely mechanistic view of creation.



One Response to “The book that changed America: Darwin, Slavery, and God”

  1. Bumba Says:

    Then there was “social Darwinism”, a twisting of the theory to justify exploitation of the “less fit”.

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