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With Darwin Day Approaching, It’s Time for a Look Back at Evolution and American History

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Darwin Day is coming up — February 12, this Sunday, marking the birthday of Charles Darwin and celebrated by us as Academic Freedom Day. Yes, that means we’ll be introducing you to a new Censor of the Year. Feel free to submit nominations, but frankly we’ve already got a leading contender. Visit us again on Sunday when we’ll reveal the winner.

With the historical context in mind, in any event, the following is interesting and relevant. English professor and historian Randall Fuller has a new book out called The Book that Changed America (Viking, 2017), referring to Darwin’s Origin. The following comments are based on a review in Science by Myrna Perez Sheldon, “Darwin’s American Ascendancy,” and an interview with Fuller in National Geographic by Simon Worrall, “Darwin’s Theory of Evolution Roiled U.S. on Eve of Civil War.”

To understand the author’s perspective, consider Fuller’s response to Worrall’s final question in the NG interview:

A 2014 study showed that only 19 percent of Americans believe humans evolved from a more primitive form of life without help of a celestial power. Is Darwin on the retreat in America today? [Bold in original.]

Great question! Though I tend to think that those figures you’ve mentioned are, hopefully, a last gasp of denial. It’s certainly true that there’s an increasing resistance to Darwin’s theory. But that exists simultaneously with, almost every month, new data showing the validity and overall soundness of Darwin’s theory. The question is, how long can one deny a growing empirical body of facts? [Emphasis added.]

I grew up in public school in the late 1970s in Missouri, and natural selection was taught as an accepted, and completely settled, scientific question. There have been periods between the 1920s and 2014 where the opposite has obtained. But that pendulum will always swing back again. Just recently Pope Francis reaffirmed the Catholic Church’s conviction that evolutionary theory is valid.

The citation of Pope Francis is not accurate, but let it pass. Knowing the author’s bias will justify our attempt to follow Darwin’s dictum, “A fair result can be obtained only by fully stating and balancing the facts and arguments on both sides of each question.” Fortunately, we have two excellent sources with which to obey Darwin’s advice. The first is Darwin Day in America by Center for Science & Culture associate director John West. The second is Tom Bethell’s new book, Darwin’s House of Cards.

We learn from the interview that Origin arrived on American shores quickly after its publication in November 1859, when the U.S. was on the verge of civil war. Hardly a month had passed after John Brown’s futile raid on Harper’s Ferry that escalated tensions between North and South. Fuller tells an interesting story about how the first copy landed at a house in Concord, Massachusetts, having been carried from Boston by a “red-hot abolitionist,” Charles Loring Brace. Gathered on this “extremely cold, New England winter evening” were notable intellectuals gathered to discuss two topics: slavery, and Darwin’s book. Attendees included abolitionist Franklin Sanborn (one of the funders of the raid on Harper’s Ferry), along with two leading lights of transcendentalist philosophy: Bronson Alcott (father of novelist Louisa May Alcott and friend of Ralph Waldo Emerson), and Henry David Thoreau. Now some 14 years past his first experiences at Walden Pond, Thoreau was “beginning a kind of second career as a scientist,” Fuller says. What was his reaction?

What Darwin enables Thoreau to do is fully renounce that transcendental belief that God is in nature and to see something equally wondrous and marvelous: the incredible, almost profligate creativity of nature. He says toward the end of his life that what Darwin’s theory enables him to see is that nature is constant, new creation. Rather than a God that creates nature, Thoreau now sees nature itself as this amazing creative force.

Sheldon’s review provides an important contrasting response:

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?

Fuller makes a big point that American abolitionists initially embraced Darwin’s views. How could this be, since Darwin did not discuss human evolution until The Descent of Man over ten years later?

If you are an American, concerned about the discussion of slavery, an argument that says black people and white people actually share a common ancestor, and are intimately connected, like brothers and sisters, rather than separate varieties or species, has a powerful effect.

A number of prominent American scientists at the time argued that God had created black people, brown skinned and white people separately, and each of them were different, had different capacities, and there was a hierarchy. Some went so far as to suggest that black people were a different species, and that they were not only different, but inferior. These scientists were praised in the South and provided the perfect rationalization for slavery. Darwin’s argument that all living things shared a common ancestor provided the abolitionists with a great rebuttal of the dominant, American science of the time.

A couple of observations here. First, Fuller says that it was “scientists” who argued for polygenism (separate creations of races); he specifically points to Louis Agassiz as a leading polygenist. Second, the “dominant American science” belief “that God had created” separate races deviated sharply from Genesis, which speaks of a single creation of the first human pair. In that regard, Jewish and Christian believers of the period had exactly the same grounds for opposing slavery, believing that all humans had descended from “one blood” (cf. Paul’s message to the Athenians, Acts 17:26). Fuller indicates that it was the American scientific community, not the religious community, that justified slavery on the grounds of “modern racial science.” In all fairness, it must be acknowledged that pro-slavery churches found other pretexts for supporting slavery in their scriptures, just as anti-slavery churches found Biblical support for their views. Whether in labs or pulpits, there was plenty of racism to go around — and plenty of abolitionism, too. The point is that Darwin did not bring any unique, new argument for abolitionism that was not already in the Bibles of the churches and in the Declaration of Independence, with its statement that “all men are created equal.”

If the abolitionists found support for their cause in Darwin, however, it was short-lived. Within months, America plunged into its Civil War, shredding the optimistic idealism of Emerson and Thoreau in the clash of swords. The implications of Darwin’s views also began dawning more clearly on intellectuals. In Darwin Day in America, John West explains how Darwin’s cautious naturalism in Origin developed into full-fledged materialism with his publication of The Descent of Man in 1872. West quotes leading American scientists in the early 20th century who used Darwin to promote eugenics and race purity. “Bluntly put,” he says, “the evolutionary process had led to the development of superior and inferior races.” Consider that Darwinians to this day believe that different populations of humans must have remained genetically isolated for many tens or hundreds of thousands of years, providing ample opportunity for groups to advance in “fitness” over others. By contrast, any church holding to the “one blood” doctrine, even if prone to racist tendencies, would have to acknowledge human exceptionalism as a consequence of their doctrine of imago Dei (humans created in the image of God). No such leash could restrain natural selection’s racist implications. Fuller acknowledges this, when asked why racism remains a problem to this day:

Social Darwinism is an argument that focuses primarily upon a term that Darwin himself didn’t coin but eventually used, “the survival of the fittest.” It argues that those who are on the top, the wealthiest and best positioned socially, are there because they are the fittest, the best adapted to succeed. This idea came up during the Gilded Age and was very quickly adopted by racist ideologues who wanted to imagine African Americans as inferior or substandard compared to whites. So, there’s this horrible, ironic reversal where Darwin is at first embraced by abolitionists but, within 10 years or so, has been appropriated to argue that blacks are inferior.

Today, you only hear the term social Darwinism with a very negative inflection. However, like all ideas, over time they become absorbed or, to quote you, become part of the cultural wallpaper. So I would hazard the guess that the idea of the inherent superiority of some races is still, unfortunately, with us today.

Tom Bethell pulls the rug out from under the notion that Darwin helped the anti-slavery movement. In Chapter 4 of Darwin’s House of Cards, he documents growing evidence against universal common descent — a single tree of life — the very idea that Thoreau, Alcott, and the others felt gave scientific credibility to their abolitionist views. Had those people ruminated a little more, they might have realized how silly the argument was anyway. What? All men are equal because they had the same bacteria ancestors? In Darwin’s tree of life, branches at the tips could deviate significantly from one another even if they shared a common root hundreds of millions of years earlier. That realization aimed the trajectory that Social Darwinism quickly took after The Descent of Man, bringing horrendous consequences documented in West’s book.

This leaves Fuller — evolutionist that he is — in a precarious position. He knows that Darwinism led to some nasty consequences. Among the milder examples, he tells how P.T. Barnum, having “his finger on the pulse of his native country,” dressed up a disabled man with microcephaly and exhibited him as “a missing link between gorillas and human beings.” Fuller knows that Social Darwinism left “a very negative inflection” on the “cultural wallpaper” of America to this day. He knows about the unending controversies Darwinism created.

But evolution is a fact, isn’t it? Certainly it’s a called that by many, but the “growing empirical body of facts” Fuller thinks lends validity to Darwinian evolution is, as Bethell shows forcefully, a “house of cards.”

Photo credit: [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

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