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The Book That Changed America by Randall Fuller | January 2017 | Viking | Hardcover $27
Throughout its history America has been torn in two by debates over ideals and beliefs. Randall Fuller takes us back to one of those turning points, in 1860, with the story of the influence of Charles Darwin s just-published On the Origin of Species on five American intellectuals, including Bronson Alcott, Henry David Thoreau, the child welfare reformer Charles Loring Brace, and the abolitionist Franklin Sanborn.
I absolutely jumped at the chance to get a review copy of this title from Edelweiss. Science? Antebellum American history?? A book about a book??? Yes, please.
I read Darwin’s account of his adventures as a young naturalist (Voyage of the Beagle) just a few months ago. Even though I didn’t give it a full 5 stars, it’s one of those books that has stuck with me — you know the kind I mean, like when random bits of news or conversations will suddenly remind you of a scene from the book or an impression it gave you.
In my review of that book, I mentioned that Darwin seemed to accept his colonialist culture’s prejudice against indigenous peoples as a matter of course. An acquaintance of mine pointed out that Darwin was actually an abolitionist, and some of his statements that might sound paternalizing to contemporary readers were in fact pretty radical for his own time.
In an 1862 letter to Asa Gray, a scientist at Harvard who was the first to read On the Origin of Species in the U.S., Darwin wrote (in reference to the Civil War):
But slavery seems to me to grow a more hopeless curse. […] This war of yours, however it may end, is a fearful evil to the whole world; & its evil effect will, I must think, be felt for years.
The Book That Changed America is an examination of the ways in which Darwin’s idea of biological evolution by means of natural selection influenced the scientists, authors, and social reformers who read it — and therefore influenced the trajectory of our country. Non-Americans (and many Americans, too) are often baffled by our country’s long-standing issues with the acceptance of the scientific theory of evolution. I think this book helps to explain why evolution has been so contentious for us — because the idea is all wrapped up in our national troubles with the repercussions of slavery and institutionalized racism as well as the popular (yet flawed) idea of our history as a Protestant Christian nation.
The book is written in a narrative style that makes the profiled individuals feel more like interesting characters than plain old names out of history books, which I mostly enjoyed. Some bits kinda dragged for me, and there were a few little tangents from the main story that I found frustrating. And I would have liked to see viewpoints from folks outside of the particular little intellectual circle that the author focused on — politicians involved in the events leading up to the war, African-Americans, Southerners, and maybe just “everyday people” sorts, you know?
Regardless, I did enjoy the read and would recommend this book to people who are interested in the history of the theory of evolution as well as anyone who’d like to learn a little more about science-based abolitionist perspectives prior to the American Civil War.
- “Reading Charles Darwin Utterly Changed How Charles Loring Brace Thought about Social Reform” feature by Randall Fuller in Humanities, the NEH magazine
- Book review at the New York Times
- Book review at Kirkus
Publication information: Fuller, Randall.
Source: ARC provided by publisher via Edelweiss.
Disclaimer: I am not compensated, monetarily or otherwise, for reviews of books or other products.