The Book That Did Not Change America
Through research and meticulous observations during the mid-1800s, Charles Darwin theorized what would become one of the most widely accepted scientific truths: the theory of evolution. As freshmen entering Skidmore, the entire class was required to read Randall Fuller’s The Book That Changed America. The book focused on Darwin’s theory of evolution and natural selection, and its connection to the Civil War and social change in 19th century America. Fuller also addressed the relevance of religion in light of the emergence of the scientific method. He argued that Darwin’s Origin of Species paved the way for social, political and religious change, claiming that the book “changed” the way of American life. But was his claim too bold? And did his argument capture the sentiments of today’s society?
In today’s political climate, we are experiencing extreme segregation between the two sides of the political spectrum. With democrats or those who consider themselves particularly liberal and the more right-winged conservative republicans refusing to compromise on a variety of different social, political, and economic issues, the relevancy of Randall Fuller’s subject is evident. Fuller raised the significance of tolerance towards dissenting opinions for the purpose of social progress. However, his central claims were lost through monotonous phrasing and a failure to represent differing voices and perspectives that the crucial subject matter demanded.
His writing style, although great for a narrative fictional piece, did not command the power necessary to deliver what could have been a seminal call to action to consider Darwin’s theory and deliberate the implications of how far we have actually progressed post-Civil War. Instead, what followed were numerous detailed descriptions of dinner party scenes that, although might have been an accurate representation of the conversations taking place, skirted around the main discussion by sacrificing meaning for decorative writing.
The title of the book poses a bold claim that Darwin’s ideas and the actions of his advocates changed the nature of American society. Yes, the theory of evolution and natural selection was indeed revolutionary. And, yes, it sparked the drive of the abolitionist movement as well as the debate between science and religion. Yet, was it Darwin’s theory that changed America or was it instead the cumulative efforts of activists already campaigning in the field that brought about social change — Darwin’s book merely serving as scientific backing to their endeavors? Both supporters of emancipation and proponents of slavery used Darwin’s theory of natural selection to back their own beliefs. For example, the Swiss polygenist Louis Agassiz used Darwin’s theory of evolution to insinuate that people of different races were of different species. However, Asa Gray, a professor of botany at Harvard University understood Darwin’s theories as uniting all races of humanity into one collective species. Although these opinions differed profusely, they were argued using the same evidence raising the question: was Darwin’s theory the catalyst for social progress, or was it simply a tool to drive pre-existing views forward?
We are, arguably, as divided now in America as we were about a century ago. What differs now is that the fight for scientific truth has been fought. Yet, despite the fact that Darwin’s theory is now widely accepted, racial tensions continue to simmer. These issues of race relations continue to manifest themselves far beyond what Darwin or any of his advocates could have predicted. Those in support of Darwin’s theories and the abolitionist movement thought that the issue resolved itself with the 13th Amendment. However, tensions related to race have been and continue to be subconsciously enforced through police brutality, the newly-imposed immigration and refugee regulations, and a widening socioeconomic disparity. Although we claim to be a ‘better’ society today, we may have forgotten to stay mindful of the importance of the continual fight for equality.
We believe Fuller had the opportunity to push us farther to this consensus by drawing necessary parallels from history. However, in his efforts to engage readers and argue his bold claims, he failed to get at the heart of what was inherently crucial.
Picture by Political Editor Nosheen Hotaki.