Why abo­li­tion­ists were fans of Dar­win

The Washington Post Sunday - - BOOK WORLD - HIS­TORY RE­VIEW BY JERRY A. COYNE Jerry A. Coyne is a pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus in the depart­ment of ecol­ogy and evo­lu­tion at the University of Chicago. He is the au­thor of “Why Evo­lu­tion Is True” and “Faith vs. Fact: Why Sci­ence and Re­li­gion Are In­com­pat­i­ble.”

On New Year’s Day, 1860, four men sat around a din­ner ta­ble in Con­cord, Mass., con­tem­plat­ing a hefty green book that had just ar­rived in Amer­ica. Pub­lished in Eng­land barely a month be­fore, Charles Dar­win’s “On the Ori­gin of Species” was sent by the au­thor him­self to Asa Gray, a Har­vard botanist who would be­come one of Dar­win’s staunch­est de­fend­ers. Gray gave his heav­ily an­no­tated copy to his wife’s cousin, child-wel­fare ac­tivist Charles Lor­ing Brace, who, lec­tur­ing in Con­cord, brought it to the home of politi­cian Franklin San­born. Be­sides San­born and Brace, the dis­tin­guished com­pany in­cluded the philoso­pher Bron­son Al­cott and the au­thor/nat­u­ral­ist Henry David Thoreau.

Ac­cord­ing to Randall Fuller, this meet­ing changed Amer­ica by cat­alyz­ing the move­ment to rid the na­tion of slav­ery. Although Gray and the Con­cord Four were ar­dent abo­li­tion­ists, only Gray was in­ter­ested in the re­con­dite bi­o­log­i­cal de­tails of Dar­win’s the­ory. The rest of them fo­cused on the book’s im­plicit mes­sage about hu­man races.

This is cu­ri­ous, be­cause “On the Ori­gin of Species” care­fully side­steps the topic of hu­man evo­lu­tion and says noth­ing at all on the sub­ject of race. Dar­win was so con­cerned about the hereti­cal na­ture of his mes­sage that he de­cided to avoid men­tion­ing the most in­cen­di­ary of all his con­clu­sions: that hu­mans, sup­pos­edly cre­ated in the im­age of God, were in fact noth­ing more than mod­i­fied great apes. He there­fore de­voted just 12 timid words to hu­man evo­lu­tion in the en­tire 500-page work: “Light will be thrown on the ori­gin of man and his his­tory.”

But that was enough. Read­ing be­tween the lines, ev­ery­one, in­clud­ing the Con­cord Four, saw what Dar­win had kept to him­self: that hu­mans had, like all other species, evolved via nat­u­ral se­lec­tion from an­cient an­ces­tors. What is the rel­e­vance of all this to abo­li­tion­ism? At the time, it was de­bated whether hu­mans had a sin­gle ori­gin or sev­eral, with each race be­ing sep­a­rately cre­ated. The mul­ti­ple-cre­ation school, poly­genism, was pop­u­lar with apol­o­gists for slav­ery. If, as they sup­posed, the Adam-and-Eve cre­ation pro­duced whites, but other races de­rived from ear­lier and in­fe­rior acts of cre­ation, then whites were jus­ti­fied in ap­ply­ing a dif­fer­ent moral standard to peo­ple of non­white race, who were not cre­ated in God’s im­age. Poly­genists some­times saw blacks as sub­hu­man in­ter­me­di­ates or even as mem­bers of a dif­fer­ent species, jus­ti­fy­ing their sub­ju­ga­tion and en­slave­ment.

But if hu­mans had a sin­gle ori­gin (mono­genism), as Dar­win pro­posed for other species, then all hu­man races were ge­nealog­i­cally con­nected: Blacks were ev­ery bit as hu­man as whites — equiv­a­lent to dis­tant cousins — and slav­ery be­came morally un­ten­able. This is per­haps one of the very few times in the his­tory of evo­lu­tion­ary bi­ol­ogy that Dar­win’s ideas aligned with a lit­eral in­ter­pre­ta­tion of the Bi­ble. Like Dar­win, the Ge­n­e­sis ac­count sug­gests a sin­gle ori­gin for all hu­mans — cour­tesy of Adam and Eve — with no men­tion of mul­ti­ple cre­ations. This de­tail was over­looked by ad­vo­cates of slav­ery, who proved to be cre­ative and slip­pery the­olo­gians. Ac­cord­ing to Fuller, the ex­cite­ment Dar­win brought to Gray and the Con­cord Four came from pro­vid­ing a sci­en­tific jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for over­turn­ing the mul­ti­ple-ori­gins ar­gu­ment.

“The Book That Changed Amer­ica” gives a vivid pic­ture of the in­tel­lec­tual life of Con­cord, in­fused not just with abo­li­tion­ism but with the Tran­scen­den­tal­ist phi­los­o­phy that saw a divine spark within each hu­man, priz­ing sub­jec­tive ex­pe­ri­ence over hard facts. Fuller’s story ranges widely and some­times dis­cur­sively, in­clud­ing col­or­ful char­ac­ters such as Louisa May Al­cott (daugh­ter of Bron­son), who, be­fore gain­ing fame with “Lit­tle Women,” wrote un­pub­lish­able books about in­ter­ra­cial love; Louis Agas­siz, an­other Har­vard pro­fes­sor, a racist and poly­genist im­pla­ca­bly op­posed to Dar­win’s the­o­ries; John Brown, whose dis­as­trous at­tempt to start a slave re­bel­lion at Harper’s Ferry was se­cretly fi­nanced by San­born; Fred­er­ick Dou­glass, the for­mer slave turned or­a­tor and writer; and even P.T. Bar­num, whose in­ter­est in sci­ence was driven by his de­sire to turn ev­ery­thing into a pay-per-view spec­ta­cle.

Un­for­tu­nately, Fuller’s en­gross­ing ac­count of the lit­er­ary and in­tel­lec­tual hub of New Eng­land does lit­tle to sup­port his the­sis that Dar­win’s book gave pow­er­ful am­mu­ni­tion to abo­li­tion­ists, ul­ti­mately con­tribut­ing to the Civil War. That is du­bi­ous for two rea­sons.

First, although the Con­cord abo­li­tion­ists found a mod­icum of sup­port in Dar­win’s ideas, they al­ready had strong moral ar­gu­ments against slav­ery, and at any rate had al­most no in­flu­ence on the con­fla­gra­tion that be­gan in 1861 but had been smol­der­ing for decades. Sec­ond, Dar­win’s ideas gave am­mu­ni­tion to the pro-slav­ery move­ment as well, for “so­cial Dar­win­ists” sim­ply co-opted Dar­win’s idea of com­pe­ti­tion among groups in na­ture to ar­gue that whites had out­stripped blacks in the strug­gle for ex­is­tence. Like the Bi­ble it­self, “Ori­gin” has been cited in sup­port of di­verse and of­ten con­flict­ing ide­olo­gies.

It’s worth not­ing that the real rev­o­lu­tion wrought by “Ori­gin” — the re­place­ment of a divine cre­ation­ism with a purely nat­u­ral­is­tic ex­pla­na­tion of life’s his­tory — had noth­ing to do with slav­ery. Within a decade of the book’s pub­li­ca­tion, vir­tu­ally all Amer­i­can sci­en­tists and in­tel­lec­tu­als were on board with Dar­win’s ideas, which changed not only the whole of bi­ol­ogy but also our self-im­age. Gone was the idea of hu­mans as God’s spe­cial cre­ation, re­placed by the view that we are a prod­uct of a shuf­fling by nat­u­ral se­lec­tion of ran­domly aris­ing vari­a­tion — a process in­volv­ing huge amounts of suf­fer­ing and death. In a let­ter to Gray, Dar­win ad­mit­ted that the facts of evo­lu­tion didn’t com­port with the Abra­hamic God: “But I own that I can­not see, as plainly as oth­ers do, & as I should wish to do, ev­i­dence of de­sign & benef­i­cence on all sides of us. There seems to me too much mis­ery in the world. I can­not per­suade my­self that a benef­i­cent & om­nipo­tent God would have de­signedly cre­ated the Ich­neu­monidae [par­a­sitic wasps] with the ex­press in­ten­tion of their feed­ing within the living bod­ies of cater­pil­lars, or that a cat should play with mice.”

It was this is­sue of God and spir­i­tu­al­ity that led four of the five main char­ac­ters in Fuller’s book to ul­ti­mately re­ject Dar­win’s sci­en­tific mes­sage. The ex­cep­tion was Thoreau, who spent his last years ob­ses­sively cat­a­logu­ing data on the Con­cord wood­lands in a neb­u­lous project cut short by his death from tu­ber­cu­lo­sis. But even Thoreau couldn’t fully em­brace Dar­win’s mes­sage of nat­u­ral­ism, see­ing sci­ence as pow­er­less to ex­plain things like emo­tions and be­hav­ior. Tran­scen­den­tal­ists such as Al­cott and Ralph Waldo Emer­son, with their em­pha­sis on the spir­i­tual over the ma­te­rial, read into Dar­win a mis­guided tele­ol­ogy of in­creas­ing per­fec­tion of the hu­man soul. Brace be­came a the­is­tic evo­lu­tion­ist, see­ing God as mas­ter­mind­ing the whole process. In the end, even the stal­wart Gray was driven by his faith to see evo­lu­tion as partly divine, propos­ing that God him­self cre­ated the vari­a­tion — now known to be mu­ta­tions in the DNA — that fu­eled evo­lu­tion.

Things haven’t changed much since 1860. A 2014 Gallup poll showed that 42 per­cent of Amer­i­cans are young-Earth cre­ation­ists, while an­other 31 per­cent are the­is­tic evo­lu­tion­ists like Gray, ac­cept­ing some form of hu­man evo­lu­tion but in­sist­ing it was di­rected by God. And only 19 per­cent of us — 1 in 5 — ad­here to Dar­win’s view that hu­mans evolved in a purely nat­u­ral­is­tic way with no su­per­nat­u­ral help. Slav­ery, thank­fully, is no longer with us, but, like the Tran­scen­den­tal­ists, most of us still in­sist that a divine hand guided the ori­gin of our species.


TOP: An orig­i­nal copy of Charles Dar­win’s “On the Ori­gin of Species,” pub­lished in 1859. ABOVE: Har­vard botanist Asa Gray, who re­ceived a copy of the book from Dar­win. Gray was in­ter­ested in its sci­ence, but oth­ers with whom he shared the book saw it as sup­port­ing their abo­li­tion­ist ar­gu­ments.


THE BOOK THAT CHANGED AMER­ICA How Dar­win’s The­ory of Evo­lu­tion Ig­nited a Na­tion By Randall Fuller. Vik­ing. 304 pp. $27.

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