This past Tuesday, TU’s English Department Chair, Professor Randall Fuller, gave a lecture and answered questions about his new book, “The Book that Changed America.” The book discusses the effect that Charles Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species” had on various groups in America at the time: abolitionists, writers and social reformers, to name a few. Fuller elaborated on three main ways Darwin’s book affected popular culture of the day.
First, the book significantly impacted previously steadfast religious feelings in America. As Fuller mentioned, Darwin was not the first to claim that there was a link between non-human organisms (his father wrote a theory on the connection between mussels and man). However, he was the first to use purely physical traits to prove that nature, in its quest to select and allow for only the best traits survive, “is like a human dog breeder;” that is, consistently selecting for and promoting the best characteristics in organisms. Darwin claimed the process of natural selection occurred wholly without God or any other form of divinity.
Second, popular sentiment at the time the book came out was already pretty Darwinistic. 1860 was the brink of the Civil War. The North’s newspapers talked as if the southern way of life simply could not survive, while the South claimed it was the “Yankees” whose way of life was obsolete and infeasible for the future. “On the Origin of Species” helped to divide the nation (already notably divided) even more.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Darwin’s writings challenged the belief held by many at the time that different races were made differently at separate times by God. Many thought that these stages reflected an implicit hierarchy, evidence of their inherent place or role in life. Proponents went on to claim that differences between the races of the world were deep and strictly meant to stay that way. African-Americans were born in a certain place at a certain time, destined for a certain way of life, or so they thought. Same with Caucasians, Asian peoples and Native Americans.
Of course, writing a book as impactful as Darwin’s was not a quick process. It took 25 years from the end of his voyage on the H.M.S. Beagle to make it to publication. But once it hit the states, it spread like wildfire — mainly because, according to Professor Fuller, Darwin didn’t use scientific jargon. “On the Origin of Species” is very readable and is not jam-packed with incomprehensible, confusing words. Give it a try yourself, McFarlin has a copy.
In the end, it was a book that simply changed or challenged the way many thought about life. It angered many, gave others hope and won Darwin praise, criticism and fame alike. When asked during the Q&A session whether or not he thought there would ever be another Darwin who might publish such a paradigm-shift in popular thought, the professor said: “I don’t know. In today’s society, it’s hard to know; however, I do know that if we do have another Darwin, I only hope I’m on the supporting end of his ideas, not the resisting one.”