My WaPo review of a new book on evolution and society

February 10, 2017 • 9:20 am

Here’s a new book by Randall Fuller, a professor of English at the University of Tulsa who has written on American literature and on the Civil War. He’s combined those two topics in his newest book (it came out January 14), whose thesis is that Darwin’s ideas on common ancestry helped fuel the abolitionist movement in the U.S., ultimately contributing to the Civil War.  The book is shown below; click on the screenshot to go to its Amazon site:


I reviewed this book for The Washington Post, and my essay appeared yesterday under the title, “Did Darwin’s theory of evolution encourage abolition of slavery?” I won’t summarize my verdict here, as you can see it at the WaPo site. Just let me note that Darwin’s book did change America, but not in the way Fuller claims.

28 thoughts on “My WaPo review of a new book on evolution and society

  1. My first reaction on seeing the thesis was basically that the timing was off: abolitionist arguments extended far back before Darwin (to his grandfather Josiah Wedgwood, even!). What fascinates me at the moment (as I consider myself an ancient history “buff”) is the view that Heinrich Schliemann’s excavation of Troy and some of the first archaeology was, in essence, a cultural counter-shot to Darwin. Interesting stuff, that old book and the myriad ripples it had!

      1. Right! And I meant to mention that this is basically our host’s first point in the review. While the book certainly had an impact, I’d think it’s much fairer to say it was subsumed in the abolition controversy rather than igniting it.

    1. The abolitionist wave was already well under way, slavery was abolishing in England in 1772 and throughout the British Empire (which of course included the West Indies) in 1833 and in Danish colonies in 1848. So the US was behind the European curve and ahead of South America in Brazil abolition was 1888.

      Darwin came from a strongly abolitionist family and clearly had strong negative views on slavery. However, it would seem that to credit a book published in 1559, two thirds of the way through what was a global wave of abolition, with a significant contribution to the process would be a bit like crediting the cock crow with causing the dawn.

    2. Ah, GMTA. My post below, #7, says similar things. Yes, causing such sweeping social changes in less than a year, without major cultural underpinning, just doesn’t make sense.

  2. I hate to see someone with the same first name doing such a book. Your review was very kind and measured. I have the same question, however, that I had when first seeing the book and title. How could an educated fellow come to such conclusion or is he just attempting to sell books?

    Certainly Darwin has great impact as well it should, but not on slavery, or the civil war or the cause or outcome of that war.

  3. 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.

    This mirrors my thoughts on first reading Fuller’s thesis at the beginning of your post. Yes, the abolitionist movement was already well formed before the publication of Origin of Species. Also, the book first arrived less than a year before South Carolina seceded, setting the stage for the conflagration known as the Civil War. That would be very little time for a sweeping social change, which tend to move rather slowly – particularly one based on an academic treatise that few have read.

    I will admit that Origin of Species may have provided some confirmation of the ideas of the abolitionist movement, but those ideas were already well formed long before Origin was written.

    1. You are quite correct. The real influence of Darwin in America (and other parts of the world) came in the latter decades of the 19th century when the concept of social darwinism (the term itself was popularized by the historian Richard Hofstadter in a 1944 book, although he condemned it)argued that Darwin’s theory also applied to the social interactions of human society. For example, it was used to justify laissez-faire capitalism. in other words, Darwin’s theory was perverted to justify many conservative causes.Echoes of social darwinism can still be heard today.

      1. Darwin gets a bum rap for “social Darwinism.” The “Darwinism” part of that term is metaphor, based on an allegorical correspondence between nature and society.

        Blaming Darwin for the excesses of “social Darwinism” makes as much sense as cursing the hillside after a rainstorm because someone has made a specious “slippery slope” argument.

        1. Of course, as I noted, social Darwinism was a perversion of Darwin’ theory. But, it is curious that conservatives like to use Darwin’s name when it suits their purpose (i.e., to promote social Darwinism) and then to condemn him when they attack actual evolution. They probably hope nobody notices their hypocrisy.

    2. Yes, the abolitionist movement was already well formed before the publication of Origin of Species.

      I was thinking very much along the same lines.
      Wasn’t the “true story” and autobiography which recently became the “12 Years a Slave” film about events that more-or-less coincided with Darwin’s Beagling about and then getting down to some hard-core barnacles. Just as an example that the USian abolitionist movement was well under way by that point in time.

      1. Bloody Kansas, the violence between the pro-slavery faction and the abolitionists over whether Kansas would be a slave state or a free state, started in 1854. It is hard to see how one could claim a book published 6 years later was a driving force for abolition.

    3. I correctly predicted (and agreed with) JAC’s verdict.
      I wonder if the book mentions that Charles and Abe Lincoln were born on the same day- same year.

  4. 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.

    Though, as it happens, the polygenesists found sufficient support in a literal reading of Genesis.

    After all, why does Cain say: “I will be a restless wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds me will kill me”? Who would kill him if Adam, Eve and Cain (and possible siblings?) were the only extant people?

    Why does God say: “Not so; anyone who kills Cain will suffer vengeance seven times over”? Who is he talking about?

    For that matter, who did Cain marry if there were no other people?

    And why does it then say “Cain was then building a city”? A city? How many people does that take? It can’t be just siblings of Cain.

    Thus on a literal reading Genesis only makes sense if there were other “people” in addition to Adam, Eve and their descendants. And since Adam and Eve were created de novo, that only makes sense if there were other people who came from separate creations.

    Which means that on a literal reading Genesis support polygenism.

    1. Either Cain was born after Adam and Eve had had many children, grand-children, or great-grandchildren, or his wife had evolved from apes. 🙂 Take your pick.

    2. Well all those other peeps were obviously created by their own different gods. But the Israelites killed ’em all off, yessirree! Yahweh wins again! He’s Yuuge, I tell ya!


  5. It’s a bit hard for me to understand how a professor of English would take on such a thesis without having discovered some powerful new evidence.

  6. What a stupid premise for a book. To even think that a book published in 1859 (barely a month before 1860!) caused the war to begin just 15 months later in 1861 is ludicrous in the extreme. I wouldn’t have even picked this book up. The whole idea is an insult to intelligence and people interested in history. Maybe Fuller’s advisor was David Barton.

  7. Abolitionist were flooding into Kansas in 1855 to counter the slavery supporters who were also coming in. My second great uncle was murdered 6 December 1855 just outside Lawrence, Kansas by slavers. Anti-slavers have been around in American long before Darwin’s book.

  8. Dear all,

    While it is probably a bad idea to respond to reviews of one’s own book, there is a misconception posited here and in the error-filled Wapo article that I have asserted that Darwin’s book started the Civil War–in fact, I do nothing of the sort. As my introduction states:

    “Today we think of Darwin’s theory of evolution as the spark that ignited the battle between science and religion. But that notion overlooks the way Darwin’s first American readers encountered it. Antislavery activists eagerly embraced the Origin of Species because they believed the book advanced the cause of abolition. By hinting that all humans were biologically related, Darwin’s work seemed to refute once and for all the idea that African-American slaves were a separate, inferior species. In the immediate aftermath of the John Brown affair—which each of the five early American readers of Darwin supported—evolutionary ideas were seen as powerful ammunition in the debate over slavery. Only after they had employed Darwin’s theory of natural selection on behalf of abolitionism did these five thinkers come to discover that it also posed enormous threats to their other beliefs, including their faith in God and their trust that America was a country divinely chosen for the regeneration of the world.”

    My argument is that Darwin’s book dropped into a cultural moment when questions of race and slavery had polarized the nation; his theory contributed to and even intensified a discussion that led to war.

    With all due respect, to make accusations about a book you haven’t read or haven’t read very carefully is reminiscent of the reception Darwin’s own work continues to receive in this country.


    Randall Fuller

    1. Yes, as an author I agree that it’s a bad idea to respond to reviews, and I stand by what I wrote.

      I did in fact read your book, twice, and I think my review (here) was fair in describing it as engrossing but overstated. The book did not “ignite a nation” in the way you said it did: the nation was already ignited and divided on the issue of slavery. By claiming that a few New England intellectual had a major effect on that national discusion, and in fact “intensified a discussion that led to war” is to imply that the book contributed to the war, something that’s stated even more explicitly in the book.

      And seriously, you’re comparing me to a creationist for my “misconceptions” about the book? That’s pretty low, and a kind of ad hominem that I wouldn’t and didn’t use about your book. (This, by the way, is why it’s unwise for you to respond.)

      I never said your book started the Civil War. If you read the review here’s what I said:

      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.

      Read that again. “Contributed” to the Civil War, which is just what you say above and what the book says. It does not say “STARTED the Civil War.” But even that the book contributed to the Civil War is overstated, and there’s not an iota of evidence for that.

      Every author whose book I’ve criticized complains that I misunderstood it. I didn’t. But since you’ve compared me to a creationist (remember, I wrote a trade book dispelling creationism) I have let you have your say but how suggest that you go elsewhere after the explicit insult.

      Your response is a paradigm of why authors should never respond to bad reviews.

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