December 5, 2016


Selective Memory : a review of The Book That Changed America: How Darwin's Theory of Evolution Ignited a Nation by Randall Fuller  (Christoph Irmscher, DECEMBER 5, 2016, American Scholar)

Maybe, given the right circumstances and the right people, Darwin's Origin of Species really could have changed America. But it didn't. Gray, for all his support of natural selection, couldn't ultimately let go of a benign creator; Emerson never distanced himself from Agassiz's horrifying theories of racial mixing; and Thoreau, perhaps the only character in Fuller's book who was fully Darwin's intellectual peer, did not have enough time left to apply what he had learned from Darwin to his research on the distribution of seeds in the forest. On a larger scale, the benefits slaves gained from emancipation yielded only too quickly to what the African-American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar called the "sly convenient hell" of Jim Crow.

About halfway through his book, Fuller mentions a short review of Origin of Species published in Dial, signed by someone who mysteriously gave only his initials, M. B. B. After offering some halfhearted praise, M. B. B. stated his aversion to Darwin's materialism and quoted Thoreau to bolster his argument that accepting natural selection would destroy any appreciation of nature's beauty and especially of the human form, which, as everyone knew, was made in God's image. Darwin's theory would, M. B. B. said, give us a world populated by Calibans. But who was M. B. B.? A Thoreau-loving creationist? Fuller doesn't tell us. In fact, he was Myron Beecher Benton, a poet and farmer from the Webutuck Valley, New York, a close friend of naturalist John Burroughs and an avid correspondent with the transcendentalists, a man not given, in the words of a friend, to "worrying about the universe." As it turns out, Emerson was a great fan of Benton's work and had memorized large sections of his poem "Orchis," a fond celebration of how everything in the forest, even the shyest orchid, has been put there for us to find: "Rarest, dream-odored, delicate flowers, sisterhood fairest-- / Found by thy prescient search, as gold by the pale treasure-seeker!"

A century and a half later, we are still much closer to Benton of Webutuck Valley than to Thoreau of Walden Pond. 

We convicted Scopes and still only about 14% of Americans believe in Darwinism. We're Americans; we don't do intellectualisms.

Posted by at December 5, 2016 6:11 PM