The Book That Changed America

How Darwin's Theory of Evolution Ignited a Nation

Randall Fuller, MultCo Albina, 576.82 F967 2017

Ignore the marketing overreach. The book is about two shared passions by "progressive" New Englanders; biology/evolution and the abolition of slavery by any means. I doubt that anyone became an abolitionist because they read "On the Origin of Species", so the book did NOT change America. It did enhance the ideological fervor of ardent abolitionists, and was used as a post-justification for divisive "terrorist" acts like John Brown at Harper's Ferry, bringing about the war that ended slavery. Darwin and his book cannot be blamed for that movement or that war. His book has been blamed for a lot, by zealots who disagree with it.


Darwin's book was not about slavery, but Fuller's book is.

Although my own US ancestry was in the antebellum South, some of my ancestors were slaves. Ending slavery AS SOON AS POSSIBLE, BY THE MOST EXPEDITIOUS MEANS, is fundamental - one less month of slavery for 2.3 million slaves is worth killing of tens of thousands of slaveholders. The death of every intransigent slave owner and slavery defender is an acceptable price for the freedom of their hostages. That men of good will would sacrifice their own lives to this end is noble; that politicians would corrupt this to "preserving the Union" is wicked.

If there was a quicker way than war against the South, which would have begun mass emancipation sooner, I'm all for it; perhaps a combination of threat, negotiation, and bribery would have worked more quickly. But I suspect the quickest way to change slave-holder minds was to explode them off southern shoulders. Yes, that is brutal and costly, but also the most sincere way to demonstrate to the world that the United States was reformed. Our meteoric rise to a global power after that terrible war, and the flood of new immigrants attracted by that rise (including my paternal grandparents), vindicates that idea. Nations change as they grow, and only a very few large democracies change for the better.

The biggest cost to US freedom was federalism, and massive growth of the central government at the expense of local community strength. I don't know whether that was a result of the War Against Slavery. Perhaps mechanization would have replaced slavery before, say, 1880. But the continued mistreatment of African Americans for another century (mostly in the South), and its diminishment by federal legislation such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964, suggests that pigheaded racism is tenacious. Mechanization did not prevent slavery in Stalin's Russia.

Federalism did not emerge only from the War Against Slavery; it was rooted in the telegraph, the railroad, mass immigration, and financial concentration. Big corporations use big government to stifle competition; big government uses big corporations to simplify the collection of taxes and regiment workers. They grew together. Had the south won the war, the United States might have transformed into a surveillance state for the efficient 99% recapture of slaves. The tools of slavery would spread nationwide; we would trade Roosevelt for Stalin.


Great battles produce great literature. Sigh. War and Peace by Tolstoy , ''Little Women'' by Louisa Alcott. The Book That Changed America focuses on Concord, Massachusetts, and Thoreau, Emerson, Alcott's father, and others in this revolutionary, literate, Transcendentalist, and Congregationalist town. They were strongly connected to Boston (the nation's intellectual capital) and Harvard, and to other writers like Harriet Beecher Stowe (Uncle Tom's Cabin) in Hartford. Concord was differently connected to New York, the nation's commercial capital and main immigration gateway, which had strong financial connections to the South (slaveholders were in debt to New York bankers).

In 1960s terms, 1860s Concord was the hippie capital of the US, and Emerson was their Maharishi Yogi. They communicated with the world through books rather than vinyl record albums. And like the 1960s hippies, they were strongly influenced by a British "rocker", Charles Darwin, whose "rocks" were fossils, whose world tour was on the Beagle, and whose American promoter was the Harvard botanist Asa Gray.


Darwin's On the Origin of Species had a difficult birth. Darwin's "natural selection" idea was revolutionary, transformative, and fascinating. He would have puttered with it forever, but was driven to complete his monumental book by a prescient paper by Wallace. When a man knows he is to lose scientific priority in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.

The armature of The Book That Changed America is reactions to Origin, with many speculations about who loaned it to whom. I imagine that copies with margin notes by its owners in Concord would be worth millions at a rare book auction; it was the kind of idea-rich book that intellectuals read and re-read repeatedly. Asa Gray was a strong proponent, a friend of Darwin, and also a devout Presbyterian, a deacon at the Congregational First Church in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Name Abuse

Darwin has been used as a sock puppet by third-rate ideologists whom he would vociferously disagree with. Darwin's own research took him from the usual acceptance of white racial superiority to a nuanced appreciation of the capabilities of all human beings. Herbert Spencer's Social Darwinism and Francis Galton's Eugenics emerged in the 1880s, after Darwin's death. I strongly doubt Darwin would approve, especially if he continued to live and learn more about the natural world, and all the people who enrich it. Don't let the bastards attach your name to their lousy ideas; it is a terrible perversion of flattery.

That is why I strongly reject the name "Lofstrom Loop" for the Launch Loop, especially for "improvements" that entirely miss the point. You have my permission to tell anyone using the term "Lofstrom Loop" that they are full of shit, though I prefer that you use gentler and more effective persuasion to dispel their impracticality and improve their vocabulary. I'll give naming rights to anybody who actually pays for and deploys launch loops, for the benefit of all humankind, and the enhancement of the evolved natural world that Darwin loved.

BookChangedAmerica (last edited 2018-10-08 22:28:50 by KeithLofstrom)