Evolutionary Wars: How Darwin’s Masterwork Shook Up America

Eric Foner in the New York Times:

51YINKT+d0L._SY346_The first book by Richard Hofstadter, the leading historian of his generation (and, decades ago, my Ph.D. supervisor), was “Social Darwinism in American Thought,” a study of the impact on American intellectual life of the scientific writings of Charles Darwin. Hofstadter related how businessmen, free marketeers and opponents of efforts to uplift the poor seized upon Darwin’s seminal work, “On the Origin of Species,” to justify social inequality during the Gilded Age. They invoked Darwinian ideas such as “natural selection,” “survival of the fittest” and “the struggle for existence” to assert the innate superiority of the era’s 1 percent and to define people at the bottom of the social order as innately ill equipped to succeed in the competitive race of life.

“Social Darwinism” has remained a byword for racism and a dog-eat-dog vision of society. But as Randall Fuller shows in “The Book That Changed America,” this was not the only way Darwinian precepts were assimilated into American life and thought. Fuller, who teaches English at the University of Tulsa, is the author of a prizewinning study of the Civil War’s impact on American literature. His account of how Americans responded to the publication of Darwin’s great work in 1859 is organized as a series of lively and informative set pieces — dinners, conversations, lectures — with reactions to “On the Origin of Species” usually (but not always) at the center.

Fuller focuses on a group of New England writers, scientists and social reformers. He begins with a dinner party on New Year’s Day, 1860, at the home of Franklin B. Sanborn, a schoolmaster in Concord, Mass. The guest of honor was Charles Loring Brace, a graduate of Yale and founder of the Children’s Aid Society, which worked to assist the thousands of orphaned, abandoned and runaway children who populated the streets of New York City.

More here.