Darwin in America

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Darwin in America


On the Origin of Species. In 1859 the British scientist Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or, The Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life, which argued that species of plants and animals, including human beings, were not changeless but evolved from other forms. Evolution occurred through survival of the fittest, in which individual organisms that were better adapted to their environment were more likely to survive long enough to reproduce and, therefore, pass on their characteristics, while less-well-adapted ones would not. While the idea of evolution was not entirely new to the scientific community, Darwins hypothesis generated immediate controversy in Europe and the United States. The first printing of the book in Great Britain, consisting of 1,250 copies, sold out in one day; when the first American edition was published in 1860, its sales were also rapid and steady.

Impact of Darwinism in the United States. For many Americans the theory of evolution seemed to contradict biblical accounts of the creation of the world, and some religious leaders denounced Darwins ideas as heretical. Gradually many religious men and women came to accept evolution as part of Gods plan, although some steadfastly rejected such a position. Opposition to Darwinism did not come solely from a religious perspective, however. Darwins hypothesis also provoked critical debate among American scientists.

Scientific Support for the Theory of Evolution. Darwin maintained contact with leading American scientists. He had written to his American friend Asa Gray about his theory of evolution in 1856 and 1857 but had asked Gray to keep quiet about it. After On the Origin of Species was published, Gray became one of the foremost defenders of Darwinism. Gray did not fully agree with all of Darwins ideas; unlike Darwin, for example, he believed that evolution could be reconciled with religious belief. But Gray fully supported Darwins overall hypothesis. He also championed Darwinism on the basis of freedom of scientific thought and inquiry. Joseph Henry, director of the Smithsonian Institution, promoted Darwinism as a working hypothesis and called for further research by botanists and zoologists to confirm or refute it.

Scientific Opposition to Darwinism. Not all American scientists accepted or supported Darwins theory. The geologists Edward Hitchcock and Matthew Maury publicly condemned On the Origin of Species, arguing that true science confirmed the biblical account of creation. The most adamant American critic of Darwinism was the Swiss-born naturalist Louis Agassiz, who believed that God had created different species at different times and places, that some species had been destroyed by natural disasters, and that God had created new and improved species in their places. Agassiz had made these claims in the first volume of his Contributions to the Natural History of the United States in 1857.

Pre-1860 Debates. Agassizs ideas drew criticism even before the publication of Darwins work. Asa Grays studies of plant specimens led him to question the idea that God abruptly created new species; instead, he believed, species evolved from one another. In 1857 Gray challenged Agassizs ideas in a series of debates before the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in Boston.

Scientific Debates over Darwins Theory. In the fall of 1859 Darwin sent copies of his just-published On the Origin of Species to Gray, Agassiz, and the geologist James Dana. Just at that time Dana became ill, so he did not engage in the ensuing debate over Darwins hypothesis; had he done so, he would probably have opposed the theory. With Dana out of the picture, Agassiz was the leading scientific figure to attack Darwinism. In 1860 he and the geologist William Barton Rogers engaged in a series of four debates at the Boston Society of Natural History. Agassiz faced Gray again in debates at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences; in these debates Agassiz refused to accept any aspect of Darwins theory. He pointed to animals that had not changed significantly over a long period of time, as well as to fossils that were as diversified as modern forms of life. Rogers and Gray offered evidence of evolutionary change in species, but Agassiz was unwilling to make any concessions. His dogmatic approach did not make a favorable impression on the scientific community, since he had no real evidence to back up his argument. After the debates Agassiz mostly limited his attacks on Darwins theory to popular journals and lectures, while Gray contributed detailed explanations of Darwinism to scholarly journals.

1860s and 1870s. The debates and publications of 1859 and 1860 showed the growing sophistication and professionalization of American science. The scientific debate over Darwinism subsided during the Civil War; after the war the American scientific community became increasingly supportive of the theory of evolution. Paleontologists discovered fossils that helped to fill in missing evolutionary links; for example, Othniel Charles Marsh found extinct birds that seemed to show a connection between birds and reptiles. By 1877 scientific support for Darwinism was so solid that Marsh opened his vice-presidential address to the American Association for the Advancement of Science by declaring: To doubt evolution to-day is to doubt science, and science is only another name for truth.


Charles Darwins On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or, The Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life, published in 1859, generated fierce debate within the American scientific community. The botanist Asa Gray emerged as the most vocal defender of Darwins theory of evolution. In 1860 he published a review of Darwins book in the American Journal of Science and Arts in which he compared Darwins ideas to those of the Swiss-born American scientist Louis Agassiz, who ardently disagreed with Darwins theory:

Between the doctrines of this volume and those of the other great naturalist whose name adorns the title-page of this journal [Mr. Agassiz], the widest divergence appears. It is interesting to contrast the two, and, indeed, is necessary to our purpose; for this contrast brings out most prominently, and sets in strongest light and shade, the main features of the theory of the origination of species by means of Natural Selection. . . .

[The view] of Agassiz differs fundamentally from the ordinary view only in this, that it discards the idea of a common descent as the real bond of union among the individuals of a species, and also the idea of a local origin supposing, instead, that each species originated simultaneously, generally speaking, over the whole geographical area it now occupies or has occupied, and in perhaps as many individuals as it numbered at any subsequent period.

Mr. Darwin, on the other hand, holds the orthodox view of the descent of all the individuals of a species not only from a local birthplace, but from a single ancestor or pair; and that each species has extended and established itself, through natural agencies, wherever it could; so that the actual geographical distribution of any species is by no means a primordial arrangement, but a natural result. He goes farther, and this volume is a protracted argument intended to prove that the species we recognize have not been independently created, as such, but have descended, like varieties, from other species. Varieties, on this view, are incipient or possible species: species are varieties of a larger growth and a wider and earlier divergence from the parent stock; the difference is one of degree, not of kind.

Source: Asa Gray, Darwinia: Essays and Reviews Pertaining to Darwinism (New York: Appleton, 1876).


Robert V. Bruce, The Launching of Modern American Science, 1846-1876 (New York: Knopf, 1987);

Edward Lurie, Louis Agassiz: A Life in Science (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1960);

Cynthia Eagle Russett, Darwin in America: The Intellectual Response, 1865-1912 (San Francisco: Freeman, 1976).

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