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Darwinism Comes to America

When the first copies of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species reached American ports late in 1859, nearly all Americans, including most naturalists, believed that the various species of plants and animals owed their origin to divine intervention. Darwin, in contrast, argued that species had originated without supernatural assistance by means of natural selection and other biological mechanisms. According to natural selection, evolution occurred when organisms possessing certain advantageous characteristics survived in the struggle for scarce resources and passed their distinctive features on to their descendants. Eager for a scientific (that is, natural) explanation of origins and impressed by the cogency of Darwin’s argument, the majority of America’s leading zoologists, botanists, geologists, and anthropologists within fifteen years or so embraced some kind of evolution, though few attached as much weight to natural selection as Darwin did. Even Darwin’s closest ally in North America, the Harvard botanist Asa Gray, who described himself as "one who is scientifically, and in his own fashion, a Darwinian," disagreed with Darwin on several key points. He not questioned the ability of natural selection "to account for the formation of organs, the making of eyes, &c.," but appealed to a "special origination" in explaining the appearance of the first humans. He also urged Darwin, without success, to attribute to divine providence the inexplicable organic variations on which natural selection worked.

While naturalists debated the merits of evolution and the efficacy of natural selection, religious leaders typically sat on the sidelines, many of them doubting that the evolution would ever be accepted as serious science. By the mid-1870s, however, American naturalists were becoming evolutionists in such large numbers that theologians could scarcely continue to ignore the issue. Some liberal Protestants, such as James McCosh, the president of Princeton University, sought ways to harmonize their doctrinal beliefs and their understanding of the Bible with evolution, often viewing evolution as simply God’s method of creation. Most theologians and clergy, however, rejected evolution, especially of humans, or remained silent on the subject. In 1874 Princeton Theological Seminary’s Charles Hodge, arguably the most influential theologian in mid-century America, published a thoughtful little book called What Is Darwinism? The answer: "Darwinism is atheism," because it denies divine design in nature. More frequently, theological critics focused on the ways in which evolution undermined various biblical doctrines and ethical teachings, especially by teaching that humans had been made in the image of apes, not God. Particularly offensive was Darwin’s assertion in The Descent of Man (1871) that "Man is descended from a hairy quadruped, furnished with a tail and pointed ears." Such a pedigree, complained one outraged Christian, "tears the crown from our heads; it treats us as bastards and not sons, and reveals the degrading fact that man in his best estate—even Mr. Darwin—is but a civilized, dressed up, educated monkey, who has lost his tail."Ronald L. Numbers, Darwinism Comes to America (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998), Chapter 1, "Darwinism and the Dogma of Separate Creations: The Responses of American Naturalists to Evolution."...

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