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Did God Die in 1859?

Did Charles Darwin kill God? That’s how some describe the impact of Darwin’s landmark 1859 book, “On the Origin of Species.” Without directly challenging the Bible, Darwin undermined its premises by demonstrating the extreme age of the Earth (negating the Genesis story) and by attributing the evolution of all living things to physical processes. Darwin’s materialist view stood counter to the widely accepted argument from design, which posits a Divine Architect behind nature.

God is not needed in Darwin’s scheme. Nature, governed by competition and chance, is the scene of a never-ending struggle for survival between species. The survivors are the ones who, helped by luck, prove the smartest, the strongest, the fleetest. Applied to society, Darwinism has sometimes been used to justify a winner-take-all mentality that fosters social hierarchies and inequities of wealth. Darwinism has also fed into eugenics, whereby allegedly inferior races lose out to—or are killed by—superior ones.

Such long-term effects of Darwinism are not of central concern in Randall Fuller’s “The Book That Changed America,” though they are occasionally part of the discussion. And, despite his sweeping title, Mr. Fuller doesn’t discuss Darwin’s influence on the nation as a whole. Instead he provides a stimulating chronicle of a group of New England thinkers who responded to the “Origin of Species” in the years immediately following the book’s first appearance. He shows how Darwin’s theory of natural selection prompted different reactions—enthusiasm, shock, dismissal, qualified acceptance—among some of the finest minds of mid-19th-century America.

These thinkers included the scientists Asa Gray and Louis Agassiz, the child welfare reformer Charles Loring Brace, the philosopher Bronson Alcott, the abolitionists Franklin Sanborn and James Redpath, and the writer and nature-philosopher Henry David Thoreau. Darwin sent a copy of “Origin” to Gray, who shared the book with friends and wrote about it prominently. At first thrilled by Darwin’s logical explication of evolution, Gray, a Presbyterian, soon felt what Mr. Fuller calls “a surge of dizzying, sickening doubt” as Darwin’s portrait of “endless struggle” and “blundering, haphazard chance” collided with his religious faith. Recoiling from the atheistic implications of Darwin’s theory, Gray forged a compromise position that explained natural selection as God’s way of structuring the world.

Initial acceptance of Darwin followed by qualified doubts was also the response of Charles Loring Brace, who claimed to have read the “Origin of Species” 13 times. For Brace, Darwin not only explained evolution but also refuted polygenism, the ethnographic pseudoscience that viewed each human race as a separate species, created independently. Polygenism was popular among defenders of slavery, who held that Caucasians protected and cared for an allegedly inferior species, Africans, by enslaving them. Brace recognized that Darwin invalidated polygenism—and slavery—by demonstrating the unity of human origins.

Brace also recognized, however, that Darwin could be manipulated to promote new kinds of prejudice, as blacks could be misrepresented as being unequipped to compete with whites in America—an outlook that, indeed, later undergirded legalized segregation. Despite this prophetic insight, Brace himself, like many other white abolitionists, could not overcome his own racism. Mr. Fuller informs us that, while Brace’s abolitionism was bolstered by Darwin’s notion of racial unity, Brace did not envisage a place for blacks in America.

This combination of abolitionism and racism comes through as well in Mr. Fuller’s discussion of the antislavery radical James Redpath. Darwin’s description of violent conflict in nature jibed with radicals’ support of the antislavery warrior John Brown, who took up arms against the South before the Civil War. Although devoted to Brown and the slave’s cause, Redpath, like Brace, did not think that black people could be integrated into American society. He advocated the deportation of blacks to the West Indies. The program of shipping African-Americans abroad was commonplace among politicians, from Jefferson and Monroe through Henry Clay and Lincoln. It is extraordinary that a militantly progressive reformer like Redpath espoused it as well.

Two other figures that Mr. Fuller treats, Bronson Alcott and Louis Agassiz, did more than recoil from Darwin; they renounced him. If humans for Darwin were advanced animals that had developed from primitive forms of life, for Alcott they were ideal models from which other creatures descended along the chain of being. Agassiz, for his part, was the era’s chief proponent of “special creation,” according to which every plant and animal was formed individually by God and placed in its proper sphere, a view obviously at odds with Darwin’s. Agassiz also believed that there was a divinely ordained hierarchy among humans—he insisted, for instance, that the average black adult had the brain of a 7-month white fetus.

Did any American of that era get Darwin right? Mr. Fuller argues persuasively that Thoreau came closer than anyone else. Natural selection, randomness, eternal conflict between species—Thoreau accepted these ideas from the “Origin of Species,” passages of which he copied in his notebooks. Though he never abandoned Transcendentalism—that is, a belief in the spiritual significance of the physical world—Thoreau in his late essays emphasized the physical processes of nature, like Darwin.

Mr. Fuller might have fulfilled the promise of his ambitious title had he followed Darwinism forward into the age of robber barons, Jim Crow, the Scopes trial and beyond. But he can be commended for illuminating Darwin’s early effect on America in ways that lead us to think about later repercussions, including today’s debates over creationism and science-denial. The struggles between species limned in “On the Origin of Species” are mirrored by continuing battles over the earth-shattering theories that Darwin introduced.