Sunday, February 19, 2017

Darwin and Concord and Cambridge

In the recent book by Fuller, The Book That Changed America: How Darwin's Theory of Evolution Ignited a Nation, the author claims to present how the introduction of Darwin's work transformed the United States. I would beg to differ. Perhaps a better title would have been, "The Book that Changed Concord and Cambridge" because it clearly focused on the group from Concord along with a smattering from Cambridge.

The author starts out with the recognition of Boast as the "Hub" at this period as compared to New York, albeit bigger, yet a more raucous version of an American city. Boston reached back to European intellectual elitism whereas New York was starting to become an eclectic American melting pot. Boston sought comfort in lineage, whereas New York had quickly abandoned its Dutch heritage, predating the Pilgrims, and was decade by decade introducing one culture after another, with the conflicts, but working towards an amalgam.

Concord was at this time literally a train ride, at that time, from Boston, Cambridge a collection of people, high and lower class, factories and Harvard. Harvard was founded as many Bostonian may recall as a place to send the graduates from Boston Latin School, the educational establishment for the local "well-off". Back in Concord were fields for modest farms as well as a small collection of educated folks who founded such places as Concord Academy, aside the Concord River and just on the outskirts of then the center of Concord. Along the adjoin streets were gracious homes of those who constituted the general Concord society.

Along comes Darwin into this Transcendental soup of Thoreau, Alcott, Emerson and others and in a strange way the fact based scientific observations of Darwin and his line of reasoning leading to evolution gets absorbed by this group who have to then eschewed this very approach to understanding. Thus sayeth the author.

At first the author introduces Gray and Agassiz.  Gray the botanist, and Agassiz the broadly based naturalist. Gray comes across as the mild manner scientists who sees in Darwin a way to explain many of the observations concerning nature he has made in plants. Gray is subdued, and academic. Then there is Agassiz, the Swiss naturalist, with an ebullient personality, who sees in Darwin the conflicts with his fundamental religious beliefs. Gray sees the facts and is willing to follow them, Agassiz sees the conflicts and fights them. Thus is the theme of the first part of the book.

The second part moves to Concord and the collection of Transcendentalists. This virtually self-contained community of mid-nineteenth century thinkers see Darwin as a window onto their world. What would have been seen as a putative conflict is seen for example in Thoreau's eyes as an explanation for the natural harmony of his world of nature. It explains why a small pine tree has managed to survive and prosper far from its source, and how the squirrels take part in the dissemination of species who survive and the fact that one sees robins and not parakeets in the Spring and pine trees and not palm trees in the forests. At least that is what we are led to understand.

Somehow we get John Brown and his assault on Harper's Ferry in the mix. One nexus is that Brown's two daughters end up at the Alcott's and attend Concord Academy. This perhaps is the mixing of the abolitionist with the evolutionist. One can see these individuals seeing in evolution, man from a common ancestor, being the key element in their strong abolitionist views. Namely the issue that all humans are from the same stock and thus have the same rights. Not quite an acceptance of fundamental individualism, the belief that all individuals have individual rights equally, but a step in that direction.
Now as to some specific observations:

p. 74 the comment on Thoreau adopting methods of science without a scientific theory is an excellent observation. Thoreau was an excellent observer of facts, but his core beliefs were more Transcendental than scientific.

p 85 is an excellent introduction to Agassiz and his grandiosity. One can even today on Oxford Street see this collection of the naturalist age. This museum was to Agassiz what the American Museum of Natural History and stuffed mammals was to Teddy Roosevelt. Namely an expression of what they felt Nature was.

p 88 is a concise description of the view of Agassiz and his dispute with the monogenesis view of a single human ancestor. Agassiz was of the view that the "races" came from differing ancestors and as such were different species.

pp. 108-109 This is a good discussion of Gray and his negation of the Transcendental view. What is especially insightful is understanding that induction was a key element of science. One collected facts and then using a scientific method, Baconian in nature, assembled the facts and from them induced a conclusion. That in essence was the heart of Darwin.

p. 111 This is a set of comments from Agassiz. Here he states there can be no connection between an arctic whale and a tropical tiger. This is done without basis. Had Agassiz understood DNA, a Century in the coming, then the evidence would be there. This is a classic example of those who prognosticate conclusions without the slightest evidence in facts. Induction is always subject to some missteps, but ex cathedra statements are often subject to near immediate disproof.

p. 141 This is an attempt to connect Darwin and Thoreau in his Walden. It is not clear how accurate this may be. Thoreau as a believer in nature qua nature had to see Nature as a temporal dynamic combative process. Some elements of this may be culled from Walden but I suspect it may require a deeper digging to fully justify.

p. 151 Here he states that Alcott invented Darwin's evolutionary ideas. But this theory had creatures descending from man rather than man from species. Perhaps this may have been stated differently.

p.247. The author states Thoreau died from influenza gotten from Alcott. It appears that the generally accepted cause was TB from which Thoreau had suffered for almost a decade. Perhaps a fact checking would work here.

In summary, other than the title and some comments above, the book is well written and well-structured for its purpose. It is not a discussion of Darwin. Somehow one should come to the book with a good understanding of Darwin circa 1860. That is missing. It is not a discussion of Darwin in America, at best as noted just in Concord and Cambridge. Transcendentalism was not a universally accepted view of the world at the time, in fact it was viewed by many as idiosyncratic to that small portion of the Commonwealth.