Charles Darwin’s American Adventure: A Melodrama in Three Acts

British scientist Charles Darwin.

British scientist Charles Darwin. Darwin's scientific discoveries concerning evolution had an immediate impact on the scientific community. But, their impact on society, politics, and debates about science and religion have had much longer term implications for American society.

Editor's Note

2009 was celebrated around the world as 'The Darwin Year.' It marked the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin's birth and the 150th anniversary of the publication of his landmark On the Origin of Species. While Darwin's theory of natural selection caused considerable controversy at the time, his ideas are now accepted as the foundation of all the modern biological sciences. With the festivities winding down, this month historian Steven Conn looks back on Darwin's history in the United States—the only developed country where Darwin denial is still widespread—to look at the strange career Darwin has had in this country.


In 2009, people all over the world wished Charles Darwin a happy 200th birthday. They did so through symposia and conferences, exhibits and television specials, books and lectures. 781 events of one sort or another in 45 countries according to the International Darwin Day Foundation website.

Born on February 12, 1809, Darwin published his epochal study On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life in 1859 when he was fifty. A double celebration then: a bicentennial birthday and a sesquicentennial anniversary.

If you are reading this in the United States, you can be forgiven if you didn't quite notice the festivities. Certainly there were a number of events across the country marking the Darwin Year, but from my own observations these celebrations tended to be subdued, small-scale, often confined to university campuses, and a number happened late in the year giving them the faint odor of hurried after-thought.

The Smithsonian Institution, the nation's flagship scientific research organization, managed to muster a small, temporary exhibit in the National Museum of Natural History, and that opened only in September, 2009.

To be fair, Americans also had to contend with another 200th birthday in 2009: Abraham Lincoln's. By astonishing coincidence, Darwin and Lincoln arrived on this earth not just in the same year but on the very same day.

Lincoln was much more on the American mind in 2009, with events sponsored by national and state "Lincoln Commissions," and because of the remarkable presidential election of 2008 where Barack Obama repeatedly drew connections between himself and Lincoln. In this cultural context, Darwin occupied the back seat.

Still, the relatively quiet nature of Darwin observance in 2009 in the United States reflected the uneasy career Darwin has had in this country from the moment copies of Origin arrived on these shores. More so than in any other industrialized nation—indeed, more than in many nations—Americans remain in Darwin denial.

In spring 2009 the British Council conducted a poll surveying attitudes about Darwin around the world. To the question, "is there scientific evidence to support Darwin's theory of evolution?" 77% of Indians, 72% of Chinese and 65% of Mexicans answered yes; only 41% of Americans did, which put the United States slightly behind South Africa. In addition, roughly the same number of Americans, 43%, reported that life on Earth was created by God and has always existed in its current form.

Darwin Deniers exist all over the world. So too do scientists who, while enthusiastically and faithfully accepting the foundational ideas of Origin, have reconfigured and updated the theory over the intervening 150 years. Yet, only in the United States have religious objections to a scientific theory been turned into a social and political movement.

On May 3, 2007 during the first debate among the ten candidates vying to be the Republican nominee for president, a reporter asked, "Is there anyone on stage who does not believe in evolution?" Three of the men raised their hands, including a former governor, a sitting US Senator, and a Congressman. A fourth, John McCain, who would go on to represent the GOP, insisted that while he believed in evolution, "I also believe that when I hike the Grand Canyon the hand of God is there also."

It is difficult to imagine another country where mainstream politicians from a major party would respond this way. Indeed, it is hard to imagine another country where the question would even be asked. Of course, the woman McCain later picked to be his running mate wears her Darwin denial like a badge of honor.

So now that the Darwin Year has come to a close, I want to review the difficult reception Darwin has had, and continues to have in the United States. At one level, it is easy to argue that little has changed since religious Americans first got angry at Darwin. But it is also that case that Darwin Denial has transformed significantly over the last century and a half.

Act I: In Which Science is Confused with Social Science

By the time Origin appeared in 1859, the notion of evolution had been floating around for quite some time in scientific circles. In England, Darwin's own grandfather Erasmus saw evidence for evolution, and in the United States Joseph Leidy, the father of American paleontology, was also an evolutionist, to pick just two.

Darwin's contribution to natural science was to provide an explanation for how evolution worked, and he called it "natural selection." Noticing that the population of any species exhibits a certain degree of variation, he proposed that competition over resources and breeding would tend to favor, or not favor, certain of those variations. Over time—and Darwin suspected a great deal of time—new species would emerge out of this process of selection.

Leidy was so dazzled by the theory that he nominated Darwin for membership in Philadelphia's prestigious Academy of Natural Sciences, which became the first American institution to acknowledge Darwin's achievement.

Yet, in 1859, Harvard's Louis Agassiz, the most well known scientist in the United States, and among those with the most prestige, immediately took the role of Darwin's antagonist in this country. (As it happens, the first person to review Origin in the United States was Agassiz's Harvard colleague Asa Grey, a botanist who gave it a strong and positive notice, which must have made for interesting faculty meetings). Like a majority of people at the time, Agassiz remained convinced that the Bible explained creation, and that each species on earth, never mind how many new thousands were being discovered every year, was "a separate thought of the creator."

Agassiz died in 1873 and spent the last years of his life crusading against Darwinism. He was joined as well by some of the leading religious figures of the time. In 1865, the Reverend De Witt Talmage, preaching in Brooklyn's enormous Central Presbyterian Church, denounced Darwin by asking whether those who had died so bravely in the Civil War were somehow less fit than those who survived.

Charles Hodge from his post at the Princeton Theological Seminary had become perhaps the most respected theologian of the day. In his 1874 book, he asked What is Darwinism? and concluded: "It is atheism." In a deeply religious nation, Darwin offended the faithful.

By the turn of the twentieth century, however, a consensus of sorts emerged, or better put perhaps, a truce. Most scientists by that time accepted Darwinism in its broad outlines. The nascent field of genetics located the biological source of inheritance and variability, filling in a major lacuna in Darwin's book. Even those who weren't entirely convinced by the theory of natural selection acknowledged that there was no better way to explain the origin of species.

Likewise, by the turn of the last century most mainstream religious figures conceded the reality of evolution: species clearly did change over time—the explosion of paleontological discoveries in the late 19th century provided compelling evidence for the arrival and disappearance of all kinds of fantastic creatures—and thus evidence that species were not fixed.

Evolution was itself set in motion by the creator, they posited, much the way an earlier generation of theologians had imagined—in the face of Newtonian physics—the heavenly bodies set in motion by a divine hand.

Still, while religious leaders at the turn of the 20th century could accept evolution, most could not accept natural selection as its mechanism. Natural selection operated in chance and random ways, without purpose or design. A world governed by natural selection did not move ever upward and forward, but simply adapted to changing circumstances. And a world without design was dangerously close to a world without a designer. Religious figures could live with Darwin, provided no one asked too many hard questions.

What religious leaders of the late 19th century, especially those associated with the Social Gospel movement, could not abide, however, was the pernicious variant of Darwin's theories: Social Darwinism.

It is worth remembering that the phrase we most associate with Darwinism, "survival of the fittest," was coined by the British philosopher Herbert Spencer. (Darwin, though, did adopt the phrase later himself). And Spencer coined that phrase to capture the essence of the idea known as "Social Darwinism." By applying—or, frankly utterly misapplying—the mechanism Darwin saw at work among finches and pigeons to people and societies, Spencer insisted that natural selection—survival of the fittest—operated in the human and social world as well as in the natural world.

He spun a vast philosophy around this notion, which, among other things, helped to justify the dominance of certain races and classes over others. Invested with the power of scientific Darwinian insight, Spencer also insisted that Social Darwinism was no mere political ideology, but a natural law and an unalterable fact.

Spencer proved hugely popular and influential in Gilded Age America. Indeed, it is probably true that most Americans who claimed they were familiar with Darwin were, in fact, familiar with Spencer's version of him.

Chief among Spencer's American proselytizers was the nation's first professor of sociology William Graham Sumner. From his office at Yale University, Sumner described a society which functioned best when the strong triumphed over the weak, and in which any attempt to ameliorate the suffering of the inferior interfered with society's greater progress. Asking hypothetically if he wanted to kill off "certain classes of troublesome and burdensome persons," Sumner responded, no, but added: "it would have been better for society, and would have involved no pain to them, if they had never been born."

The laissez faire doctrine of American politics in the late 19th century found its intellectual champion in Sumner. That Sumner's sociology served simply as an apology for the Robber Barons, dressed up as "science," did not go unnoticed at the time.

Those who preached the Social Gospel insisted that Christian duty demanded we alleviate human suffering and mitigate the effects of poverty and exploitation. They advocated a muscular Christianity that would leave the quiet of the churches and march in the streets. They railed against Sumner and other Social Darwinists that human society was not—should not be—an uncaring, savage jungle where only the strong survived. Human beings, they argued, could do better than the animals. This, after all, was the message of the Scriptures, according to Social Gospelers. In any Christian society, we really are our brother's keepers. In 1912, for example, Reverend Walter Rauschenbusch called industrial capitalism, the social order Sumner defended, only "semi-christian."

In other words, by the turn of the 20th century, the most vocal and pressing religious objections to Darwin were not to Darwin's scientific theory, but rather to the specious and ham-handed way science had been used to tart up a particular brand of political economy, and thus to justify a world of Dickensian social inequality.

In turn, Darwinism, arguably the greatest scientific revolution of the 19th century, became an unwitting source of our largest intellectual oxymoron: social science.

Act II: In Which That Ol' Time Religion Arrives on the Scene

As a morality play, it could not have been scripted any better.

1925. Dayton, Tennessee, a small Southern town stewing in its own backwardness. John Scopes, a young, courageous high school teacher who took on the forces of reaction. And with a courtroom serving as the OK Corral, two nationally famous gunslingers brought in to fight it out: prosecuting young Scopes was William Jennings Bryan, himself a relic of the nineteenth century, whose own childhood education consisted only of McGuffey Readers and the Bible and that was plenty. Defending Scopes the nation's most famous champion of righteous and unpopular causes, Clarence Darrow.

They called it the Scopes Monkey Trial, and as it proceeded its significance quickly grew beyond the mere facts of the case. It was seen as a struggle between science and religion, between the modern and the traditional, between superstition and reason.

John Scopes was brought to trial in the summer of 1925 for violating Tennessee's Butler Act, which made it a crime to, "teach any theory that denies the story of Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible, and teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals." "Save our children for God!" cried one state senator in support of the bill when it was debated.

Scopes in fact was only a substitute science teacher and wasn't exactly sure himself whether he had discussed evolution in his class, though the ACLU pointed out that the state-approved science textbook in Tennessee did, and thus all science teachers in the state were, in effect, being forced to break the law. No matter, Scopes was found guilty after a 7-day trial.

Our view of the Scopes trial is usually filtered through the lens of Jerome Lawrence's and Robert Edwin Lee's play, Inherit the Wind, which premiered in 1955, thirty years after the trial itself. The playwrights weren't interested in a strictly accurate account of the events in Dayton. Rather, much like Arthur Miller did in The Crucible, they used a dark and embarrassing episode in American history to critique the era of McCarthyism. The play ran on Broadway for two years and has been made into a movie at least four times.

So, despite Scopes's conviction in court, many Americans have seen the Scopes trial as a defeat for Christian fundamentalism and the anti-rational forces of Darwin Deniers.

The play made it easy to laugh at the true-believing hicks. After all, Bryan and all he represented looks increasingly foolish as he sputters and fumes against science, defending the faith to the cheering faithful packed in the courtroom—or at least he does in the movie version with Spencer Tracy. Scopes may have lost the battle, so the lesson of the morality play would have it, but Darwin won the war.

But perhaps we have drawn the wrong conclusions about the real and symbolic importance of that 1925 trial. Fundamentalists themselves did not slink off the stage, tail between their collective legs, after the trial. Emboldened by what they saw as a clear victory in Dayton, they pushed for similar laws in other states.

By 1927, 13 states, and not all of them in the South, were considering bills modeled on the Butler Act; Mississippi and Arkansas passed such laws. They joined South Carolina, Oklahoma, and Kentucky, which already had some form of Darwin ban on their books.

Further, and most importantly, the conviction of John Scopes, upheld a year later by the Tennessee Supreme Court, affirmed the most insidious part of the Butler Act in the first place: that the ideas of science can be legislated by politicians. That principle, that the biases and bigotries of elected officials can define what science is or isn't in school curriculum, has been at the root of every Darwin controversy since 1925.

The problem with that, of course, is that science is not democratic. We don't get to vote on gravity, or quantum mechanics, or the location of earthquake fault-zones, and not even as august a body as the Tennessee legislature can change the principles of basic biology.

Act III: In Which That Ol' Time Religion Concedes Defeat (Without Quite Realizing It)

If Inherit the Wind was written as a protest against one form of cold war hysteria, then in a delicious irony, Darwin came back in American education because of another form of it.

After the Soviet Union launched the Sputnik satellite, and thus took the lead in the "space race," Washington policy makers decided to get serious about American science education. As part of science's return, state restrictions on teaching Darwin were struck down. Even Tennessee got around to repealing the Butler Act, though not until 1967. This was the context in which most people saw Inherit the Wind as a victory.

Fundamentalist Christianity, and the anti-intellectualism that goes with it, did not disappear from American life, but it is probably fair to say that its influence on public policy waned during the mid-century.

It re-emerged with a vengeance with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. As far as I know, Reagan took no public position on Darwin, but he certainly invited a number of Darwin Deniers into the White House. The Darwin wars were back on.

In the 1980s, at one level, we lived the 1920s all over again. There were economic policies that created the largest gap between the rich and the middle class since the 1920s; and the re-emergence of the businessman as a heroic figure. Reagan even brought back the official White House portrait of Calvin Coolidge, which had been banished to the basement since the Great Depression.

So too with the Darwin wars, which were fought on the state level sometimes, but even more often at the level of local school boards. Those battles culminated in Kansas and in Ohio, whose state boards of education debated whether to include creationism in state science curricula. But nowhere was the fight more spectacular than in the little town of Dover, Pennsylvania, which became the modern substitute for Dayton, Tennessee during a well-publicized trial in 2005.

And like in the 1920s Darwin was both the specific issue and a proxy for conservatives to howl at any number of other issues. Recently, Oklahoma-based fundamentalist G. Thomas Sharp blamed Darwin for "the overthrow of America's Hebrew-Christian culture," an apocalypse he dated, quite specifically if somewhat bafflingly, to 1962-63.

The nouveau creationists of the recent past didn't simply reprise the terms of earlier debates, however. They demonstrated their own—dare I say it?!—evolution. The first concession that the new generation of creationists made was that they no longer tried to outlaw Darwinian science altogether. Rather, they wanted to force the teaching of creationism alongside the teaching of Darwinian evolution in the science curriculum.

That seems reasonable enough and it appeals to the American sense of fair play and democratic debate. There are always two sides to every issue, right? And why not teach both and let students decide. Certainly President George W. Bush thought so. As he told a reporter when asked about the issue: "both sides ought to be properly taught so people can understand what the debate is about."

By this logic, astrology ought to be taught as the counterpart of astronomy, and likewise if we teach that the earth rotates the sun, we ought to teach it the other way round too. But as in these cases, so too is there no debate between creationism and Darwin among scientists. There are not two sides to this issue, scientifically speaking. The only debates here are political ones.

Yet this insistence that there is a real scientific debate over the basic principles of Darwinism reveals just how much ground the neo-creationists have yielded since Darwin was put on trial in 1925.

In the first 75 years after Origin was published, religion stood against science—or perhaps alongside it—as a different but equally powerful way of understanding the world and of making meaning out of it.

Now, in contrast, creationists insist that the Bible be understood as science, and they want to support their literal interpretations of Genesis with real, "scientific" evidence. Never mind that the results of this "research" are patently absurd, Darwin Deniers want to be taken seriously as scientists too. Why else, after all, would Darwin Deniers build a Creation Museum on the model of a traditional natural history museum, complete with dioramas depicting human beings cavorting with dinosaurs, thus "proving" that the biblical version of creation must be true?

Indeed, the creationism of the 1920s changed its name to "creation science" in the 1960s and 1970s, which in turn was replaced by the more recent and scientific-sounding "intelligent design." Both of these, of course, were simply the same old religious claims dressed up in different language.

This was the central issue in the Dover, Pennsylvania court case. There, a group of parents sued the local school board after that board insisted that creationism be taught in the science classroom. The parents argued that "intelligent design" was simply another version of religious creationism and thus violated the separation of church and state.

Judge John Jones, who presided over the case, issued a devastating ruling against the creationists, and in his opinion made it unarguably clear that "intelligent design" was nothing more than a religious point of view masquerading as science.

The important thing to notice is that creation science and intelligent design were dressed up in the language of science. In this sense, the creationists acknowledge that at the turn of the millennium calling anything "scientific" confers the greatest truth-value on it. It gives legitimacy to any claim in a way nothing else can. In the end, one might argue, it is a pretty anemic faith indeed that needs to justify itself scientifically.

There are two final ironies about Darwin denialism over the last two decades. First, unlike their predecessors in the late 19th century, the religious figures who have denounced Darwin in the recent past have been perfectly comfortable with the revival of Social Darwinism that the nation has also witnessed since the 1980s. Indeed, many were vocal advocates for it.

Over and over again, Christian fundamentalists sided, Social-Darwinist style, with the powerful over the oppressed. In the mid-1980s, for example, Jerry Falwell, Reagan's favorite preacher, encouraged his congregation to buy Krugerrands to bolster the apartheid regime in South Africa against the black majority. Poverty ceased to be a moral issue for American fundamentalists as Reaganite economic policies plunged more and more Americans into it. God wants you to be rich, many fundamentalists trumpeted, suggesting that if you were poor God must not be very happy with you.

For these new Social Darwinists, God doesn't approve of Darwin but apparently he does approve of Donald Trump. Small wonder that George W. Bush, the born-again Darwin Denier, enjoyed so much support among fundamentalists; or that they cheered his economic policies that made the rich richer at the expense of the middle class and poor. The socially expansive vision of the Social Gospel that we are all our brother's keepers has been replaced by the narcissistic Promise Keepers.

Likewise, those who rejected Darwin in earlier generations saw themselves as fighting a rising tide of modernity—developments like urbanism, immigration, the emergence of feminism, and more beside—that made them profoundly uneasy. Many did not like any of the ways in which the world was changing. By contrast, today's Darwin Deniers want to enjoy all the benefits of the modern world—medical breakthroughs, the internet—without acknowledging the role science has played in creating those things.

Recently, I stood in line with 2500 of my closest friends to get an H1N1 vaccination. Statistically, about half those waiting with me were Darwin Deniers of one stripe or another (in fact, in this rural Ohio county probably more than that). But there they all were eagerly awaiting an inoculation whose very invention was built upon a biological foundation laid by Darwin. There may or may not be any atheists in a foxhole, but no one wants a faith healer treating them for influenza. Not even Darwin Deniers.

In this sense, the current generation of Darwin Deniers isn't anti-modern, as their predecessors were, but decidedly post-modern. Perfectly happy to enjoy all the fruits of modern science, they also have imbibed a post-modernist point of view that all claims to truth are political claims and each has equivalent authority. In this view, scientific "evidence" is treated as so much propaganda if it disputes dearly held belief, and facts are simply dismissible if they are inconvenient.

Among the very few academics who would testify on behalf of "intelligent design" in Dover, PA, was Steven Fuller, a professor at the University of Warwick in England. Fuller is not, nor has he ever been a practicing scientist. Rather, he is a sociologist of science, a vantage so lofty it gives him a much better understanding of how scientists work than the scientists themselves, or so he claimed.

And from that vantage he testified that what we call "science" is merely a set of power relations enforced by a set of "elites" in order to keep opposing ideas outside the boundaries of debate. Sure, he went on, science should include investigations of the supernatural (however that might be done) and that creationism was just as much as science as Darwinian biology. Once again we witnessed the perils of confusing "social science" with actual science.


In a lecture he delivered in 1886, Joseph Leidy reminded his listeners that major scientific advances have always met with conservative reaction. When Newton "announced that law of gravitation, people objected to it, for they regarded it as a denial of God's control of the movements of the universe." More recently, "when Franklin suggested the use of the lightning-rod, it was denounced as an impious attempt to deprive the Deity of his thunderbolts." And so it has been with Darwin.

In 1992, the Catholic Church got around to apologizing officially for charging Galileo with heresy, thus acknowledging officially the heliocentric solar system. It only took 360 years. Eventually, most Americans too will come to terms with Darwin even if some percentage never does. Most Americans, after all, have in fact put lightning rods on their houses, despite Franklin's impiety.

Which is not to say that Darwin Deniers haven't created tremendous mischief for American education—mischief that was foreshadowed in the decision written by the Tennessee Supreme Court in the Scopes case. The justices wrote that while the Butler Act banned teaching Darwin, it did not mandate teaching creationism or anything else.

While public schools today do not teach creationism in the science classroom, many teachers have chosen to skip the subject entirely as a way of avoiding controversy and hassle. In surveys I do with my students, very few were taught creationism in biology class; just as few learned about evolution and natural selection. A wide majority report not learning anything at all.

The legacy, therefore, of creationism is not to have defended fundamentalist Christianity against the corrosive effects of science, but to have struck a blow for ignorance over learning.

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Suggested Reading

Darwin intended his great work to be accessible to the general public, and indeed On the Origin of Species remains an interesting read. Anyone interested in Darwin should start with that.

Cynthia Russett's book, Darwin in America, is a scholarly consideration of how American intellectuals responded to Darwin in the late 19th century.

Jonathan Weiner's book The Beak of the Finch is a marvelous weaving together of history and current research being done on the Galapagos Islands. He charts with page-turning excitement Darwinian evolution in action.

Most recently Richard Dawkin's book The Greatest Show on Earth is a magisterial consideration of all the evidence we have now accumulated to prove Darwin's theory of natural selection.