Sunday, August 19, 2007

Darwinism Comes to America

Title: Darwinism Comes to America (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998)

Author: Ronald Numbers, of the history of medicine and bioethics department at UW-Madison. Numbers has written many books about religion and science in America (and has been the president of both the American Society of Church History and the History of Science Society). His books include Prophetess of Health: A Study of Ellen G. White (1976); Medicine Without Doctors: Home Health Care in American History (1977); Almost Persuaded: American Physicians and Compulsory Health Insurance, 1912-1920 (1978) (that's an interesting one - I wonder how/if Spencerian ideas of "survival of the fittest" worked there); The Creationists (1992); Disseminating Darwinism: The Role of Place, Race, Religion, and Gender (1999); and most recently, When Science and Christianity Meet (2003). His site says he's working on a bio of John Harvey Kellogg, among other things.

My review: This book consists of a series of essays, many derived from conference presentations or articles, some co-authored. Numbers begins the book with an introduction of the terms, describing the evolution (sorry) of "Darwinism, creationism, and intelligent design" as concepts. Here he tries to restore some of the nuance to the spectrum of beliefs about evolution: some creationists believe(d) in the long-day theory (the idea that Genesis' "week" referred to eras, not days as we know them); some believe(d) in "natural" evolution punctuated by divine interventions, etc. (Interestingly, this chapter also addresses the impact of Sputnik on teachings of evolution.)

The next chapters seek to illuminate different aspects of the controversy, including whether or not Southern scientists reacted completely negatively to the theory (no, sir - this section recalls Marsden's arguments about the variety of religious opinion during this time period, including the point that fundamentalism originated in many cases in the urban North); how "creationism" has changed since its use by Louis Agassiz; how the Scopes trial got re-cast in the eyes of history as a victory for urban values and secular society (this chapter would be a good one to use to introduce the trial in an undergrad context); and how Adventists and Holiness sects responded to the theory. The Adventist chapter included some interesting material on how Ellen G. White may or may not have associated "lower" races with animals in her understanding of what happened during and after the Flood (p 99). Adventists saw some sciences as having been derived from satanic delusions - but believed that it was possible to know (or at least, for some people, like White, to know) which ones were satanic and which were okay.

Reviews of others:
In The Journal of Southern History, Steve Wolfgang welcomed the chapter on southern reception of Darwin (to be expected, given the rehabilitative nature of the work) and called the book a good introduction for students unaware of many aspects of Darwinism (an assessment echoed by David Hull of Northwestern, who wrote one of the blurbs for the back of the book). Kary Smout, in Isis, begged to differ, writing that the essays in this book would be difficult for non-specialists (I think I might have to agree) because many of them are based on Numbers' responses to a large body of scholarship, a setting-straight of a body of knowledge. (It's no fun to read a setting-straight when you have no idea what was crooked.) She wished that Numbers had seen fit to make broader conclusions: "Although I learned many fascinating facts from this book, all I learned was many fascinating facts. Since Darwinism has come to America, the result has been varied and complex. What hasn't?"

Vocab words:
"prosopographical" ("a study of a collection of persons or characters, esp. their appearances, careers, personalities, etc., within a historical, literary, or social context").

Books to follow up on: Primary: Frederick Lewis Allen, Only Yesterday: An Informal History of the 1920s (1931); EP Ellyson, Is Man an Animal? (mid-1920s - anti-evolution book); Youth's Instructor - Adventist periodical for young people

Secondary: Jon Roberts, Darwinism and the Divine in America: Protestant Intellectuals and Organic Evolution, 1859-1900 (1988) (Numbers dedicated this book to "Jon Roberts, author of the best book on Darwinism in America" - I do believe he meant this book, which I think might have been advisable to read instead, or at least in addition to, Darwinism Comes To America).

The back matter of this book includes a series of biographical notes about each of the 80 naturalists in the National Academy of Sciences from 1863-1900.

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