A portrait of a unique moment in American history when the ideas of Charles Darwin reshaped American notions about nature, religion, science and race, focusing on a group of New England intellectuals which including Henry David Thoreau.
...[a] delightful, elegant intellectual history ... Can a book still change the world? Right now a tweet would seem to have a better shot. But questions that are still asked today, and more urgently by some in recent months — whether history is a narrative of progress, whether the arc of the universe bends toward justice — have their beginnings in the heady times evoked in Fuller’s exhilarating book. He has made them immensely instructive and enjoyable to ponder.
...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 ... 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 ... 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.
His account of how Americans responded to the publication of Darwin’s great work in 1859 is organized as a series of lively and informative set pieces — dinners, conversations, lectures — with reactions to On the Origin of Species usually (but not always) at the center ... Fuller’s most surprising revelation is the profound impact Darwin’s portrait of a 'teeming, pulsating natural world' exerted on Thoreau ... Fuller is a lively, engaging writer, with an eye for fascinating details. His subjects wrote copious letters, kept diaries, gave speeches and recorded their conversations with one another. Fuller has mined this rich material with care and insight. Sometimes, to be sure, the desire to tell a good story leads him down detours that have little apparent connection to Darwin and his reception ... Fuller’s rather grandiose title promises more than a study of a few New England intellectuals can reasonably deliver.