Making Nature Sacred: Literature, Religion, and Environment in America from the Puritans to the Present

By John Gatta | Go to book overview

7.

Post-Darwinian Visions
of Divine Creation

Beyond Deicidal Darwinism

After 1855, belief in a sacral world was shaken by several developments impinging on citizens of the Republic. To be sure, the publication of Charles Darwin's book The Origin of Species in 1859 did not immediately destroy either the religious faith or the nature Romanticism cherished by large numbers of Americans. For a time, many considered it possible to assimilate Darwinism into preexisting conceptions of natural history, natural theology, and providential design. After all, theories about the mutation or “development” of biological species had been entertained for at least half a century before Origin, most conspicuously in Robert Chambers s Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation(1844). The full import of evolutionary thought, as initially mediated through Herbert Spencer and often implicated with Social Darwinism, took decades to permeate American culture.1 As the Tennessee Scopes Trial of 1925 confirmed, this process took still longer in sectors of popular culture concentrated regionally in the South and West.

Even among naturalists in the National Academy of Sciences, nineteenth-century views about the extent of divine intervention in the modification of species differed considerably. The Harvard botanist Asa Gray, for example, became an outspoken defender of Darwin s transmutation hypothesis after having scorned Chambers s explanations of how new species emerged. Yet even Gray questioned Darwin's focus on natural selection as the chief means of adaptive change and, contrary to Darwin, wanted to charge some otherwise elusive variations in organic etiology to divine Providence.2 By the same token, America s intellectual leaders in other spheres included

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