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Skidmore College
First-Year Experience

2017 Summer Reading
Faculty Readers Respond

David Howlett, Teaching Professor and Associate Chair of Religious Studies

Bill Lewis, Professor of Philosophy

Jina Mao, Assistant Professor of Management and Business

Eric Morser, Associate Professor of History

Jamie Parra, Assistant Professor of English 

Greg Pfitzer, Professor of American Studies

Bernie Possidente,Professor and Chair of Biology

Leigh Wilton, Assistant Professor of Psychology & Erica Wojcik, Assistant Professor of Psychology


As a narrative primarily about Darwin’s reception among a few white New England intellectuals, Randall Fuller’s work seems hardly to justify its subtitle, “How Darwin’s Theory of Evolution Ignited a Nation.” However, a careful examination of Fuller’s book reveals many storylines with implications beyond the world of Concord, Massachusetts in 1860.

Fuller describes how a secularizing American culture produced a surprising abundance of new spiritual options and newly emergent secular ones. Fuller populates his story with transcendentalists, Presbyterians, Unitarians, spiritualists, Congregationalists, and agnostics, all moving in and out of a town that was once religiously monochromatic. When these Americans with varied spiritual persuasions reacted to Darwin, they did not move effortlessly from religious truths to scientific laws. They instead made messy adaptations, engaged in opportunistic poaching, and experienced gradual evolutions in their thoughts and practices. What Fuller documents is the story of secularization writ large.

Readers may be surprised to note that what we casually call “science” was commonly known in very different terms (i.e., “natural philosophy” and “natural history”) in mid-nineteenth-century America. Though Fuller never addresses it, “religion” was a rather new classificatory term, too. A medieval European Christian, for instance, would have thought that “theology,” the systematizing of beliefs about the Christian God, was the “queen of the sciences,” and “religion” simply described life in monastic orders, not what one believed. In the interim between the medieval and the modern, “religion” became defined in Protestant-inflected terms, synonymous with spiritual “beliefs” and “faith.” “Science” became delimited to a mode of investigation into the physical processes of the natural world. Asa Gray’s anxieties about the relationship between “religion” and “science” were possible, in part, because these terms had come to be defined as binaries and, thus, in need of harmonization or subordination.

Efforts to harmonize religion and science created new lenses for average Americans to use when interpreting sacred texts. When some Protestants applied science’s inductive method to the Bible’s texts, they thought they found propositional truths in their holy book, much like scientific axioms. Ironically, this gave birth to Protestant Fundamentalism, a movement that flatly rejected evolution. In contrast, the Protestant readers who accepted Darwin’s narrative, like Asa Gray’s co-religionists, were beginning to treat the Bible as a collection of historically situated texts best read as stories with narrative arcs. We should not be surprised that such narrative arcs often confirmed what those readers already believed, any more than we should be surprised when Fuller shows how readers of TheOrigin of Species utilized it to confirm their beliefs in abolition, racial segregation, social reform, laissez faire capitalism, or American imperialism.  Texts only say things when people give them voice, and people always have interests that stand behind the stories they tell.

Perhaps the critical purchase we gain from reading Fuller’s text is to not simply reflect upon the nineteenth-century American elite’s evolving reception of Darwin’s narrative, but to ask, “How do our categories create and reinforce our realities?” and “Whose interests are served by the stories that we tell?”

-David Howlett, Teaching Professor and Associate Chair of Religious Studies

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What Fuller delivers in The Book that Changed America: How Darwin’s Theory of Evolution Ignited a Nation is an account of the literary, political, scientific, and philosophical tinder that was available in New England to be set alight by the publication of On the Origin of Species. Fuller shows that Darwin’s theory added fuel to an abolitionist blaze that consumed the scientific theory of special creation and the philosophy of transcendentalism. But what came next? Fuller gives us hints: history will show abolition’s success to be formal rather than concrete; literature will take a turn from the romantic to the naturalistic; transcendentalism will make way for pragmatism. Actually, he doesn’t make this last allusion, but he introduces all the philosophical and scientific developments necessary for making it.

The book ends in the transcendental graveyard, with Emerson, Thoreau, Fuller, and Alcott all dead and with the suggestion that Thoreau, unlike the others, incorporated Darwinian insights into his natural philosophy towards the end of his life. I think that Fuller gets this right. However, it was a new generation who would combine Thoreau’s nascent scientism and Emerson’s ideas about phenomenal experience with Darwin’s chief insight. This insight is that the diversity of our world is the consequence of the working of natural processes over time rather than the design of a beneficent and omnipotent creator. Like the previous generation of philosophers, this new generation of thinkers hailed mostly from New England and enjoyed direct links to the cohort who first wrestled with Darwin’s book. In their youth, most argued with and learned from Chauncey Wright (who appears in chapter four). They included Benjamin Peirce’s son Charles Sanders Peirce, Louis Agassiz’s research assistant, William James, and the jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., son of the poet. The new philosophy that they developed would come to be called Pragmatism. Its exponents investigated what Darwin’s natural philosophical insights meant for metaphysics, epistemology, psychology, and ethics.

Darwin’s theory presented a profound challenge to rationalism and to transcendentalism. Looking behind everyday experience to the ideal sprit that animates all Nature was no longer possible. If humans evolved from other animals, then humans could claim no privileged relation to an omniscient creator and no privileged access to truth. “Truth” post-Darwin looked like it might have a history (or histories) and that it might evolve. If this was the case, then we could not just evaluate an idea in relation to how close it approximates Truth. We could now evaluate ideas for whether they are beneficial or harmful to us as individuals, nations, or species. Therefore, instead of looking beyond appearance to “spirits” to find Truth, the generation after the transcendentalists began asking how true ideas are established, what the warrant of these ideas is, and what truth does in experience. This group called themselves “pragmatists” because they wanted to know both what the effects are in our experience of believing in certain ideas and what is our ability to transform that experience.

-Bill Lewis, Professor of Philosophy

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Fuller's book provides a painstakingly detailed account of how Darwin's book On the Origin of Species fueled the intense debates on topics of slavery, racism and the origin of human races just before the Civil War broke out in America.  Fuller does a good job of convincing readers that Darwin's theory of evolution through natural selection had a longstanding impact on conversations on race relations in America.  Just as the novel Uncle Tom's Cabinby Harriet Beecher Stowe galvanized the anti-slavery forces in the American North, Darwin's ideas provided a new language and “scientific evidence” for the abolition of slavery.

Central to the debate around slavery is the term “race.”  What exactly is “human race”?  How are racial categories defined? There is a general consensus among geneticists and biologists today that there is no genetic basis for “human race.”  Not one characteristic, trait, or gene distinguishes all members of one race from all members of another race.  The notion that races exist with definable physical characteristics and that some races are superior to others is the result of particular historical processes used to justify social inequalities.  For example, Fuller describes the Polygenists’ assertion that blacks had been separately created in Africa and endowed with lesser intellectual capacities than whites.  This view was used to legitimate the oppression and exploitation of blacks and to justify slavery.  Sociologists call human race a “symbolic category,” socially constructed by people rather than existing in nature.  Therefore, human race belongs to the realm of ideas, language, and meaning.  In the book, we see the language of natural selection and common ancestry used to undermine the argument for slavery.  At the same time, Darwin’s ideas were also appropriated to support the argument that privileged groups had no obligation to help those who failed to adapt to their environment, and that the whites were privileged because they were more capable and adaptive.

Fuller's book provides a vivid example of how racial prejudices can be acquired and reproduced through everyday language and institutional text and talk.  It also shows that great social change can happen when social actors engage, share, incorporate and spread new ideas that challenge and change people’s attitudes and perceptions.  Through the actions of a group of impassioned abolitionists and public intellectuals, Darwin’s ideas spread in America and took hold.  As we adopt the social norm of tolerance and acceptance today, racism has taken on more subtle forms, still showing up in everyday talk and interactions that reproduce inequalities.  As individuals, we each play a role in how we carry on, reproduce, or change perceptions and attitudes that shape the world we live in.  

-Jina Mao, Assistant Professor of Management and Business

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In Randall Fuller’s engrossing book, we learn about how Charles Darwin challenged America’s most distinguished thinkers and artists to reassess their basic ideas about humans and their place in the world in the 1850s and 1860s.  One of Fuller’s most intriguing observations is that The Origin of Species played a critical role in the effort of American intellectuals to counter the racist assumptions that undergirded slavery.  For abolitionists like Charles Loring Brace and Frederick Douglass, Darwin’s work undermined the popular notion that white and black people had been created separately.  Instead, he seemed to imply that whites and blacks were biologically related and that black people were not naturally inferior to their white cousins. 

As a historian of early America, I ponder how the ideas of philosophers like John Locke, of political theorists like Thomas Jefferson, and of radical antebellum social reformers like William Lloyd Garrison have driven the American story.  For this reason, I find Fuller’s book engaging.  In his telling, Darwin’s ideas were a sturdy intellectual web that bound together American thinkers and convinced many that their hatred of slavery was justified.  We see a community of smart people joining in conversations that cause them to reimagine their assumptions.  Fuller demonstrates what many of you will discover at Skidmore:  that bright, devoted, creative, daring, and occasionally quirky folks who share ideas and raise fresh questions can sometimes change the world.

I admit that I love something even more than the history of ideas.  I love studying how people who did not have time to read Ralph Waldo Emerson, ponder the beauty of Walden Pond, catalogue the riches of the natural world, or craft novels about four little women also made choices that shaped America.  It is this love that makes me wonder if Fuller’s emphasis on the ideas of a set of elite characters paints an ultimately misleading portrait of both American abolition and American history.

America’s intellectual elites were not always the ones driving the debate over slavery.  We need to remember the slaves in Massachusetts who petitioned for (and occasionally won) their freedom during the 1770s and 1780s.  We need to keep in mind the thousands of people, black and white, male and female, who joined antislavery societies and read abolitionist newspapers in the 1820s and after.  We need to pay tribute to fugitive slaves, people like Henry “Box” Brown (who shipped himself in a crate from bondage in Virginia to freedom in Philadelphia in 1849) and the thousands of other desperate people who escaped bondage and, in so doing, inspired growing resistance to slavery in the North and prompted increased terror in the South.  Intellectuals like Alcott and Douglass, of course, matter to the story of American abolition.  But the richness of this history becomes more apparent when we widen our field of focus to include the voices of other Americans, many of whom could not read, who did not hold political office or write lovingly about tromping in the Massachusetts woods. 

-Eric Morser, Associate Professor of History

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During my first semester of college, I took a seminar where I experienced a more profound state of confusion than I had ever experienced before.  At some point, the professor told us that “three thinkers made the world modern:  Friedrich Nietzsche, Sigmund Freud, and Charles Darwin.”  I nodded while I recorded the statement in my notebook to hide the fact that I had no idea what the man was saying; it sounded like the sort of thing an aspiring intellectual should know.  This was the first time I thought about Darwin outside of a biology class, and it took me many years to even begin to understand what the professor was saying. 

Randall Fuller nicely captures modernity's arrival in one small part of the world in The Book that Changed America.  He shows the radical break with the past that many readers of Darwin felt, their sense that the world had been somehow rearranged by his thinking.  What is perhaps most valuable about Fuller’s account of the reception of On the Origin of Species among American intellectuals is that it reminds us that such breaks are never clean.  Indeed, Fuller’s book sketches several of Origin’s important detractors and shows how even Darwin’s greatest champion in the American scientific community, Asa Gray, withdrew from his initial full-throated endorsement of the book when he realized its implications for his own religious worldview.  Gray found unbearable the idea that the world was perhaps much more distant from—or even abandoned by—God.  Becoming modern is a difficult and fitful process; in other words, it is full of questioning, reservations, and dissent, and no one person—not even Darwin himself—made the leap fully. 

In fact, if Fuller’s story has a protagonist, it isn’t Darwin but Thoreau.  What made this particular eccentric so open to the theory put forth by On theOrigin of Species?  While Fuller emphasizes the theory’s move away from God, he also mentions Darwin’s emphasis on contingency or accident, which is the necessary engine for change in any given species (followed by the struggle for survival that dictates which changes are passed on to subsequent generations).  I would add that placing accident, or chance, at the center of the natural world required more than just a different conception of God.  At least since Aristotle, “accident” had been associated with whatever is inessential or unnecessary for understanding the “substance” of any given thing.  Whatever was accidental was insignificant.  On theOrigin of Species literally stated the opposite:  without accidents (mutations) species would never differentiate.  Without accidents the natural world wouldn’t exist as we know it.  Perhaps even better than Darwin himself, Thoreau saw that these accidents didn’t drain the world of enchantment, but instead made it sublimely unpredictable and complex.  By embracing all that is accidental, it was not a scientist but a man of letters who was among the first to find a way of inhabiting the world Darwin made modern.  

-Jamie Parra, Assistant Professor of English

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 As an “historian of the book,” I am interested in the ways in which scholarly works serve as vehicles for the transmission of ideas. It is fascinating to trace the literary channels through which ideas flow and to examine how authors redirect texts in response to the critiques of conscientious readers. Randall Fuller’s The Book That Changed America (2017) provides a wonderful example of this process of transmutation, both in terms of the thesis he has developed and the reactions he has produced in the literary marketplace.

Fuller’s book treats the history of natural selection through the publication and dissemination of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859). He recounts the genesis of the idea of natural selection, springing from the mind of Darwin aboard the H.M.S. Beagle in the mid-1830s, and follows its progress through Darwin’s efforts to substantiate and publicize his theories over the next few decades. We learn of the dissemination of Darwin’s volume in America by Harvard professor Asa Gray, who devoured it and then passed it on to his cousin-by-marriage, the social reformer Charles Loring Brace. Brace shared the volume with Concord, Massachusetts intellectuals Frank Sanborn, Bronson Alcott, and Henry David Thoreau, who vigorously debated its merits. Brace, an ardent abolitionist, used Darwin’s theories to argue for the emancipation of slaves on the grounds that all humans were members of the same species and therefore deserved equal opportunities to compete in the struggle for survival. The “nature-nurture” debate that emerged as a result of Brace’s efforts was an unintended consequence of Darwin’s theories about adaptation and selection.

Darwin did not encourage the application of his scientific ideas to reform movements or to public policy. Yet he came to understand that his book, like the theory of natural selection that it advanced, must adapt to changing conditions in order to survive. He recognized that, as was the case with the variability of species, ideas are mutable and subject to reinterpretation and revision. The reform impulses that readers such as Brace promoted in response to On the Origin of Species forced the author to rethink some of his book’s basic tenets and paved the way for his later publication of The Descent of Man (1871), a treatment of human evolution whose revisionist assertions testify to the power of collaborative exchanges between writers and readers of books. 

As entering Skidmore students, you now have the opportunity to participate in a similar process of intellectual exchange. This September, Randall Fuller will arrive on campus to discuss The Book That Changed America with you. In anticipation of that conversation, please read the volume carefully and be prepared to engage its author in a dialogue about the book’s argument and applications. In doing so, you will be contributing not only to the evolution of an intellectual idea—perhaps Fuller will reevaluate his text after his visit—but to the shaping of an intellectual community in which we hope you will be an active participant in the months and years ahead. 

-Greg Pfitzer, Professor of American Studies

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The essence of Darwin's theory of natural selection is that hereditary variations that increase reproductive success become more common. Like other laws of nature, natural selection applies to people. Humans’ unique adaptations include our capacity for culture, which is facilitated by underlying adaptations in brain structure and function. Our brain, therefore, is evolved to make us survive and reproduce, not to reveal "truth" or "reality.”                           

Darwin's theory implies that the validity of a scientific theory is less important than its utility for promoting survival and reproduction. This may explain why appropriation or misappropriation of science by social activists may be so common. Scientific methods promote objectivity, and nature itself is immune to human values, but it is human nature to evaluate and adopt scientific ideas to serve human values. A well-educated person may study science to understand how science works, but the complexity of scientific methods and theories means that only scientists are, technically speaking, scientifically literate, and then only in their own narrow field of expertise.

Darwin's theory disproves certain alternative and explicitly racist hypotheses about human evolution, but its impact on American history doesn't just derive from its scientific legitimacy. It also derives from the elite social status of Darwin in England; England's economic and political power in 1859; Boston's status in the U.S. as a center of political, intellectual, and economic power; and personal connections between influential citizens of Boston and England. How else would a book about a new theory of evolution, read by a hermit who owned a pencil factory, a transcendentalist poet, an abolitionist, and a zoologist have such an influence on a nearly illiterate nation where, even today, a majority reject the validity of Darwin's theory of evolution?

Science may tell us that we and chimpanzees are descended from a common ancestor, but human values and emotions are a more powerful determinant of human behavior and narratives about the world than are logic and data. Darwin's goal was to understand nature, not society, but his theory has implications for understanding human nature and, therefore, human behavior. The Book That Changed America documents one example of complex interactions between science and society. What lessons are there in that example for today's world?

Quotes for discussion:

"Science is a unique way of knowing and an essential part of a liberal education." (Possidente)

"Science literacy is not achieved only by studying science." (Possidente)

"It's all a big nothing. What makes you think you're so special?" (Livia Soprano, The Sopranos, HBO, Season II, Episode VII, 2000)

"Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and unto God the things that are God's" (King James Bible: Matthew, 22:21)

"I got, I got, I got, I got loyalty, got royalty inside my DNA" (Kendrick Lamar, "DNA" from "Damn,” Top Dawg Entertainment, 2017)

"You can't derive Ought from Is" (David Hume, ATreatise of Human Nature, Book III, Part I, Section I, 1739)

-Bernie Possidente, Professor and Chair of Biology

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As psychologists who use a scientific approach to investigate the human condition, we were interested in Fuller’s hypothesis that Darwin’s seminal bookbrought a more scientific, evidence-based perspective to America. Fuller argues that Darwin’s text changed the discourse around race and slavery in America over a century ago. However, although the book is an historical account, Fuller missed an opportunity to identify how common misunderstandings of evolution continue into the present and have consequences beyond the ivory tower.

Darwin posited that we evolve via natural selection: offspring that are best suited for an environment live to reproduce and therefore future generations of their species exhibit the most adaptive traits. This theory centers on the importance of variability. The random variance within a species allows for evolution to occur without an external force guiding the hand of nature.

However, a study found that only 19% of a sample of college students endorsed Darwin’s variation-centered theory of evolution (Shtulman, 2006). The other 81% endorsed a “transformational” account, according to which each species is defined by a biologically-determined, unobservable “essence” that is projected into individual members of the species. They incorrectly believe that evolution stems not from the natural selection of traits that vary randomly, but instead from the transformation of the species’ essence to a more desirable, adaptive state.

A related misconception is that the source of variability, our genetic code, is directly related to human personality traits and behaviors. In fact, DNA codes for proteins. There is a non-linear path, influenced from conception by the environment, from a gene to behavior (Stiles, 2009). By leaning on transformational accounts of inheritance and a deterministic view of DNA’s role in our development, many people falsely believe that similarities between human groups are innate and unchangeable because they are genetic.

Understanding the role of variability and biology in evolution is not merely an exercise for philosophers in Concord or psychologists in Saratoga. Just as people believe that the essence of a species is biologically determined, many also believe that human groups are defined by biologically-determined “essences.” For example, although there is more variation within than between racial groups, many believe that racial group members share a distinct essence that is meaningful, unchangeable, and biological (Goodman, 2000; Smedley & Smedley, 2005). Race essentialism undergirds racial inequality by, for example, promoting stereotypes and dampening interracial interaction (Dar-Nimrod & Heine, 2011; Jayaratne et al., 2006; Levy, Stroessner, & Dweck, 1998; Prentice & Miller, 2007; Williams & Eberhardt, 2008). It is imperative that we understand the current science that explains what makes us similar and different across racial lines.

Even though slavery is now unconstitutional, our society is still grappling with issues surrounding racial inequality. Related misunderstandings of genetics, variability, and evolution are far too common. Darwin’s theory has changed America, but that change is far from over.

-Leigh Wilton, Assistant Professor of Psychology & Erica Wojcik, Assistant Professor of Psychology


Dar-Nimrod, I., & Heine, S. J. (2011). Genetic essentialism: On the deceptive determinism of DNA. Psychological Bulletin, 137(5), 800–818.

Goodman, A. H. (2000). Why genes don’t count (for racial differences in health). American Journal of Public Health, 90, 1699 –1702

Jayaratne, T. E., Ybarra, O., Sheldon, J. P., Brown, T. N., Feldbaum, M., Pfeffer, C., & Petty, E. M. (2006). White Americans’ genetic lay theories of race differences and sexual orientation: Their relationship with prejudice toward Blacks, and gay men and lesbians. Group Processes & Intergroup Relations, 9(1).

Levy, S. R., Stroessner, S. J., & Dweck, C. S. (1998). Stereotype formation and endorsement: The role of implicit theories. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74(6), 1421–1436.

Prentice, D. A., & Miller, D. T. (2007). Psychological essentialism of human categories. Current directions in psychological science, 16(4), 202-206.

Shtulman, A. (2006). Qualitative differences between naïve and scientific theories of evolution. Cognitive psychology, 52(2), 170-194.

Smedley, A., & Smedley, B. D. (2005). Race as biology is fiction, racism as a social problem is real: Anthropological and historical perspectives on the social construction of race. American Psychologist, 60, 16 –26.

Stiles, J. (2009). On genes, brains, and behavior: why should developmental psychologists care about brain development?. Child Development Perspectives, 3(3), 196-202.

Williams, M. J., & Eberhardt, J. L. (2008). Biological conceptions of race and the motivation to cross racial boundaries. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 94(6), 1033–47.

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