Darwin published his Origin of the Species in the 1850s, and by the 1920s the Scopes Trial happened in America. Why did Darwinism catch on so quickly? American basically embraced Darwinism when they rejected other ideas like Marxism and Freudianism. Darwinism was accepted for three reasons: (1) Darwin had been completely accepted by Britain, (2) Darwin was a respected Victorian country gentleman, and (3) Darwin’s wife was an evangelical Christian. All of these elements appealed to Victorian ethics. Because of his acceptance, Darwin affected American culture in the late nineteenth century through philosophy, business, religion, literature, and history.
Philosophically, Darwin offered American the idea of Social Darwinism which became a white elitist philosophy. White elites used Social Darwinism to further their racial prejudices. Darwinism also affected pragmatism. Although there is no real link between the two philosophies, they both have a secular approach to what is true. Both philosophies focused on the struggle of mankind, and both concluded that there was no absolute truth.
Business was also affected by Darwin because businessmen embraced Social Darwinism. During the industrial revolution, businessmen used the idea of the “survival of the fittest” to apply to their often corrupt business practices. John D. Rockefeller was the poster boy for Social Darwinism. He was brutal in business despite his weekend piety at his local Baptist church. He believed that he could act like a Darwinist as long as he believed in his mind that he was a good, pious person.
Darwinism also infiltrated religion. Liberal Protestants embraced the Social Gospel that Darwinism offered, and they started huge campaigns that preached about improving society. Some conservative Protestants embraced the Biblical Gap Theory of Genesis 1-2 because it accommodated Darwin’s theory of evolution. These Protestants forgot that creation was a supernatural event which cannot be explained by man.
Literature and history were also affected by Darwinism. The literary movement of realism and naturalism held Darwinian thought as writers like Stephen Crane and Frank Norris discussed the struggle in the world’s environment. The leading historian who embraced Darwinism was Frederick Turner whose thesis discussed the evolving American frontier. As Darwinian thought crept into the American culture, the full acceptance of evolution began after the Scopes Trial in 1925.
– Hannah S. Bowers