I just read an absorbing and detailed excerpt adapted from The Book That Changed America, by Randall Fuller, which details the impact of Darwin’s then just published Origin of Species on American intellectual life, specifically in this section at the deep draw it had for Henry David Thoreau.
Initially fascinating as an examination of how one great mind was influenced by another, the chapter expands on how Thoreau not only embraced the writing of Darwin, but also allowed the theoretical framework to redefine his intellectual understanding of the world.
Some compelling quotes from the chapter:
Darwin’s portrait of a teeming, pulsating natural world deeply resonated with Thoreau. The Origin of Species revealed nature as process, as continual becoming. It directed one’s attention away from fixed concepts and hierarchies, toward movement instead. It valued moments of evanescent change above all others. If it endowed each organism with a history, it also pointed to a future that was impossible to predict.
Thoreau latched onto this particular moment in the Origin for several reasons. For one, it implied that the history of an environment was recoverable. If one accepted the premise that perpetual struggle between species led to the creation of place, then one could uncover its history and thereby determine why “precisely these objects which we behold make a world,” as he had written in Walden.
In Darwin’s vision of nature, species and individuals honed themselves in strife. They came into being through continual friction with one another. “Many cases are on record showing how complex and unexpected are the checks and relations between organic beings,” Darwin wrote, “which have to struggle together in the same country.” Thoreau didn’t express it in quite the same way, but he seems to have begun envisioning a natural world that resembled a democracy more than a kingdom, its citizens connected and yet perennially jostling for advantage.