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Late in Life, Thoreau Became a Serious Darwinist

Randall Fuller | Viking | July 13, 2017 | 6,840 words
Posted inBooks, Story

Late in Life, Thoreau Became a Serious Darwinist

But he died before he could finish his book on natural history. As Emerson put it, Thoreau “depart[ed] out of Nature before… he has been really shown to his peers for what he is.”

Randall Fuller | The Book That Changed America: How Darwin’s Theory of Evolution Ignited a Nation | Viking | January 2017 | 25 minutes (6,840 words) 

The excerpt below is adapted from The Book That Changed America, by Randall Fuller, which explores the impact of Darwin’s Origin of Species on American intellectual life. This story is recommended by Longreads contributing editor Dana Snitzky

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“How many a man has dated a new era in his life from the reading of a book!”

-Henry David Thoreau, Walden

Detail from the single illustration that appeared in the first edition of the Origin of Species. Via Wikimedia.

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537 plants!

With the possible exception of Asa Gray, no American read the Origin of Species with as much care and insight as Henry David Thoreau. Throughout the first week of February, he copied extracts from the Origin. Those notes, which until recently had never been published, comprise six notebook pages in a nearly illegible scrawl. They tell the story of someone who must have read with hushed attention, someone attuned to every nuance and involution in the book. In their attention to detail, they suggest someone who assiduously followed the gradual unfolding of Darwin’s ideas, the unspooling of his argument, as though the book of science were an adventure tale or a travel narrative.

He was drawn to Darwin’s compendium of facts, which illustrated the delicate interplay of causes leading to the survival or extinction of species. Darwin wrote, “The number of humble-bees in any district depends in a great degree on the number of field-mice, which destroy their combs and nests.” Thoreau copied the sentence into his notebook, probably because he enjoyed the cause-and-effect relationship it implied. He had always been interested in the quirky, arcane detail. “Winged seeds are never found in fruits which do not open,” he read in the Origin, transcribing the sentence into his natural history book. He recorded the strange (if incorrect) statement that “cats with blue eyes are invariably deaf,” something Darwin had gleaned from a work on zoological anomalies by Isidore Geoffroy St. Hilaire, who mistakenly assumed that all blue-eyed cats were deaf rather than the majority, as is actually the case.

He also admired Darwin’s genius for experimentation. Thoreau had described his own efforts in Walden to disprove the local myth that the pond was of unusual depth. With a stone tied to the end of a cod line, he “could tell accurately when the stone left the bottom, by having to pull so much harder before the water got underneath to help me”— a procedure that enabled him to chart the pond’s topography and discover its shallows and depths. He had even provided a map for interested readers. Now he discovered a similar impulse in Darwin. The British naturalist wanted to determine how far birds might transport seeds caught in their muddy feet; this would explain how identical plant species might be found thousands of miles apart. From the silty bottom of a pond near his home he procured some “three table-spoonfuls of mud,” which “when dry weighed only 6¾ ounces.” He kept the mud in his study for six months, “pulling up and counting each plant as it grew; the plants were of many kinds, and were altogether 537 in number; and yet the viscid mud was all contained in a breakfast cup!” The charm of the experiment resided in its simple ingenuity; from common household items Darwin had made a marvelous discovery: 537 plants!

Thoreau was most urgently drawn to Darwin’s ideas. That the struggle among species was an engine of creation struck him with particular force. It undermined transcendentalist assumptions about the essential goodness of nature, but it also corroborated many of Thoreau’s own observations. While living on Walden Pond, he had tried to discover the “unbroken harmony” of the environment, the “celestial dews” and “depth and purity” of the ponds. “Lying between the earth and heavens,” he wrote, Walden “partakes of the color of both.” But sometimes a darker reality intruded upon this picture. “From a hilltop you can see a fish leap in almost any part; for not a pickerel or shiner picks an insect from this smooth lake but it manifestly disturbs the equilibrium of the whole lake.” Something portentous and uneasy lurks about this sentence. The “simple fact” that animals must consume other animals to survive upsets Thoreau; it disturbs the equilibrium of one who wishes to find harmony and beauty in his surroundings. Thoreau tries to laugh it off, calling the dimpled lake the result of “piscine murder.” Yet Darwin provided an explanation for nature’s murderous subtext. Competition and struggle influenced “the whole economy of nature.” It drove species to change and adapt. It created. It was the cost of doing nature’s business.

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