ANAHEIM -- Common wisdom holds that Charles Darwin's Origin of Species was the spark that ignited the debate -- often cast as religion versus science -- about human origins. But when Darwin's revolutionary work was first published in 1859, the intellectual and spiritual controversy that colors nearly any discussion of where humans come from was already a two-decade-old phenomenon in the United States.
G. Blair Nelson, a University of Wisconsin-Madison graduate student in the history of science, speaking here this week at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, describes a rich pre-Darwinian tradition of controversy over human origins that included such notions as different races having different origins, and the belief that, if you read the Bible correctly, Adam and Eve were not necessarily the first humans, but the first Jews or Caucasians, leaving the door open for the existence of pre-Biblical humanity.
"There were many different versions of these ideas," said Nelson, and some were used to prop up notions of white supremacy after the Civil War. Others, proto-fundamentalists, for example, used these ideas to reconcile their beliefs with an emerging fossil evidence that suggested a prehistoric, prebiblical lineage for humans.
After the Civil War, Darwin's theory exerted an influence that tended to shut many of these debates down, but some carried over into the early 20th century, said Nelson.
"The point is that American's had been talking about origins for two decades before the Civil War. It was a very important debate" that, in some quarters, was slow to die out after Darwin's seminal idea raised prevailing new theory.