Studying Darwinism Like a Bausum

STEVEN JACKSON, Editor-in-Chief

Last week, alumna Ann Bausum’79 gave a special lecture in Professor of Biology John Jungck’s IDST course “Darwin.” The talk was to commemorate Darwin Day on Sunday, Feb. 12. Bausum is a nonfiction author specializing in U.S. history books for children and young adults.
In her lecture, Bausum presented two of her books: “Detained, Denied, Deported,” a historical look at U.S. immigration policy gone wrong, and “Marching to the Mountaintop,” a retelling of the 1968 Memphis sanitation workers strike and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s last days.
Bausum connected both books to the concept of social Darwinism, emphasizing how nationalism, othering and fear can lead to massive human rights violations.
Darwin’s evolutionary principles, when applied to society and politics, have done more harm than good. Nineteenth century writers and social theorists used natural selection to justify laissez-faire capitalism, imperialism, eugenics and countless human rights violations.
Darwinian ideas, such as the conception of all humans sharing a “common stock,” have also been used by social activists and progressives to create change and fight structural inequalities. Darwin himself was a humanitarian of his time, opposed to slavery and unequal treatment based on perceived biological differences.
Bausum’s lecture approached Darwinian principles from both sides, exploring how his ideas have been used to yet also how they have been appropriated by activists to spark social change.
“Denied, Detained, and Deported” highlights several moments from U.S. history in which the pressures of nationalism, racism and fear led to the unequal and inhumane treatment of immigrants and minorities. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1880, the deportation of Eastern European immigrants following World War I and Japanese internment camps during World War II are all disturbing examples of such policies.
“Marching to the Mountaintop” tells the story of the 1968 sanitation workers strike in Memphis, Tennessee. Garbage men in Memphis at the time of the strike were almost exclusively African-American, working for a White-dominated city government. They were treated poorly and received low wages for physically exhausting and sometimes dangerous work. In 1968 the workforce went on strike to improve working conditions, and Martin Luther King, Jr. came to Memphis to build support for and call national attention to the strike. On the second of two visits to Memphis, he was shot and killed, an event that proved to be a turning point for the civil rights movement as a whole.
Bausum has always been impassioned by issues of social justice and civil rights. “I grew up in the ‘60s and ‘70s,” she said. “Because of that, I was inculcated with social justice fever.”
The most effective way she has found to enact change is through historical nonfiction for young readers. Her books are more than history teaching tools–they are intended to inspire greater social consciousness and galvanize action.
“I like to write for young people because I believe the future is in your hands,” she said. “It seems to me that young people today are much more earnest and sincere in the role they can play in affecting social change. Sure they party, and have diversions, but they have good hearts. I have a lot of hope and faith in the power of this generation to be transformative.”
For more information about Ann Bausum and her work, visit



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