Saturday, June 6, 2009

Darwin and Lincoln: Revolution to Evolution

Two hundred years ago, on February 12, 1809, Charles Darwin and Abraham Lincoln were born within hours of each other in opposite worlds: Darwin in a comfortable home in the English countryside of Shrewsbury; and Lincoln in a log cabin in the Kentucky woods.

Their shared birthday is more than intriguing coincidence; it marks their shared legacy in shaping the modern world. A legacy that is far more intermingled than one might first think. It both starts and ends with one word: evolution.

The common belief in 1809 was that life was fixed in place since the beginning of a terrestrial time that went back a few thousand years at most. The “truth” held in 1809 lay in a “vertical” organization of life, a kind of established hierarchy of species on earth, descending from humans downward with a divine judge above. Focusing on the example of the terror in France, people also believed that societies generally required inherited order and a strong immutable structure to keep them from dissolving into anarchy or tyranny. The notion of democracy was a fringe ideal held by a handful of radicals. In America, where “democracy” was embraced through the revolution, the persistence of slavery tainted its ideal with ill notions of prejudice and fixed social order. Yet, the tide of change and evolution was stirring in the hearts and minds of these two men of humility and grace.

Robert McHenry of the Encyclopedia Britannica Blog, says: “Lincoln’s humility is to be read in almost his every utterance and writing. No one of such humble beginnings could be other than painfully conscious of the great distance he traveled with none of the usual requirements of birth, breeding, education, or fortune. He stands as Exhibit Number One in the argument for democracy, a great man whom no one could possibly have suspected of being one until he was one. With Darwin the case is different. He had the advantages that Lincoln lacked, and yet he did not, as so many so often do, take that fact as evidence of his superiority. He undertook arduous work in the interest of learning, and he submitted his findings and his theorizing to an often hostile world for examination.”

Both men believed in the honorable spirit of and equality of humanity. Both men freed humanity from the shackles of certain attitudes borne of fear and ignorance. Lincoln embodied the spirit of racial progress and emancipation. In their book Darwin’s Sacred Cause Adrian Desmond and James Moore concluded that Darwin’s interest in evolution could be traced to his hatred of slavery. Darwin “was disheartened to see advocates of slavery justifying their position by saying that white European humans and black African humans were not the same species,” writes author Thomas Hayden in one of a series of articles in the February 2009 issue of the Smithsonian devoted to these two men. “One of the animating thoughts in the young Darwin’s mind as he set out to understand the world was his conviction that all humans were one.”

Both men challenged established mores. Each forged a new rhetoric and evolving paradigm of thought and action. “They shared logic as a form of eloquence, argument as a style of virtue, close reasoning as a form of uplift,” writes New Yorker author Adam Gopnik in the February 2009 issue of the Smithsonion. Lincoln “managed, somewhere along the way, to turn himself into one of the best prose writers America has produced. Lincoln united the North behind him with an eloquence so timeless that his words remain fresh no matter how many times you read them,” writes Malcolm Jones of Newsweek (July 2008). Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address (wherein he assured that "government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth") remains one of the most quoted and is considered one of the greatest speeches in American history. With his first 29 words, Lincoln accomplished what he had come to Gettysburg to do—he defined the purpose of the war for the Union: "Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal." In 272 words, he defined the national principle so thoroughly that today no one would think of arguing otherwise, writes Jones.

Today, Darwin’s Origin of Species “ranks among the most important books ever published, and perhaps alone among scientific works, it remains scientifically relevant 150 years after its debut,” writes Hayden.

Darwin “started out as an amateur naturalist,” writes Jones. He was “… a 22-year-old rich-kid dilettante who, after flirting with the idea of being first a physician and then a preacher, was allowed to ship out with the Beagle as someone who might supply good conversation at the captain's table.” Darwin returned “in the grip of an idea so subversive that he would keep it under wraps for another two decades,” says Jones. “ Darwin may have been independently wealthy, but in terms of his vocation, he was a self-made man.”

“Lincoln was self-made in the more conventional sense,” Jones continues. “A walking, talking embodiment of the frontier myth made good. Like Darwin, Lincoln was not a quick study. Both men worked slowly to master a subject. But both had restless, hungry minds. After about a year of schooling as a boy—and that spread out in dribs and drabs of three months here and four months there—Lincoln taught himself. He mastered trigonometry (for work as a surveyor), he read Blackstone on his own to become a lawyer. He memorized swaths of the Bible and Shakespeare. At the age of 40, after he had already served a term in the U.S. House of Representatives, he undertook Euclidean geometry as a mental exercise.”

Capping his eloquent tribute to these two men, McHenry ends his blog article with this thought: “Is it too trite, in this so sophisticated age of doubt and irony, to note simply that each man did the work he found himself called to, and did it with unequalled grace? Can we set aside the suspicion that we, most of us, are not up to their example and instead rejoice that they were of our species?”

Nina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of novels, short stories and essays. She coaches writers and teaches writing at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. For more about Nina’s coaching & workshops visit Visit for more about her writing.


Jean-Luc Picard said...

An excellent sudy of both men I had no idea that they were born within hours of each other.

SF Girl said...

Wild, isn't it? I hadn't known before I ran across an article not too long ago.

Tina Hunter said...

Lovely Article. Very well written.

I very much enjoyed your book "Darwin's Paradox", and I can see that your interest in the man, as well as his theory's, is genuine.

It's a pleasure reading your blog.


SF Girl said...

Tina, thank you for your kind words. I'm so glad you enjoyed Darwin's Paradox. As you can see from the book I am fascinated by paradox and evolution. You might like to know that its prequel, "Angel of Chaos", will be coming out shortly (my publisher told me either late 2009 or early 2010).

...Darwin and his thinking fascinates me... but what fascinates me even more is how scientists have twisted some of his thinking into a limited view of the world and of evolution. Darwin's own view was far less restrictive and more open and forgiving and humble then some of his followers; he knew he didn't know everything and that there was "more"... Though he had no concept of the development of nano-technology, neuroscience, bio-engineering, genetics and the internet 200 years later today, he was smart enough to realize that there was more to come that would influence how evolution proceeded. I will be posting more to this subject shortly...