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Lincoln and Darwin

Both changed the world we now inhabit Abraham Lincoln, by holding fast to the idea of a United States of America and proving that a nation "of the people, by the people, for the people" could survive, Charles Darwin (known as Charley or Bobby as a boy), by fundamentally altering our understanding of the science of ourselves. The men never met. And in so many ways they couldn't have been more different. Lincoln never left America, while Darwin would not have developed his theory of evolution had he not gone on a multiyear voyage on the HMS Beagle. Lincoln barely had a year of formal education, while Darwin graduated from Cambridge. But they occupied the same intellectual space in a time of dramatic progress in human thinking. We're still living and growing in a world expanded by their vision and insight. And with that in mind, Times staff writers Donna Winchester and Ron Matus offer some facts, figures and interviews with experts about their lives. Jim Verhulst, Perspective editor

The making of the two men

Darwin, the fifth of six children, lived in a comfortable home that still stands in the English countryside. Lincoln, the second of three children, lived in a rude log cabin in the Kentucky woods that no longer exists. • Darwin stood 5 feet 11; Lincoln, 6 feet 4. Darwin's eyes were blue-gray; Lincoln's, gray. Both men grew beards in middle age, Lincoln to appease a young girl, Darwin perhaps to hide effects of ill health or simply to avoid recognition. • Both experienced the death of a child. Lincoln was a depressive, perhaps even suicidal at a point in early adulthood; Darwin was subject to anxiety. • Both men refused to follow the path that tradition dictated for men of their respective stations. Lincoln wanted a way out of the hard life of a frontier dirt farmer; Darwin eschewed a career either as a clergyman or a doctor.

Their complicated views on religion

While at Cambridge, Darwin had embraced the idea of becoming a country clergyman and accepted William Paley's writings on design by a creator. He belonged to a Unitarian congregation after his marriage. But aboard the HMS Beagle, he began to question how God could allow the kind of suffering he saw in places such as Tierra del Fuego. Yet he never became an atheist. Toward the end of his life, he wrote: "The mystery of the beginning of all things is insoluble to us; and I for one must be content to remain an agnostic."

While Lincoln frequently quoted the Bible, he never joined any church. His opponent in the 1846 congressional race tried to make Lincoln's religious views an issue in the campaign, accusing Lincoln of being an "infidel." In his defense, Lincoln responded: "I do not think I could myself be brought to support a man for office whom I knew to be open enemy of, or scoffer at, religion." When some freed slaves presented Lincoln with a gift of a Bible, he reportedly replied, "All the good the Savior gave to the world was communicated though this book. … All things most desirable for man's welfare, here and hereafter, are to be found portrayed in it."

Lincoln and Darwin as writers

Lincoln, Second Inaugural Address, March 4, 1865

"With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation's wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan — to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations."

Darwin, from Chapter 13 of "The Origin of Species," 1859

"The affinities of all the beings of the same class have sometimes been represented by a great tree. I believe this simile largely speaks the truth. The green and budding twigs may represent existing species; and those produced during each former year may represent the long succession of extinct species . . . As buds give rise by growth to fresh buds, and these, if vigorous, branch out and overtop on all a feebler branch, so by generation I believe it has been with the Tree of Life, which fills with its dead and broken branches the crust of the earth, and covers the surface with its ever branching and beautiful ramifications."

What professors say about Lincoln and Darwin

(Edited and condensed comments)

Richard Conley, associate professor of political science at the University of Florida, on Lincoln:

Why Lincoln was important

If he were a revolutionary, he was a revolutionary in spite of himself. He didn't set out to be one. Yes, he did free the slaves, but that wasn't something that he set out to do. It was a consequence of much larger processes beyond his control. This was something that was thrust on him by time and circumstance and a comedy of errors that preceded his presidency.

There is this phrase in one of his memoirs: "Time and circumstance have made the things I've done necessary." By allowing the South to secede, he believed he was violating the Constitution.

His actions, although controversial, saved the union. If he had been a lesser man with a different notion of the Constitution who was completely inflexible in his views — a William Howard Taft, for example — you and I might be sitting here in Florida in Confederate America right now.

I'm not sure he necessarily set out to do all the things for which he's now remembered. If he had lived 50 years earlier, there may not have been the opportunity for him to become famous.

On whose legacy is more enduring

Darwin told us that only the strong survive. Lincoln inspired us by telling us we shall either save or lose the last great hope of mankind. I think Lincoln, in both his thoughts and his actions, inspired us to go beyond the basic character of our nature. And so I believe that for most Americans, Lincoln has had a larger impact than Darwin. People get up on President's Day and think of Lincoln. We don't have a Darwin Day.

Michael Ruse, a philosophy professor at Florida State University and an expert on the philosophy of biology and the history of science, on Darwin:

Why Darwin was important

He did two things. First, he established the idea of evolution — that all organisms are descended naturally from a few (perhaps one) primitive forms — as a fact. Second, he came up with the mechanism — natural selection or the survival of the fittest — that we today accept as the chief force behind evolution.

At the broader level, obviously it was the implications for humankind. It would be a mistake to think simply that it was Darwin who showed that Genesis is wrong. By the time he published, in the middle of the 19th century, sophisticated thinkers had already accepted this fact. The evidence of sciences like geology showed this, and it was reinforced by the German biblical studies ("Higher criticism") that showed Genesis to be in major respects mythlike.

Darwin established humans are truly part of the natural world. We are not something special. We are more sophisticated than other animals, but not different.

Darwin's religious beliefs

Darwin thought a great deal about religion — given his theory and his times, he had to. His beliefs started with conventional Anglicanism, then in the 1830s just before he became an evolutionist moderated to deism (God as a somewhat impersonal unmoved mover) and stayed that way right through the writing of the Origin in 1859. Later in life he became an agnostic (never an atheist), probably for theological reasons. He (like many Victorians) hated the idea of eternal punishment and the implication that someone like his father, whom he adored, would go to perpetual hell. I doubt his science ever had much to do with any of this; it did not for most 19th century nonbelievers.

He was always stone-cold certain that we humans are part of the natural world. He never once agonized over "man's place in nature," unlike so many others.

On Darwin's 'mistakes'

The obvious and big one in the realm of science is that he had no adequate theory of heredity — a theory of genetics — and so could never really explain how it is that the effects of natural selection get saved and passed on from generation to generation.

The interesting mistakes I think come in The Descent of Man. For his time, Darwin was firmly liberal. He hated slavery, and unlike many English people, was firmly on the side of the North in the Civil War. On the other hand, he was a child of his time, and in the Descent we get all sorts of stuff about European superiority over other races and about males being big and strong and brainy and women being soft and yielding and not really quite as developed as their mates.

On whose legacy is more enduring

What is the lasting significance of Lincoln and Darwin and how far today do we see their hopes and dreams realized? Here, today, one has to give the nod to Lincoln. The U.S.A. is hardly a racially free society, but with a black man in the White House, who can deny that the Great Liberator's mission has reached some kind of apotheosis? What Lincoln strove for has been realized — perhaps more so than ever he would have felt comfortable with.

Darwin, on the other hand, has certainly conquered the world of science. However, in the public domain — in much of America and increasingly elsewhere in the world — evolution is doubted and denied. In Florida, for instance — a state that voted for Barack Obama — there is a determined movement to get creationism into the schools. I hope someday that Darwin will succeed as firmly and as importantly as has Lincoln. That day has not yet arrived.

Key events | In the lives of Lincoln and Darwin

Feb. 12, 1809 Lincoln born in a log cabin in Hardin County, KY. Darwin born in Shrewsbury, England

1831 Lincoln learns basic mathematics, reads Shakespeare and Robert Burns, and participates in local debating society in New Salem, Ill. Darwin graduates from Cambridge and begins a five-year scientific expedition on the HMS Beagle.

1834 Lincoln elected to the Illinois General Assembly as a member of the Whig party and begins to study law.

1837 Darwin becomes obsessed with theories of how new species come into being and starts filling notebooks with his earliest thoughts on species change.

1838 Darwin struggles between the desire to go public with his transmutation theories and an unwillingness to be ostracized by his fellow naturalists, and begins to disagree with his peers about the pre-eminence of mankind.

1839 Darwin elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society of London; marries his first cousin, Emma Wedgwood.

1840 Lincoln argues his first case before the Illinois Supreme Court; he's re-elected to the Illinois General Assembly.

1842 Lincoln marries Mary Todd.

1846 Lincoln nominated to be the Whig candidate for U.S. Congress; wins election to the U.S. House of Representatives.

1854 Darwin figures out how populations split off into separate species.

1856 Lincoln helps organize the new Republican party of Illinois; at the first Republican convention, Lincoln gets 110 votes for the vice presidential nomination, bringing him national attention.

1858 Lincoln nominated to be the Republican senator from Illinois; debates opponent Stephen A. Douglas seven times in a failed Senate campaign.

1859 Darwin publishes The Origin of Species, which introduces the theory that populations evolve over the course of generations through a process of natural selection.

1860 Lincoln elected the 16th U.S. president and the first Republican. Darwin defends his theory at the Oxford evolutionary debate; the term "Darwinism" is coined by Thomas Huxley in the Westminster Journal.

1861 Lincoln authorizes the suspension of the writ of habeas corpus.

1863 Lincoln issues Emancipation Proclamation and delivers Gettysburg Address

1864 Lincoln is re-elected president.

1865 Lincoln is assassinated by John Wilkes Booth and is buried outside Springfield, Ill.

1871 Darwin publishes The Descent of Man, in which he applies his evolutionary theory to human evolution and details his theory of sexual selection.

1877 Darwin receives an honorary Doctorate of Law from Cambridge University.

1882 Darwin dies in Downe, England, after suffering severe chest pain and seizures, and is buried in Westminster Abbey, about 20 feet from Sir Isaac Newton.

Lincoln and Darwin 02/07/09 [Last modified: Thursday, February 12, 2009 11:40am]
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