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Hero Versus Hero

The cover of this past week’s Newsweek magazine reads: Lincoln vs. Darwin – Who Matters More? By choosing this as their cover article, they could not have captivated a more intrigued audience than myself. These are two all-time historical figures for which I have tremendous respect and admiration. Charles Darwin, author of ‘The Origin of Species’ – no less than the official introduction of evolution by natural selection into humanity’s collective understanding, pitted against Abraham Lincoln, arguably the most important president in the history of The United States. Having glanced the cover, I suddenly recalled that these two men were born on the exact same date, February 12, 1809. But other than that bit of trivia, I can not recall ever thinking about the two men in any sort of context together. So I put down the $5.95 for the magazine, in hopes that I would experience some sort of “grand unification theory” between these two historical giants.

Written by Malcolm Jones, he begins by sighting the common birthday, and then asks:

“Who ever thinks of them in tandem? Who puts the theory of evolution and the Civil War in the same sentence? Why would you, unless you’re writing your dissertation on epochal events in the 19th century?”

His next sentence, he offers an answer:

“But instinctively, we want to say that they belong together. It’s not just because they were both great men, and not because they happen to be exact coevals. Rather, it’s because the scientist and the politician each touched off a revolution that changes the world.”

I do not agree that there is an “instinct” to put these two together. Their paths never crossed personally. There appears to be no correspondence between them or any of their associates. Lincoln’s tragic murder, sadly, is what first resonates with people when they hear his name. By comparison, all most no one knows or cares how Darwin departed the earth, although Darwin died on April 19, 1882, and Lincoln was assassinated on April 15, 1865, so there is a springtime connection there. Yes, they are revered as great each in their own right and I agree that their respective “revolutions” made them such. Hoping that Jones would eventually tie these strands together, I read on.

The next paragraph was somewhat baffling for me. As Jones begins to attempt to make correlations between the two, he manages to give a casual nod of acceptance to astrology, along with sighting the facts that that both men lost their mothers in early childhood, suffered from depression, had a strained relationship with their fathers, each lost a child to an early death, and each “wrestled with religious doubt.” Although I did not have the time to research all the necessary statistics for unfortunate occurrences such as these for people in the first half of the 19th century, I would venture a guess that Lincoln and Darwin shared these same hardships with thousands upon thousands of other people in this time in history. So far, I’m not seeing much of an intertwining.

Jones continues by offering some background and history of each of their upbringing, their schooling, and their first steps in their respective professions. Jones shows a fair understanding of the importance of Darwin’s work as the naturalist aboard The Beagle, and spends the next several paragraphs discussing Darwin’s approach to observational science, his transformation from viewing divinely created humans to that of a natural process of evolution via natural selection, and his internal and external struggles over the next 20 years on his way to publishing ‘The Origin of Species’. Jones then turns his attention to a few paragraphs about Lincoln, mostly regarding the build up to and the delivery of his infamous Gettysburg Address. Each sets of descriptors for each man are nice and accurate reminders of the seminole moments for each of these figures. However, I am still left wanting a more of a unification theory. Now more than halfway through the article, Jones fails to deliver. Perhaps the last eight paragraphs of the article will yield what I seek.

Not really. Jones continues to discuss Lincoln, his faith (he was a believer in a “God”, yet kept any ardent deism somewhat in check when expressing and enacting his political and wartime policies, invoking “God” selectively and only as necessary to convey his messages.) Jones makes reference to three books that capture the essence of Lincoln, one of which is the book “Lincoln” by David Herbert Donald – considered by many to be the definitive biography of the 16th US president. (I will be picking up a copy this summer as soon as I complete my book on Benjamin Franklin.) And then in the third to last paragraph, Jones offers this:

“Lincoln and Darwin were both revolutionaries, in the sense that both men upended realities that prevailed when they were born. Considering the join magnitude of their contributions – and the coincidence of their conjoined birthdays – it is hard not to wonder: Who was the greater man? It’s an apples-and-oranges comparison. But if you limit the question to influence, it bears pondering, all the more if you turn the question around and ask: What might have happened if one of these men had not been born? Very quickly, the balance tips in Lincoln’s favor.”

And so Jones concludes that Lincoln mattered more to history than Darwin. Jones also mentioned that Darwin hurried to publish ‘The Origin of Species’ so as to not be scooped by Alfred Russell Wallace, Darwin’s contemporary who had also come up with ‘evolution through natural selection’ in his own research. Jones argues that there was no other person who could have come along to take the place of Lincoln. Lincoln was the only person up to the task of keeping The United States together during the country’s most violent and bloody years of its history, and that he was the great emancipator and the extinguisher of slavery in America. Jones concludes with this:

“Their identical birthdays afford us a superb opportunity to observe these men in the shared context of their time – how each was shaped by his circumstances, how each reacted to the beliefs that steered the world into which he was born and ultimately how each reshaped his corner of the world and left it irrevocably changed.”

It is not that this is a bad article. Jones has a good grasp of the facts, and it is always a good thing to be reminded of the accomplishments of historical giants. But I feel somewhat jipped that the cover of Newsweek magazine sells a story of comparison, or perhaps contrast, and in the end, I am left wanting for something more that just the trivial connection of their shared birthday. I was hoping for more of an insight to Darwin’s politics, or any scientific run-ins or dabblings that Lincoln might have undertaken. I was hoping that there might have been some similar characters that influenced the lives and writings of both men, a real conduit of some kind that influenced both men as part of their respective greatness. I was hoping to learn new and interesting facts that I have never known before about two of my all time favorite people in history. I was hoping that Newsweek would deliver the goods as advertised on their cover. That’s what I get for getting my hopes up too high.

In closing, my opinion is that while Lincoln managed to save a nation and free an entire race of people during four of our country’s darkest and deadliest years, Darwin matters more because of his contribution to the entire discipline of scientific endeavor that still resonates today. Whereas the Civil War and the heroism of Lincoln is regarded as ancient history by many Americans (we do not stop and think much about the Civil War or our history of slavery on a day-to-day basis), the war that Darwin began fighting in 1859 is still being fought today. It knows no borders and makes no distinguishment of races. It is necessary that we continue to invoke Darwin and his works to fight back the forces that continue to threaten and attack our sciences.

14 comments to Hero Versus Hero

  • marjasieni

    Passing on the misery, eh? :D I read the blog entry in great anticipation of what the grand conclusion would be and then… nothing.

    From a non-American perspective Darwin matters quite a bit more than Lincoln. Darwin’s discovery affects how people view life in general, while Lincoln is more of a historical figure nowadays (as you pointed out).

    The article misses a key similarity between the two: bushy beards.

  • petrucio

    “What might have happened if one of these men had not been born? Very quickly, the balance tips in Lincoln’s favor.”

    You people never learn. Darwin changed the WORLD! And many other revolutions in thinking are by-products of his work. Lincoln changed (or avoided change) of one country. His contribution to abolish slavery can’t be underplayed, but I’m not so sure about keeping the US United.

    Perhaps I’m not so comfortable with that much fire power concentrated on that much wooed and religious people. It’s probably futile to ponder the likely consequences of such a scenario, and they may be disastrous; or maybe not.

    But enough with the “US = World” already.

  • i find such cage-matches to be utterly pointless. why do we need to have a pissing contest between two titans? why can’t we celebrate their unique contributions to society independently and relish their accomplishments in their true context of the times, rather than in the context of just the other?

  • Martinus

    “Each sets of descriptors for each man are nice and accurate reminders of the seminole moments for each of these figures.”

    I’m thinking you meant “seminal” there.

    Interesting article & blog. It just shows that some comparisons are meaningless. Two great men, no comparison between them.

  • Jim Shaver

    Each sets of descriptors for each man are nice and accurate reminders of the seminole moments for each of these figures.

    I don’t think either Charles Darwin or Abraham Lincoln was an American Indian. Did you mean seminal? :)

    Anyway, I think comparing the relative importance of two of history’s great men is a somewhat pointless task. Not that I’m surprised it made the cover of Newsweek. I mean, look at that whole Laura Day fiasco ( http://www.newsweek.com/id/142632 ). Ah, well, what are ya gonna do?

  • nowoo

    Another minor correction: it should be “citing” instead of “sighting” in two places

  • Rasputin

    The grand unifying theme you’re looking for?

    They both promoted the idea that the apparent differences between us are largely illusory.

  • orDover

    While I think Lincoln was a very important historical figure, I think that the US would have abolished slavery with or without him. As a country, we were pretty late in bringing an end to slavery. All of Europe had already done so, as well as several South American, Central American, and Caribbean countries. The world’s tide was turning against slavery, and it was going to effect the US sooner or later.

    The outcome of the Civil War is a harder thing to consider without Lincoln, but it seems that the strength of the Northern armies coupled with their tactically skilled generals did a lot more to win the war than Lincoln’s unification speeches.

    Anyway, my vote is for Darwin. There is a reason he is remembered and not Wallace.

  • Perhaps there was a subtext of the article that I’m not getting but when I come accross an X vs Y type scenario I don’t think of the aim as being how to show the protagonists as alike or connected but their relative strengths and weaknesses.
    If the question is Hulk vs Batman, then I don’t say Batman is quite strong but Hulk is stronger, see how they are similar. I say Batman will use his intellect and Hulk will use his strength but in the end Batman will win.
    Perhaps petrucio is right that it’s Americocentrism that led to the conclusion of this article, but given his influence I can’t help wondering what the consequences for the world would have been without Lincon.

    Darwin still wins in my book though.

  • Nigel

    I saw the cover of Newsweek, and thought it was one of the most bone headed comparisons I have ever scene. Okay, they were born on the same day. Okay, they were both celebrated and loathed in their time. Which is more important -how can you really calculate it. Lincoln saved the Union through great political skill, courage, and never ceasing determination. Would slavery have ended without him in North America -most likely. Would liberal democratic republican forms of government have spread around the globe — probably not as fast.

    Darwin was a revolution in thinking about the place of man, animals, and its ‘creation.’ Would someone else had brought it up -sure. Who was more important -if you were a slave in 1865, I think Lincoln. In the realms of science of learning Darwin.

    Comparing the two in importance -just dumb. Compare Lincoln to Churchill, or Bismark but to Darwin?? It must be a slow day at Newsweek.

  • I hate to disagree, but Jones is right if we are to consider each man’s relative impact on history. Darwin was inevitably standing on the shoulders of giants, since that is how science works. His contributions may have been great, but if Darwin was never born, someone else would have discovered evolution. Perhaps not in the same way or at the same time, but eventually it would happen and, judging from the work his contemporaries were doing, probably sooner than later. Meanwhile, if Lincoln was never born, would someone else have filled his place? That seems far less likely, so I think that Jones is right as far as the historical comparison goes. It doesn’t matter if we consider the civil war to be “ancient history,” Lincoln has already shaped the future and set it irrevocably down a path that may have been radically different had he never existed. I don’t think that you can make a similar claim about Darwin.

    Of course, history is only one comparison. You may not give a damn about Lincoln if you’re not American, so Darwin’s relevance is far more universal in that respect. But really, I think it’s like comparing apples and oranges. The headline is obviously meant as an attention-grabber, and I don’t think it makes a lot of sense to explore it further. Although thinking about alternate historical timelines is certainly fun.

  • (I will be picking up a copy this summer as soon as I complete my book on Benjamin Franklin.)

    You’re writing a book on Franklin?

  • Steve Page

    In his book “Making History”, Stephen Fry explores a fictional reality where Hitler never existed, and concludes that the problems within Germany – loss of pride after the First World War, crippling debt, rampant anti-Semitism – would all have existed without Hitler and could possibly have been exploited even more ruthlessly by whoever was there in his place. Whilst I don’t intend to do down either Lincoln or Darwin (for both of them deservedly rank amongst the greats in human history, IMHO), neither of them existed within a vacuum. The zeitgeist plays a big part in shaping the situation that allows the greats (or the infamous) to flourish.

  • tk42

    Evan, I disagree with your conclusions about the article. I thought the comparison was an interesting one: each man was responsible for authoring an upheaval of long-standing divisions, showing that all men (Lincoln) and all organisms (Darwin) are more similar than superficial differences suggest.

    True, Darwin’s revolution is “bigger,” but Lincoln’s is arguably more relevant for social/political day-to-day concerns. True, we’re still dealing with the fallout of Darwin’s revolution, but we (in America, at least) are also still dealing with the fallout of slavery and segregation. While the former struggle seems more interesting to those of us who loves science and despise creationism, the latter struggle is a lot more pressing for a lot of Americans.

    Darwin was terrific, but no reasonable person doubts that we’d understand evolution by natural selection today if he never lived. Without Lincoln, we’d probably all have repudiated slavery by now, but it’s conceivable that the union would have fallen apart. To non-Americans, that matters too; even if you dislike USA, you can’t deny that its absence as a unified power would have drastically changed the course of modern history.

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