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.