Thursday, February 12, 2009

Happy Birthday!

Today is the 200th birthday of Charles Darwin AND Abraham Lincoln. Pretty big deal really, both men are still as relevant as ever and both were born on the same day! Sorry, just found out, still having a double take moment. This year also marks the 150th anniversary of the publication of The Origin Of Species, released just a year before Lincoln became the first Republican president. Yes, I know it is just a coincidence that they were both born on the same day; a few have tried to come up with more parallels, but to me it seems fitting that these two men who were so influential on our world were more than just coevals, allowing us to celebrate them both today.

Lincoln and Darwin were both revolutionaries, in the sense that both men overthrew realities that prevailed when they were born. February 12th, 1809, Thomas Jefferson had three weeks left in his second term as president and George III still sat on the throne of England as the Enlightenment was giving way to Romanticism. Before Darwin's work, biology was nothing more than a way of categorizing and describing the world around us; his work showed us that all organisms are connected, giving us a framework for asking questions about the natural world, and about ourselves. Lincoln inherited a shaky democracy, transforming it by winning a civil war and validating the nation's founding documents by ridding America of slavery. They gave us the tools to modernity leaving us a world with more possibilities than when they entered it. Unfortunately, 200 years after their births and almost 150 years after their major accomplishments much of the world still rejects what they taught us and thus hold us back with their ignorance.

Darwin knew what he had to teach the world wouldn't be easy for many to accept, not the least of whom was his wife, a devout creationist. Lincoln entered office after 7 states had already seceded and knew that his actions would likely lead to civil war. As enlightening as both men's influence on the world has been, both still face resistance today. While the Vatican has officially proclaimed Darwin's theory of evolution to be compatible with Christian faith, the world is still plagued by fundamentalists who believe creationism, dinosaurs and humans living together, should be taught in science class. Somewhat ironically, it was the distortion of Darwin's ideas that led to survival of the fittest and the evils of Social Darwinism and eugenics which have been responsible for the continued belief of the superiority of some races and beliefs over others. While Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation freed the slaves in America, many believe Darwin's ultimate aim in proposing his theory was to show "the brotherhood of the races".

Take a moment today to consider a world without these two great men. In many ways both were the greatest actors of the 19th century, leaving an indelible mark on the world, overcoming self-doubt, depression and adversity. While Darwin waited 20 years and tactfully dropped humans from his seminal work, there is little doubt that his work was partially motivated by the desire to show the brotherhood of man. Where Darwin hesitated, Lincoln acted, but in the end both risked everything for what they believed.


LazySusan said...

What a great entry on Lincoln! It's wonderful to take a look at Lincoln's presidency now - while we have a president that is doing so much to bridge the gaps in our country and really form us into a union, just as Lincoln did. I was just reading an essay on re-empowering the government and re-establishing trust in it from our citizens and even from members of government themselves (the essay was "Upholding Community Values" by Deepak Bhargava and Seth Borgos from the book Thinking Big). Government is an essential tool for doing together what we cannot do on our own, I think that both Lincoln and Obama understood that.