The ascent of men and their ideas

Charles Darwin and Abraham Lincoln share the same birthday; but little else

Written by Lalit Mohan | Published: February 12, 2009 12:38:29 am

In a historical coincidence,Charles Darwin and Abraham Lincoln were both born on the same day — February 12,1809. The Englishman lived in a wealthy home in Shrewsbury,but without any focus in life,leading his father to comment,“You will be a disgrace to yourself and all your family.” He left at 22 on a voyage to the Pacific on board HMS Beagle. Five years later he returned carrying inside his head a theory so revolutionary that he kept it right there for nearly two decades. On his voyage,Darwin meticulously studied the flora and fauna in the Galapagos and came to the conclusion that different species evolve continuously and those that adapt best to the changes in environment survive and dominate. That worried him. If all life evolved biologically then something was fundamentally wrong with what mankind,particularly the Christian world,perceived the origin of the human race to be.

Darwin published Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection in 1859 and followed it up later with Descent of Man,which brought the human race into the same scheme of evolution as the rest of life. The problem was that if all animals and man had been evolved in an ascendant manner,then,in the words of H G Wells,“there had been no first parents,no Eden,and no Fall. And if there had been no fall,then the entire historical fabric of Christianity,the story of the first sin and the reason for atonement,upon which the current teaching based Christian emotion and morality,collapsed like a house of cards.” The Church,of course,reacted with horror. For years it fought hard to proscribe Darwin’s theory,but is today looking for a way to reconcile his thesis with the fundamentals of its ethics.

Lincoln’s circumstances were quite different. He spent his early life in a log cabin and was mostly self-educated. He fought his way up in politics right up to the presidency,wrote inspiring prose and delivered some of the most memorable speeches ever recorded. The moral underpinnings of a simple frontiersman’s life led Lincoln to abhor slavery. In 1860 he won the US presidential election on an anti-slavery plank and immediately declared his intention to ban it. The southern states revolted. A bloody civil war followed. In 1863 the Emancipation Proclamation was issued. The same year,after the victory at Gettysburg,he delivered the stirring address that defined for all times to come what democracy was about and what his country should be. Lincoln was reelected in 1864. The war ended the following year with a victory for the North. Soon after,Abraham Lincoln was assassinated,and his Secretary of War,Edwin Stanton announced,“Now he belongs to the ages.”

However,a controversy still surrounds Lincoln over the issue: what was of greater concern to him — saving the union or abolition of slavery. In some of his comments he appears to lay stress on the former. Even the citation in his Washington memorial talks only of his having ‘Saved the Union.’ But he was also very clear,“As I would not be a slave,so I would not be a master. This expresses my idea of democracy.” In a letter to Henry Pierce he said “Those who deny freedom to others,deserve it not for themselves; and,under a just God,can not long retain it.” In England slavery had already been abolished in 1772. Abraham Lincoln’s immediate impact was confined to America. Here was ahead of his times,because his own country had to wait for another 100 years for the Blacks to get full and equal rights under law in every state. And only in 2008 could a coloured man be elected president of the US.

Had Lincoln not been born,emancipation of slaves in America may have had to wait for several decades. In contrast,Darwin’s contemporaries were already catching up with him,and the idea of evolution would have been introduced even without him. But Charles Darwin still remains the flag-bearer of the idea of evolution and Abraham Lincoln of racial emancipation in America. And both triggered revolutions that changed human history.

The writer is a freelance journalist

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