Malcolm Jones: Who Was More Important ... Lincoln or Darwin?

Roundup: Talking About History

[Malcolm Jones is a columnist at Newsweek.]

How's this for a coincidence? Charles Darwin and Abraham Lincoln were born in the same year, on the same day: Feb. 12, 1809. As historical facts go, it amounts to little more than a footnote. Still, while it's just a coincidence, it's a coincidence that's guaranteed to make you do a double take the first time you run across it. Everybody knows Darwin and Lincoln were near-mythic figures in the 19th century. But 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? 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 changed the world.

As soon as you do start comparing this odd couple, you discover there is more to this birthday coincidence than the same astrological chart (as Aquarians, they should both be stubborn, visionary, tolerant, free-spirited, rebellious, genial but remote and detached—hmmm, so far so good). As we approach their shared bicentennial, there is already one book that gives them double billing, historian David R. Contosta's "Rebel Giants," with another coming early next year from New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik. Contosta's joint biography doesn't turn up anything new, but the biographical parallels he sets forth are enough to make us see each man afresh. Both lost their mothers in early childhood. Both suffered from depression (Darwin also suffered from a variety of crippling stomach ailments and chronic headaches), and both wrestled with religious doubt. Each had a strained relationship with his father, and each of them lost children to early death. Both spent the better part of their 20s trying to settle on a career, and neither man gave much evidence of his future greatness until well into middle age: Darwin published "The Origin of Species" when he was 50, and Lincoln won the presidency a year later. Both men were private and guarded. Most of Darwin's friendships were conducted through the mail, and after his five-year voyage on HMS Beagle as a young man, he rarely left his home in the English countryside. Lincoln, though a much more public man, carefully cultivated a bumpkin persona that encouraged both friends and enemies to underestimate his considerable, almost Machiavellian skill as a politician.

It is a measure of their accomplishments, of how much they changed the world, that the era into which Lincoln and Darwin was born seems so strange to us now. On their birth date, Thomas Jefferson had three weeks left in his second term as president. George III still sat on the throne of England. The Enlightenment was giving way to Romanticism. At the center of what people then believed, the tent poles of their reality were that God created the world and that man was the crown of creation. Well, some men, since the institution of slavery was still acceptable on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line—it would not be abolished in New York state, for example, until 1827, and while it had been illegal in England since 1772, it would not be abolished in English colonies until 1833. And Darwin, at least at the outset, was hardly even a scientist in the sense that we understand the term—a highly trained specialist whose professional vocabulary is so arcane that he or she can talk only to other scientists.

Darwin, the man who would almost singlehandedly redefine biological science, started out as an amateur naturalist, a beetle collector, a rockhound, a 22-year-old rich-kid dilettante who, after flirting with the idea of being first a physician and then a preacher, was allowed to ship out with the Beagle as someone who might supply good conversation at the captain's table. His father had all but ordered him not to go to sea, worrying that it was nothing more than one of Charles's lengthening list of aimless exploits—years before, Dr. Darwin had scolded his teenage son, saying, "You care for nothing but shooting, dogs, and rat catching, and you will be a disgrace to yourself and all your family." How could the father know that when the son came ashore after his five-year voyage, he would not only have shed his aimlessness but would have replaced it with a scientific sense of skepticism and curiosity so rigorous and abiding that he would be a workaholic almost to the day he died? Darwin was also in the grip of an idea so subversive that he would keep it under wraps for another two decades. But the crucial thing is that he did all this by himself. He became the very model of a modern major scientist without benefit of graduate school, grants or even much peer review. (It's hard to get a sympathetic hearing when your work, if successful, is clearly going to knock the blocks out from under civilization.) Darwin may have been independently wealthy, but in terms of his vocation, he was a self-made man.

Lincoln was self-made in the more conventional sense—a walking, talking embodiment of the frontier myth made good. Like Darwin, Lincoln was not a quick study. Both men worked slowly to master a subject. But both had restless, hungry minds. After about a year of schooling as a boy—and that spread out in dribs and drabs of three months here and four months there—Lincoln taught himself. He mastered trigonometry (for work as a surveyor), he read Blackstone on his own to become a lawyer. He memorized swaths of the Bible and Shakespeare. At the age of 40, after he had already served a term in the U.S. House of Representatives, he undertook Euclidean geometry as a mental exercise. After a while, his myth becomes a little much—he actually was born in a log cabin with a dirt floor—so much that we begin looking for flaws, and they're there: the bad marriage, some maladroit comments on racial inferiority. Then there were those terrible jokes. But even there, dammit, he could be truly witty: "I have endured a great deal of ridicule without much malice; and have received a great deal of kindness, not quite free from ridicule. I am used to it."

Perhaps the most mysterious aspect of this riddlesome man was just how he managed, somewhere along the way, to turn himself into one of the best prose writers America has produced. Lincoln united the North behind him with an eloquence so timeless that his words remain fresh no matter how many times you read them. Darwin wrote one of the few scientific treatises, maybe the only one, worth reading as a work of literature. Both of them demand to be read in the original, not in paraphrase, because both men are so much in their prose. To read them is to know these elusive figures a little better. Given their influence on our lives, these are men you want to know...

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