Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin were both born on Feb. 12th, 1809. Why is celebrating their birthdays important? Why should we take this opportunity to talk about them with our students or our children?
In many ways, Lincoln and Darwin defined the age of modernism for politics, science, and religion. Every child should recognize their names and understand why they continue to be so important around the world. In Dan Rather’s words, “As Lincoln unified the nation, in life and death, Darwin's work unified the life sciences upon a common foundation.” As IHE has reported, though, not everyone agrees with Rather’s assessment.
I was fortunate to listen to Doris Kearns Goodwin, author of Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, deliver a speech on the eve of Lincoln’s birthday in Chicago. The new Illinois governor, Pat Quinn, was in attendance with several Illinois Supreme Court Justices, so you can imagine the hopeful comments made about using Lincoln as a model to improve leadership quality in the Presidency or the Illinois governor’s office…
But details about Lincoln’s leadership style did not impress me as much as certain details about Lincoln’s personal life -- his commitment to literature and poetry, his wife’s nervous breakdown, his tragic losses. Goodwin foregrounds how often Lincoln’s family life was marked by death and mortality. He lost his mother at the age of nine, his first love, Ann Rutledge, and then two sons with despondent wife Mary Todd — tragedies that help to explain Lincoln’s life-long interest in writings that spoke of transcendence. Before making it to Washington, Lincoln spent hours reading the poetry of Byron and the dramas of Shakespeare, much to his Kentucky father’s chagrin. His literary obsessions would help to focus his great rhetorical skills later.
Charles Darwin displayed similar interdisciplinary leanings, experienced personal tragedies and suffered chronic illnesses in his adult life. He fathered ten children, three of whom died prematurely. It is not often mentioned, though, that Darwin displayed ambivalence in picking a major and choosing a career. He went to Cambridge to study theology in order to join the clergy, after first rejecting the study of medicine. Darwin then rejected the clergy as his chosen field, and soon set off on his five-year global journey of discovery.
What should be important information for college professors everywhere, however, is the research that shows that Darwin was inspired to travel by his Botany professor--the vicar and mentor, Rev. John Henslow. Henslow demonstrated to Darwin that it was possible to integrate interests in theology, science and belief, and encouraged him to do so as well.
In the “60-second Science” blog for Scientific American, Steve Mirsky writes about Darwin introducing the idea of “population thinking” to replace “typological thinking” for the world. Population thinking accepts defining diversity and within larger groups. Asian, Caucasian and African differences are defined as typological distinctions, and subsumed within the human population category. Just prior to the Civil War, however, legal debates raged in the United States about whether to count an African-American as a full person, or as part of a person for census counts. The short-lived compromise law was that African-Americans, or people with ‘one drop’ of mixed race blood, were counted as 3/5ths of a person in the population count.
It took a devastating war to change this bit of ‘science’ and its legal implications. Darwin’s science mattered for the democratic treatment of all human beings.
Darwin and Lincoln remained devoted family men who studied the world around them. They changed fundamentally how we understand that world. They were both men defined by their thirst for knowledge, and are still alive for us two centuries later.