The Words of Lincoln and Darwin

Dan - Stephens City, Virginia
Entered on February 4, 2009

When I was growing up in Indiana, every year when my birthday rolled around on February 12, adults would remark that I was born on the same day as Abraham Lincoln. I came to see the birthday as a connection, as if all people with the same birthday share an important bond.

Years later, I discovered that Charles Darwin, the father of evolution theory, was also born on February 12, and that Lincoln and Darwin were both born in 1809. The bicentennial of this double birthday will be here in a few days.

Darwin was not a big figure in my childhood. I had little connection there. But Lincoln was my man. Like Lincoln, I was growing up in Indiana. I heard stories in school–usually on my birthday–about how Honest Abe walked miles to refund an overpayment to a customer of the country store where he worked. We later learned that he preserved the Union in the Civil War and freed the slaves through the Emancipation Proclamation. The elementary school curriculum in my day included nothing about Darwin’s theories, let alone his childhood in England.

In high school, Darwin finally became a subject of study in biology class. I remember hearing classmates protest that evolution was “only a theory” and that it should not be taught as “fact.” Today, people still make the argument that creationism or intelligent design should be presented in biology classes and given the same weight as the theory of evolution.

Several years ago, I was surfing through the television channels when I landed on a sermon by Jerry Falwell. I believe February 12 must have fallen on a Sunday that year. Dr. Falwell was contrasting Lincoln, the liberator, with Darwin, who enslaved minds with his anti-Biblical theory. According to Falwell, it was a great irony that Lincoln and Darwin shared a birthday.

I am more inclined to agree with Malcolm Jones, who wrote an article for Newsweek (July 7-14, 2008) drawing comparisons between the two great 19th century figures. Both men were relatively obscure until late in their careers. Darwin published The Origin of Species in 1859, just one year before Lincoln was elected president. But the most important parallel is that both men made their most lasting contributions through their words.

Lincoln’s speeches, most notably the Gettysburg Address and his Second Inaugural Speech, help us understand more fully the principles upon which our Nation was founded.

Darwin’s writings make sense of a bewildering body of data collected from the natural world. The principle of natural selection paved the way for the later discoveries of genetics–how the traits that promote survival are passed on–and subsequent medical advances.

Both men continue to influence us today because their words have shaped the way we see our world. Lincoln has enriched our understanding of why we choose to stand together as Americans “with malice toward none.” Darwin has influenced the way we see ourselves as humans in the natural world. Some people may reject the Darwinian view of human origins, but I doubt that a totally pre-Darwinian mindset will ever again be possible for most educated people.

I think it is a mistake, then, to dismiss a leader’s eloquence as “mere words.” It is true that many speeches that create a sensation for a short time may ultimately be forgotten. But it is also true that great actions and accomplishments often result when people are inspired or enlightened by the words of a great man or woman.

And so when people remark that I share my birthday with the sixteenth president, I make a point of telling them about the Darwin connection. Perhaps it is only a coincidence that I have the same birthday as Lincoln and Darwin. But I still feel that my world is largely what it is because they spoke and wrote their words. And the coming bicentennial is a double reason to celebrate.