Monday, February 09, 2009

Darwin or Lincoln?‏

Darlene the Science Cheerleader posed an interesting question to me, based on a Newsweek article: who was more important, Abraham Lincoln or Charles Darwin? I decided to write this before reading the Newsweek piece so as not to prejudice myself--all I knew was that they chose Lincoln.

By “important,” I presume they mean influential: who made a difference in more people’s lives? Who improved more people’s lives? Who made more people’s lives worse? Some of these questions I leave as exercises for the reader.

Next to George Washington, Lincoln is one of the two most revered American presidents today. His story is known to all (some better than most—I grew up in Illinois, the “Land of Lincoln,” as it declares boldly on our license plates). He is the president who managed to preserve the Union through force of arms and at a terrible cost in lives and property. The Civil War, also called “The War of Northern Aggression” by some of my compadres south of the
Mason-Dixon Line, remains the most disastrous conflict ever fought on the American continent.

The political and economic outcomes were long-lasting and world changing. The war ended slavery and the slave trade in North America, legally brought Black Americans the voting franchise, and changed the shape of the Constitution. It brought an end to the Southern plantation system's aristocracy and its domination of American politics until Woodrow Wilson became president in 1913. It established the Western practices of both trench and indirect assault warfare. It preserved the territorial integrity of the United States and ensured that the States remained United, in form if not always in attitude. (And if you doubt the importance of all this history, I call to your attention the alternate histories of Harry Turtledove, who imagined a counterfactual history in which the U.S.A. and C.S.A. remained separate and how the world suffered from the dreadful consequences of that separation.) All of this was the work of Lincoln. But it is the man’s words that we remember better than others:

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate -- we can not consecrate -- we can not hallow -- this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us -- that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion -- that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain -- that this nation,
under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

Lincoln's rhetoric and nearly Biblical cadences have ensured that, almost certainly, his words will long outlive the man and the nation he led. It is one thing to lead a nation through a time a great tribulation and ensure its survival. It is another thing to be a firm, passionate, and articulate defender of a set of beliefs. It is something else altogether to be able to do both. If Lincoln had been defeated in the War Between the States, America would not exist today, and much that this nation achieved in the time since then would not have occurred, from the victories of freedom in World Wars I and II, the Marshall Plan, and the Cold War, all the way up to the election of our current president. This is why Lincoln is still revered over 140 years after his death; Lincoln still matters because America still matters.

Darwin established a whole paradigm in science, one of the prime-moving forces in Western culture. He managed to write, in reasonably clear and non-confrontational prose (unlike some of his inheritors), a scientific theory of why there are so many different types of creatures on this Earth. However, unlike Lincoln, Darwin was not an “indispensible man.” That is, if he hadn’t written The Origin of Species, someone else would have, with more or less the same impact. Darwin just happened to get there first. The prevailing trends in natural philosophy of the 19th century were leading scientists toward increasingly naturalistic theories and explanations for life on Earth. It was simply a matter of time before someone put it all together and said, “You know, given the similarities between X, Y, and Z creatures, their behaviors, and their physical (and later DNA) structures, it’s entirely possible that if you go back far enough, they might have had a common ancestor.” And from there it's not such a great leap, if you make such assumptions about plants and animals, to discuss the possible origins of human beings.

The philosophical “spinoffs” of evolution have been profound and continue to be played out—much like Lincoln’s America. It laid the groundwork for genetics and comparative biology; it has hardened the line between science and religion, to the detriment of the whole culture; and it also has provided “scientific” social justifications for capitalism, aristocracy, communism, imperialism, racism, and atheism.

Lincoln ensured a second birth of the American dream, and that nation now has the dubious honor of being the most powerful nation on Earth, still imperfectly pursuing the ideals Lincoln articulated 150 years ago. One would like to think that future freedom-loving societies will continue to preserve his words down through the ages. Darwin articulated a theory that was an inevitable outcome of the scientific theory and practice of his time. Darwin was a spokesman for the practice of science, which has a longer-term impact than Darwin himself. Therefore, as an individual, as a man, I would argue that Lincoln was the more important of the two. Given science, Darwin was inevitable; given America's history, Lincoln was not.

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