Lincoln and Darwin: Two Bicentennials
Yesterday, 12 February 2009, was the 200th anniversary of the birth of two remarkable human beings:
Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin.
Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) was, of course, 16th President of the United States (1861-1865). He was president during our nation’s greatest hour of challenge: the Civil War. Although he had earlier denounced slavery in more absolute terms when (unsuccessfully) running against pro-slavery Stephen Douglass for the U.S. Senate, the one-term Congressman from IL who became our first Republican president was willing to compromise with slavery if it would preserve the Union. His highest priority, even stretching the Constitution (the Supreme Court struck down his suspension of Habeas Corpus), was the preservation of the Union against all those trying to destroy it. He did preserve it–and abolished slavery in the process. For his labors, he paid with his life.
Charles Darwin(1809-1882), English naturalist and biologist, did more than any other single person to change the way we see biological life on earth. Evolutionary theories had been around for some time. Darwin’s breakthrough, discovered by his observations during the Beegle expedition, was to propose “natural selection by random mutation” as the mechanism by which the evolutionary changes within and between species are made. Evolutionary theory itself has undergone changes since Darwin’s day: The neo-Darwinian synthesis of modern evolutionary thought includes genetics (evidence that Darwin lacked), insights from other sciences such as geology and astronomy on the age and development of the universe and the earth, a FAR greater fossil record, etc.
The reception of Darwin’s ideas has been mixed. On the one hand, almost the entire scientific world accepts the neo-Darwinian synthesis of evolutionary theory. Almost no field of modern science would be able to function in quite the same way without evolutionary thought. On the other, Darwin’s popularity among non-scientists, especially people of faith, has been mixed from the beginning. He had his defenders among Christian theologians from the outset, but also his critics. In earlier generations, most of those theological critics concentrated on the challenge of Darwinian thought to teleological and cosmological arguments for God’s existence, for the goodness of Creation, the uniqueness of humanity and of purpose to human existence. In recent decades, however, these larger questions have been downplayed in favor of biblical literalism and of pseudo-scientific attempts to justify that literalism via such oxymoronic schemes as “creation science,” and “intelligent design theory.”
This week a new Gallup poll showed that only 39% of Americans accept biological evolution as fact. Another 25% deny it and the remainder are unsure. Those are rather depressing statistics–and go a long way to explain why we have to import so much top-level scientific talent from other nations!
Ironically, it was Abraham Lincoln who, even in the midst of our nation’s greatest struggle for survival (both physical and as a nation of freedom and equality for ALL), created our National Academy of Sciences. He sought not only to preserve the Union physically, but to enrich its future through promotion of scientific inquiry. Origin of Species was only published in 1859 and The Descent of Man was not published until 1871, so it is unclear if Lincoln had ever heard of any of Darwin’s researches or theories. (Lincoln was self-taught, but widely read. He won his law license and admission to the Illinois Bar completely through self-study.) Yet, I think Lincoln would be disappointed that the United States today, though in many ways far more advanced than in Lincoln’s day, would take knowledge and scientific inquiry so lightly that only 39% of the public is completely convinced of biological evolution via natural selection.
Many Americans are reading more about Lincoln this year in honor of his bicentennial. It’s a good idea. But take some time out to read Darwin, too.
Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.