There’s something that I learned today that I am having a hard time putting together. That Darwin and Lincoln were born on the same day in the same year. 200 years ago today. As an American and a scientist, I can’t believe I didn’t already know this. Wow.
Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.
Charles Darwin, born 12 February 1809
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.
Abraham Lincoln, born 12 February 1809
The quotes are the last sentences of “On the Origin of Species”* and The Gettysburg Address. In them, I find a fascinating juxtaposition. Both speak of the results of competition and death. For Darwin, the forces that shape natural selection are brutal and harsh but lead to the most “exalted” of beings (intelligent animals). Lincoln had watched the brutality of the Civil War, and yet sought to create purpose from it, such that the effort was not wasted – that the post-War America would be better than what it had been.
To me, this distills down to the two sides of the endless Nature vs Nurture arguments. Darwin suggests that “grandeur” can be achieved by the natural process. Lincoln calls on us to use our free-will to “self-select” (if you will) for that grander society. To me, we must admit that we are biological organisms – with all the pitfalls that entails – but to be great, we have to be so much more.
Happy Birthday, gents.
*Remarkably, “Origin” was published in November 1859, a year before Lincoln was elected President.
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