Thursday, February 12, 2009

Happy 200 Abe Lincoln and Chuck Darwin

Today, February 12, is the 200th birthday of two giants of the 19th century: Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin. That's right--they were born on the exact same day. There are two recent books that have discussed these two figures together, their similarities within their differences, so to speak.

The most recent is just out:

Adam Gopnik, Angels and Ages: A Short Book about Darwin, Lincoln, and Modern Life.

Here is its description:

On a memorable day in human history, February 12, 1809, two babies were born an ocean apart: Abraham Lincoln in a one-room Kentucky log cabin; Charles Darwin on an English country estate. It was a time of backward-seeming notions, when almost everyone still accepted the biblical account of creation as the literal truth and authoritarianism as the most natural and viable social order. But by the time both men died, the world had changed: ordinary people understood that life on earth was a story of continuous evolution, and the Civil War had proved that a democracy could fight for principles and endure. And with these signal insights much else had changed besides. Together, Darwin and Lincoln had become midwives to the spirit of a new world, a new kind of hope and faith.

Searching for the men behind the icons of emancipation and evolution, Adam Gopnik shows us, in this captivating double life, Lincoln and Darwin as they really were: family men and social climbers; ambitious manipulators and courageous adventurers; the living husband, father, son, and student behind each myth. How do we reconcile Lincoln, the supremely good man we know, with the hardened commander who wittingly sent tens of thousands of young soldiers to certain death? Why did the relentlessly rational Darwin delay publishing his “Great Idea” for almost twenty years? How did inconsolable grief at the loss of a beloved child change each man? And what comfort could either find—for himself or for a society now possessed of a sadder, if wiser, understanding of our existence? Such human questions and their answers are the stuff of this book.

Above all, we see Lincoln and Darwin as thinkers and writers—as makers and witnesses of the great change in thought that marks truly modern times: a hundred years after the Enlightenment, the old rule of faith and fear finally yielding to one of reason, argument, and observation not merely as intellectual ideals but as a way of life; the judgment of divinity at last submitting to the verdicts of history and time. Lincoln considering human history, Darwin reflecting on deep time—both reshaped our understanding of what life is and how it attains meaning. And they invented a new language to express that understanding. Angels and Ages is an original and personal account of the creation of the liberal voice—of the way we live now and the way we talk at home and in public. Showing that literary eloquence is essential to liberal civilization, Adam Gopnik reveals why our heroes should be possessed by the urgency of utterance, obsessed by the need to see for themselves, and endowed with the gift to speak for us all.

Then there is this more substantial volume:

David R. Contosta, Rebel Giants: The Revolutionary Lives of Abraham Lincoln & Charles Darwin

Here is its description:

February 12, 2009, will mark the 200th anniversary of the birth of two of the most extraordinary and influential men in recent history--Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin. While the coincidence of these two men being born on exactly the same day might fill astrologers with glee, further reflection points to many parallels and intersections in their lives. In this unique approach to history and biography, historian David R. Contosta examines the lives and careers of Lincoln (the political rebel) and Darwin (the scientific rebel), and notes many surprising and illuminating points of comparison.

Contosta points out that despite obvious differences--one born to a poorly educated, impoverished family on the American frontier, the other to a wealthy and prominent English family; one largely self-taught, the other with a degree from Cambridge; one a politician seeking the crowd's approval, the other a reclusive scientist--there are striking similarities between these seemingly disparate individuals. Both Lincoln and Darwin:

·Lost their mothers in childhood and later lost beloved children at young ages.
·Had strained relations with their fathers.
·Went through years of searching for a direction to their lives.
·Struggled with religious doubt.
·Were latter-day sons of the Enlightenment who elevated reason over religious revelation.
·Suffered from severe bouts of depression.
·Were ambitious as well as patient, with sure and steady mental powers rather than quick minds.
·Possessed an excellent sense of pacing that allowed them to wait until the time was ripe for their ideas and leadership.

Contosta makes a compelling case that by studying the similarities (along with the differences) between these two giants of history we are able to understand each man better than by examining their lives in isolation. This approach also affords many insights into the factors that impel special individuals to lead great paradigm shifts. Today, as American society still struggles to come to grips with the impact of racial integration and controversies over the teaching of evolution, it is more important than ever to understand how two 19th-century rebels with revolutionary ideas helped to shape the present.

Here's to the two men born on this date 200 years ago who changed the political and scientific vocabulary by which we think. Happy Birthday!

No comments: