January 27, 2009
We’re celebrating an odd double anniversary this year—the 200th anniversaries of the births of Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin both on February 12, 2009. Yes, they were born on the same day. And being that history and science are two of our favorite topics at Smithsonian, someone asked: Who was more important, Lincoln or Darwin?
Over one week on the blog, we attempted to answer that question. We’ve included them here so you can follow the argument in one place. Siding with Lincoln are two of the magazine’s senior editors, T.A. Frail and Mark Strauss. And arguing for Darwin will be senior editor and blog overseer Laura Helmuth and myself. Who will win?
Please add your own arguments to the comments. Make a convincing case and I might recruit you into our little office blog war. Read the arguments below, and then vote for who you deem more important.
Who Was More Important?
- Charles Darwin (54%, 110 Votes)
- Abraham Lincoln (46%, 94 Votes)
Total Voters: 203
T.A. Frail, argument for Lincoln:
Lincoln outweighing Darwin, in the historical-grativas department? Darwin outstripping Lincoln? It’s like arguing Lennon/McCartney versus Jagger/Richards. But I think the question is inevitable: when you have giants striding the earth at the same time, they’re going to bump into each other, metaphorically or otherwise.
And I vote for: It depends.
Oh, wait—I meant Lincoln. Yes, Darwin came up with the means to explain life on earth. He exemplified the modern scientific modern. He keelhauled humankind’s understanding of itself on a scale not seen since Copernicus. But his work was about life in the abstract—processes and aeons. I prefer Lincoln because his work was about living—about nations and relations. Like Darwin, his work raised the question of who we are, but in the context of how we were going to get along with one another. Darwin explained how life became. Lincoln set a course for what we could become. I’ll go with that..
Laura Helmuth, response for Darwin:
Abe Lincoln? Love him. Best president ever. The most inspiring spot in Washington, D.C. is the Lincoln Memorial–stand there in a crowd sometime and read the Second Inaugural etched into the wall and listen to all the sniffles.
There are two ways to approach this debate: either argue about whose accomplishments were more important or argue about how necessary each man was to those accomplishments. To take the last point first, it’s true that the abolition movement was growing stronger and eventually would have prevailed without Lincoln. (I’m not going to wade into the debate about whether the Union would have survived without him.) Likewise, knowledge of the natural world was growing and somebody would have (and Wallace pretty much did) figured out evolution by natural selection if Darwin hadn’t. (But it sure helped that Darwin gathered data meticulously and presented his case so logically. Even though his carefulness was due in part to the fact that he knew his Great Idea had the potential to upset the church, the scientific establishment, and the missus (Emma Darwin was devout).)
I prefer the first line of argument. And how to say this nicely… Lincoln may matter in our measly little lives, but Darwin matters to the entire world and all time. He explained everything that came before him and explains everything that has been learned since. Lincoln worked wonders with his one country, but Darwin allowed us to make sense of all of life on Earth (and presumably any other planet).
Mark Strauss, rebuttal for Lincoln:
All good points, but aren’t we just avoiding the real issue: Who would prevail in a kickboxing match? (Lincoln was a former rail-splitter—and with those long legs of his, I’m betting that Darwin would have gone down in two.)
As for the more mundane question of who was more influential, I think there’s a third variation on the way Laura approaches the debate: How would history have been different if either of these men had never been born? (Otherwise known as the “It’s a Wonderful Life” theory of human history.)
If Darwin had never been born, I genuinely believe it would have been only a matter of time before someone else introduced the theories of natural selection and evolution. Would the case for the “Great Idea” have been as meticulously researched and logically argued as Darwin presented it? Probably not. In that regard, he was truly one of a kind. But, once the idea was out there, it still would have eventually gained widespread acceptance, following years of additional research, arguments and counter-arguments. (Lest we forget, even Einstein’s Theory of Relativity was controversial in its day.)
But if Lincoln had never been born, I’m convinced that I would need a passport today to visit Virginia. Such was Lincoln’s political and military genius that I have a difficult time imagining how any other leader in his position could have saved the Union and recreated the nation. (Before the Civil War, people said, “The United States are…” After Lincoln, they said, “The United States is….”)
I don’t know how a Confederate States of America and a United States of America would have gotten along. (I’ll leave such conjecture to the alternate history buffs.) But, I do think that both nations would have been worse off without the other—and one does not have to be U.S.-centric to argue that the United States had a profound and beneficial impact on the 20th century. (Who else would have turned the tide against the Axis Powers? Who else had the resources to contain the Soviet Union?)
And while I do agree that slavery would have eventually collapsed on its own, I also believe that—absent Lincoln’s bold and visionary decision to issue the Emancipation Proclamation—it could have been decades before the Confederacy’s “peculiar institution” was finally banished. (And, subsequent advances in civil rights would have likewise been delayed.) For the four million people in bondage, the 13th Amendment couldn’t come soon enough—indeed, it was centuries too late.
Sarah Zielinski, concluding argument for Darwin:
I’m not going to take up Mark’s challenge and attempt to argue that Darwin would win the kickboxing match (Lincoln may have an advantage with his long limbs, but anyone who sailed around the world in the early 1800s couldn’t have been a sissy—that was no pleasure cruise). And though Lincoln made tremendous progress toward equality, some would say that we didn’t reach our destination until last week (and maybe not even then).
Fundamentally, the difference between them is that Lincoln’s greatness is largely confined to the United States. Slavery and bondage, sadly, continue throughout the world. Lincoln’s words and ideas have spread, but other countries may need their own Lincolns to lead them out of the darkness and into the light of freedom.
Darwin, however, changed the way humanity thought about life itself. No longer was the world static, its creatures unchanged since time began. Darwin convinced people—and still makes new converts—that life is and has been evolving. Thousands of years of common knowledge upturned in (nearly) an instant. This was such a paradigm shift that today people still find the idea not only controversial but even dangerous, too dangerous to introduce to innocent, impressionable children.
That leaves the question of whether Darwin was fundamental to the spread of this idea, or would anyone have been able to popularize it. Others had preceded Darwin with ideas similar to natural selection, but they never caught on. And Darwin’s own ideas when first introduced didn’t make much of a splash; that didn’t happen until he published On the Origin of Species.
This is where Darwin’s true greatness shines. He was not only a great scientist but also an amazing science communicator. Origin, The Descent of Man and many of his other writings continue to be read today all over the world. His writing was clear, his tone respectful and friendly. The books are relentlessly logical, rich in description and painstakingly researched. (Kurt Vonnegut, in Galapagos, summed it up nicely, describing Origin as “the most broadly influential scientific volume produced during the entire era of great big brains.”) And in addition to becoming the basis for all of modern biology (would we have progressed as far as we have in science without them?), these works have had profound influences in other areas, such as literature and religion.