How Darwin and Lincoln Shaped Us

How's this for a coincidence? Charles Darwin and Abraham Lincoln were born in the same year, on the same day: Feb. 12, 1809. As historical facts go, it amounts to little more than a footnote. Still, while it's just a coincidence, it's a coincidence that's guaranteed to make you do a double take the first time you run across it. Everybody knows Darwin and Lincoln were near-mythic figures in the 19th century. But who ever thinks of them in tandem? Who puts the theory of evolution and the Civil War in the same sentence? Why would you, unless you're writing your dissertation on epochal events in the 19th century? But instinctively, we want to say that they belong together. It's not just because they were both great men, and not because they happen to be exact coevals. Rather, it's because the scientist and the politician each touched off a revolution that changed the world.

As soon as you do start comparing this odd couple, you discover there is more to this birthday coincidence than the same astrological chart (as Aquarians, they should both be stubborn, visionary, tolerant, free-spirited, rebellious, genial but remote and detached—hmmm, so far so good). Two recent books give them double billing: historian David R. Contosta's "Rebel Giants" and New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik's "Angels and Ages." Contosta's joint biography doesn't turn up anything new, but the biographical parallels he sets forth are enough to make us see each man afresh. Both lost their mothers in early childhood. Both suffered from depression (Darwin also suffered from a variety of crippling stomach ailments and chronic headaches), and both wrestled with religious doubt. Each had a strained relationship with his father, and each of them lost children to early death. Both spent the better part of their 20s trying to settle on a career, and neither man gave much evidence of his future greatness until well into middle age: Darwin published "The Origin of Species" when he was 50, and Lincoln won the presidency a year later. Both men were private and guarded. Most of Darwin's friendships were conducted through the mail, and after his five-year voyage on HMS Beagle as a young man, he rarely left his home in the English countryside. Lincoln, though a much more public man, carefully cultivated a bumpkin persona that encouraged both friends and enemies to underestimate his considerable, almost Machiavellian skill as a politician.

It is a measure of their accomplishments, of how much they changed the world, that the era into which Lincoln and Darwin was born seems so strange to us now. On their birth date, Thomas Jefferson had three weeks left in his second term as president. George III still sat on the throne of England. The Enlightenment was giving way to Romanticism. At the center of what people then believed, the tent poles of their reality were that God created the world and that man was the crown of creation. Well, some men, since the institution of slavery was still acceptable on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line—it would not be abolished in New York state, for example, until 1827, and while it had been illegal in England since 1772, it would not be abolished in English colonies until 1833. And Darwin, at least at the outset, was hardly even a scientist in the sense that we understand the term—a highly trained specialist whose professional vocabulary is so arcane that he or she can talk only to other scientists.

Darwin, the man who would almost singlehandedly redefine biological science, started out as an amateur naturalist, a beetle collector, a rockhound, a 22-year-old rich-kid dilettante who, after flirting with the idea of being first a physician and then a preacher, was allowed to ship out with the Beagle as someone who might supply good conversation at the captain's table. His father had all but ordered him not to go to sea, worrying that it was nothing more than one of Charles's lengthening list of aimless exploits—years before, Dr. Darwin had scolded his teenage son, saying, "You care for nothing but shooting, dogs, and rat catching, and you will be a disgrace to yourself and all your family." How could the father know that when the son came ashore after his five-year voyage, he would not only have shed his aimlessness but would have replaced it with a scientific sense of skepticism and curiosity so rigorous and abiding that he would be a workaholic almost to the day he died? Darwin was also in the grip of an idea so subversive that he would keep it under wraps for another two decades. But the crucial thing is that he did all this by himself. He became the very model of a modern major scientist without benefit of graduate school, grants or even much peer review. (It's hard to get a sympathetic hearing when your work, if successful, is clearly going to knock the blocks out from under civilization.) Darwin may have been independently wealthy, but in terms of his vocation, he was a self-made man.

Lincoln was self-made in the more conventional sense—a walking, talking embodiment of the frontier myth made good. Like Darwin, Lincoln was not a quick study. Both men worked slowly to master a subject. But both had restless, hungry minds. After about a year of schooling as a boy—and that spread out in dribs and drabs of three months here and four months there—Lincoln taught himself. He mastered trigonometry (for work as a surveyor), he read Blackstone on his own to become a lawyer. He memorized swaths of the Bible and Shakespeare. At the age of 40, after he had already served a term in the U.S. House of Representatives, he undertook Euclidean geometry as a mental exercise. After a while, his myth becomes a little much—he actually was born in a log cabin with a dirt floor—so much that we begin looking for flaws, and they're there: the bad marriage, some maladroit comments on racial inferiority. Then there were those terrible jokes. But even there, dammit, he could be truly witty: "I have endured a great deal of ridicule without much malice; and have received a great deal of kindness, not quite free from ridicule. I am used to it."

Perhaps the most mysterious aspect of this riddlesome man was just how he managed, somewhere along the way, to turn himself into one of the best prose writers America has produced. Lincoln united the North behind him with an eloquence so timeless that his words remain fresh no matter how many times you read them. Darwin wrote one of the few scientific treatises, maybe the only one, worth reading as a work of literature. Both of them demand to be read in the original, not in paraphrase, because both men are so much in their prose. To read them is to know these elusive figures a little better. Given their influence on our lives, these are men you want to know.

Darwin seems to have been able to think only with a pen in his hand. He was a compulsive note taker and list maker. He made an extensive list setting down the pros and cons of marriage before he proposed to his future wife. His first published work, "The Voyage of the Beagle," is a tidied-up version of the log he kept on the five-year trip around the world, and he is unflaggingly meticulous in his observations of the plant and animal life he saw or collected along the way. To live, for Darwin, meant looking and examining and then writing down what he saw and then trying to make sense of it.

In the Beagle log and his journals, Darwin is something like a cub reporter, asking questions, taking notes, delighting in the varieties of life he discovers, both alive and in the fossil record, in South America, Australia or the Cape Verde Islands. With Darwin there is no Eureka moment when he suddenly discovers evolution. But by the time he left the Beagle in 1836, he was plainly becoming convinced that, contrary to the prevailing wisdom, life is not static—species change and evolve. Shortly before the voyage was over, he mulled over what he had seen on the Galápagos: "When I see these islands in sight of each other, and possessed of but a scanty stock of animals, tenanted by these birds, but slightly differing in structure and filling the same place in Nature, I must suspect they are only varieties … If there is the slightest foundation for these remarks the zoology of the [Galápagos] will be well worth examining; for such facts would undermine the stability of Species." What he did not have was a controlling mechanism for this process. It was not until two years later that he conceived the idea of natural selection, after reading economist Thomas Malthus on the competition for resources among humans brought on by the inexorable demands of overpopulation. There he had it: a theory of everything that actually worked. Species evolve and the ones best adapted to their environment thrive and leave more offspring, crowding out the rest.

As delighted as he was with his discovery, Darwin was equally horrified, because he understood the consequences of his theory. Mankind was no longer the culmination of life but merely part of it; creation was mechanistic and purposeless. In a letter to a fellow scientist, Darwin wrote that confiding his theory was "like confessing a murder." Small wonder that instead of rushing to publish his theory, he sat on it—for 20 years. He started a series of notebooks in which he began refining his theory, recording the results of his research in fields as disparate as animal husbandry and barnacles. Over the next five or six years, he went through notebook after notebook, including one in which he began to pose metaphysical questions arising from his research. Do animals have consciences? Where does the idea of God come from?

This questioning spirit is one of the most appealing facets of Darwin's character, particularly where it finds its way into his published work. Reading "The Origin of Species," you feel as though he is addressing you as an equal. He is never autocratic, never bullying. Instead, he is always willing to admit what he does not know or understand, and when he poses a question, he is never rhetorical. He seems genuinely to want to know the answer. He's also a good salesman. He knows that what he has to say will not only be troubling for a general reader to take but difficult to understand—so he works very hard not to lose his customer. The book opens not with theory but in the humblest place imaginable: the barnyard, as Darwin introduces us to the idea of species variation in a way we, or certainly his 19th-century audience, will easily grasp—the breeding of domestic animals. The quality of Darwin's mind is in evidence everywhere in this book, but so is his character—generous, open-minded and always respectful of those who he knew would disagree with him, as you might expect of a man who was, after all, married to a creationist.

Like Darwin, Lincoln was a compulsive scribbler, forever jotting down phrases, notes and ideas on scraps of paper, then squirreling the notes away in a coat pocket, a desk drawer—or sometimes his hat—where they would collect until he found a use for them in a letter, a speech or a document. He was also a compulsive reviser. He knew that words heard are not the same as words read. After delivering his emotional farewell speech in Springfield, Ill., in 1861, he boarded the train for Washington and, if the shakiness of his handwriting is any indication, immediately began revising his remarks prior to publication.

The Gettysburg Address apparently gestated in a somewhat similar fashion. The winter and spring of 1863 were one of the lowest points for the Union. In the West, Grant was bogged down in his protracted siege of Vicksburg. In the East, the South won decisively at Chancellorsville. Since the Emancipation Proclamation had been issued on Jan. 1, people in the North were wondering aloud just what it was they were fighting for. Was it to preserve the Union, or was it to abolish slavery? Lincoln was keenly aware that he needed to clarify the issue. The Northern victory at Gettysburg in early July gave him the occasion he was seeking.

Some witnesses at Gettysburg claimed to recall applause during the speech, but most did not, and Lincoln was already taking his seat before many in the audience realized he had finished. This was a time when speeches could last for four hours. Edward Everett, who preceded the president on the program, had confined his remarks to two hours. Lincoln said what he had to say in two minutes. Brevity is only one of the several noteworthy aspects of what is surely one of the greatest speeches ever made. Of much greater importance are what the president said and how he said it.

With his first 29 words, Lincoln accomplished what he had come to Gettysburg to do—he defined the purpose of the war for the Union: "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." He could have put this sentence in the form of an argument—the equality of all men was one of the things the war was about. Instead, he states his argument as fact: the nation was founded on the principle of equality; this is what we fight to preserve. There is a hint of qualification—but only a hint—in the word proposition: equality is not a self-evident truth; it is what we believe in. In the next paragraph, he continues this idea of contingency: "Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure." In other words, republican democracy hangs in the balance. Before the speech, none of this was taken for granted, even in the North. In 272 words, he defined the national principle so thoroughly that today no one would think of arguing otherwise.

Lincoln's political genius stood on two pillars: he possessed an uncanny awareness of what could be done at any given moment, and he had the ability to change his mind, to adapt to circumstances, to grow. This is Lincoln in 1838, addressing the Springfield Young Men's Lyceum on a citizen's obligations to the legal system with such lines as, "Let reverence for the laws, be breathed by every American mother, to the lisping babe, that prattles on her lap." Here he is not quite 30 years later in the Second Inaugural of 1865 (there's a mother and child in this one, too, but what a difference): "With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation's wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan—to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations."

This is the language of the Bible, and if the rhetoric does not convince us of that, Lincoln mentions God six times in one paragraph. But what kind of God? Lincoln's religious history is perhaps the most tangled aspect of his life. His law partner, William Herndon, swore Lincoln was an atheist, and to be sure, there are plenty of boilerplate references to the Almighty scattered through Lincoln's speeches. But as the war wears on, and the speeches grow more spiritual, they become less conventional. Lincoln was a believer, but it is hard to say just what he believed. He speaks often of the will of God, but just as often adamantly refuses to decipher God's purpose. And he never, ever claims that God is on his side.

The God of the Second Inaugural is utterly inscrutable: "The Almighty has His own purposes." One of those purposes, Lincoln then suggests, may be to punish both North and South for permitting the offense of slavery. Then he delivers what biographer David Herbert Donald has called "one of the most terrible statements ever made by an American public official": "Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said 'the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether'." It is here, just when he has brought his audience to the edge of the cliff, that Lincoln spins on his heel in one of the great rhetorical 180s of all time and concludes, "With malice toward none; with charity for all …" Even today, reading that conclusion after what's come before is like coming out of a tunnel into bright sunshine—or out of a war that claimed more than 600,000 lives. Lincoln understood that language could heal, and he knew when to use it.

Lincoln, no less than Mark Twain, forged what we think of today as the American style: forthright, rhythmic, muscular, beautiful but never pretty. As Douglas L. Wilson observes in "Lincoln's Sword," his brilliant analysis of the president's writing, Lincoln was political, not literary, but he was, every bit as much as Melville or Thoreau, "perfecting a prose that expressed a uniquely American way of apprehending and ordering experience." What Lincoln says and how he says it are one. You cannot imagine the Gettysburg Address or the Second Inaugural in words other than those in which they are conveyed.

Lincoln and Darwin were both revolutionaries, in the sense that both men upended realities that prevailed when they were born. They seem—and sound—modern to us, because the world they left behind them is more or less the one we still live in. So, considering the joint magnitude of their contributions—and the coincidence of their conjoined birthdays—it is hard not to wonder: who was the greater man? It's an apples-and-oranges—or Superman-vs.-Santa—comparison. But if you limit the question to influence, it bears pondering, all the more if you turn the question around and ask, what might have happened if one of these men had not been born? Very quickly the balance tips in Lincoln's favor. As much of a bombshell as Darwin detonated, and as great as his book on evolution is (E. O. Wilson calls it "the greatest scientific book of all time"), it does no harm to remember that he hurried to publish "The Origin of Species" because he thought he was about to be scooped by his fellow naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace, who had independently come up with much the same idea of evolution through natural selection. In other words, there was a certain inevitability to Darwin's theory. Ideas about evolution surfaced throughout the first part of the 19th century, and while none of them was as cogent as Darwin's—until Wallace came along—it was not as though he was the only man who had the idea.

Lincoln, in contrast, is sui generis. Take him out of the picture, and there is no telling what might have happened to the country. True, his election to the presidency did provoke secession and, in turn, the war itself, but that war seems inevitable—not a question of if but when. Once in office, he becomes the indispensable man. As James McPherson demonstrates so well in the forthcoming "Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief," Lincoln's prosecution of the war was crucial to the North's success—before Grant came to the rescue, Lincoln was his own best general. Certainly we know what happened once he was assassinated: Reconstruction was administered punitively and then abandoned, leaving the issue of racial equality to dangle for another century. But here again, what Lincoln said and wrote matters as much as what he did. He framed the conflict in language that united the North—and inspires us still. If anything, with the passage of time, he only looms larger—more impressive, and also more mysterious. Other presidents, even the great ones, submit to analysis. Lincoln forever remains just beyond our grasp—though not for want of trying: it has been estimated that more books have been written about him than any other human being except Jesus.

If Darwin were not so irreplaceable as Lincoln, that should not gainsay his accomplishment. No one could have formulated his theory any more elegantly—or anguished more over its implications. Like Lincoln, Darwin was brave. He risked his health and his reputation to advance the idea that we are not over nature but a part of it. Lincoln prosecuted a war—and became its ultimate casualty—to ensure that no man should have dominion over another. Their identical birthdays afford us a superb opportunity to observe these men in the shared context of their time—how each was shaped by his circumstances, how each reacted to the beliefs that steered the world into which he was born and ultimately how each reshaped his corner of that world and left it irrevocably changed.