If you have 15 minutes to spare today, you have to read this Malcolm Jones article, “Who was more important: Lincoln or Darwin,” in the Newsweek issue of July 2008. (Let’s also take a moment to reflect on our great fortune that we live in an age when it is possible for us to have access to so much great stuff to read without having to visit a physical library.) I quote a few bits from that article for the record but I entreat you to find the time to read the whole thing.
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.
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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.”
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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.
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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.
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What [Darwin] did not have was a controlling mechanism for this process. It was not until two years later [in 1838] 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.
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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.
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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.”
Allow me to interject here. His words, “With malice toward none; with charity for all” are the words of a buddha. Those are words that only a person who profoundly understands dharma can utter, a dharma that is based on universal values. “Sarve bhavantu sukhinah, Sarve santu niraamayaah“.
There is no doubt that Lincoln believed in some god but it is equally doubtless that it was not the monotheistic god. Belief in the monotheistic god does not allow universal benevolence; in fact, monotheism compels its followers to be ruthless towards all who don’t believe in one specific god. The prophets and founders of the monotheistic religions have never expressed any sentiments that come even remotely close to universal benevolence.
Now back to the bits from the article.
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.
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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.
Malcom Jones ends his article with his answer to the question of who was the more important of the two. He says that Lincoln was the greater of the two men. But then he would say that considering that Jones is an American and Lincoln defines the US more than most leaders have ever defined their countries.
My position is that both these men were incomparable — to others of course but even relative to each other.