by ProfDave, ©2021
(Feb. 11, 2021) — Today we celebrate the birthday of Abraham Lincoln. It used to be a national holiday, but has now been swallowed up by Presidents’ Day. The guy in the tall hat sells cars, doesn’t he? I’ve also been made aware that People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and some other groups are pushing World Darwin Day. Guess what! Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin were both born on February 12, 1809! I didn’t know that! I don’t know what – or if – they thought of one another, but their contrasting legacies are with us yet.
Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) was a mostly self-educated frontier lawyer and politician who captured the attention of the nation in a Senate race (Illinois, 1858). He ran as a Republican against Democrat Stephen Douglas. They held debates in seven locations around the state, reported nationally, which remain all-time political classics. Lincoln saw slavery as the great moral evil of his day, although he regarded outright abolition as impractical. “A house divided against itself cannot stand,” he argued, quoting from the Bible, and measures must be taken to assure that slavery would eventually fade away. Douglas took the position that right and wrong were not important as long as the States kept their institutions to themselves. Douglas won the Senate seat, but Lincoln won the White House two years later over a divided Democratic Party – taking every free state. His victory, on the platform of limiting slavery, assured the secession of the South.
The greatness of Lincoln was the depth of his character, revealed in adversity. His integrity was legend in his own time. Though he might not be called an Evangelical in our day, he drew upon a basic Biblical worldview. The Bible was the main textbook in primary education in his time – and that was all the formal education he had. It taught him that “right makes might,” as he put it, and that the African was also a child of Adam and of God. His mind had the penetration to see the fundamentals of the situation, and his heart the courage to see the nation through four years of the bloodiest war – and some of the most vicious criticism – in its history. The easy thing would have been to let the South go. The legacy of Lincoln is a united nation – the United States of America – and Emancipation – the essential freedom, citizenship and human dignity of Americans of color.
Charles Darwin (1809-1882), on the other side of the water, was a naturalist and explorer educated at the universities of Edinburgh and Cambridge. He sailed on the HMS Beagle 1831-1836 and wrote The Origin of the Species by Natural Selection (1859) and The Descent of Man (1871). Much of the material and ideas he pulled together had been “in the air” for some time, and Alfred Russell Wallace published a book on evolution at about the same time, but it was Darwin’s controversial exposition that put the “history” into natural history. The time was ripe in other ways as well. The myth of progress – the idea that everything would inevitably get better and better – was never stronger than in early Victorian England. We aren’t quite so naïve today. Industry and technology, society and humanity, were evolving towards perfection, so why not biology, too?
The legacy of Darwin is more problematic than that of Lincoln. The theory of evolution has become the conceptual framework and ruling orthodoxy of modern biology. Darwin gets the credit, although scientific knowledge has increased exponentially and the theory of evolution itself has evolved considerably. The controversy, however, despite determined efforts of both the scientific and educational establishments, has not gone away. First noted was the difficulty in reconciling the evolutionary tree of species with a serious reading of revelation, as represented by the Torah – the Creationist objection, scientific and otherwise. Second – and increasing with the development of microbiology and the discovery of DNA – is the common sense objection that living things are just too irreducibly complex to develop accidentally – the Intelligent Design objection. Early efforts to squelch Darwinism by ecclesiastical authority backfired. Truth was the great virtue of the Victorian age. Some say that today the shoe is on the other foot. Strident efforts to suppress criticism of evolution in public education betray weakness rather than strength.
Whatever the biological truth may be – our age is less reverent of “truth” than Darwin’s – I am not professionally qualified to say. However, as a historian I see a darker side to his legacy: social and economic Darwinism. From about 1860 – 1940, anthropologists and eugenicists combed the planet measuring skulls to determine racial characteristics and try to hasten the evolution of a super-race which would survive while others would perish. Early theory was that different races had evolved from different primates, for example – wrong, of course. The names of Nietzche and Hitler come to mind – don’t blame Darwin, he had no idea. New justification was found for imperialism, racial discrimination, and forced sterilization of the unfit. Economists argued against higher wages on the basis that it would only encourage the poor – the unfit – to have more children. Hitler’s “final solution” and “master race” rhetoric discredited social Darwinism for a time, but it is coming back.
Darwinism has become the creation myth of the non-theist – but not a very good one. As part of a naturalistic, materialistic worldview, it takes on a religious nature. Ideas often have unintended consequences. From the “ooze to you via the zoo” is certainly a very “green” point of view, but does not reinforce such things as human dignity, altruism, charitable social action or – beyond obvious self-interest – moral behavior. Quite literally, nothing is sacred. Encouraging children to act like monkeys may not be a really good idea. Such a worldview produces a people with heads and stomachs, as C.S. Lewis says, but no chests.
Abraham Lincoln subscribed to a different worldview, formed by the Book from which he learned to read. His character was formed by a sense of responsibility to his Creator and his attitude towards the slave by his conviction that the Negro, too, was made “in the image of God.” I’m not sure that Charles Darwin intended to undermine these ideas. For some, his legacy – as popularized by others – has elevated an alternative worldview to intellectual respectability. It has yet to be shown whether that worldview can support the ideals of liberty, equality, and national unity that Lincoln personified.
Two men were born February 12, 1809. Two legacies. Which one are you celebrating?
David W. Heughins (“ProfDave”) is Adjunct Professor of History at Nazarene Bible College. He holds a BA from Eastern Nazarene College and a PhD in history from the University of Minnesota. He is the author of Holiness in 12 Steps (2020). He is a Vietnam veteran and is retired, living with his daughter and three grandchildren in Connecticut.