Public education should honor Lincoln and Darwin
Feb. 12 was Abraham Lincoln’s birthday and Charles Darwin’s. The two were born at almost the same time, an ocean apart. Yet their lives would converge.
Darwin’s “Origin of Species” was published in 1859 — a year before Lincoln was elected president. These two events defined both men.
With attacks on the teaching of science at the national, state and local levels, and continuing efforts to retard or reverse progress in civil rights, Lincoln and Darwin are essential figures for our time.
It is appropriate that these two men, who neither met nor corresponded, be celebrated together for more than the accident of their births. Though strangers, they certainly knew of each other. They also approved of each other’s values.
In 1861, Darwin wrote his American friend, Asa Gray, he wished “to God, though at the cost of millions of lives, that the North would proclaim a crusade against Slavery. In the long run, a million horrid deaths would be amply repaid in the cause of humanity.”
Just days after Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, Darwin again wrote Gray. “Well, your President has issued his fiat against Slavery — God grant it may have some effect.”
Lincoln had little taste for science. When his law partner, William Herendon, encouraged him to read scientific works, including Darwin, he “occasionally … would snatch it up and peruse it for a little while, but he soon threw it down.”
But Lincoln did not need to read Darwin to become an evolutionist.
Fifteen years before Darwin, in 1844 Robert Chambers published “Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation,” which, Herendon said, Lincoln did read. Vestiges was one of many pre-Darwinian works advocating the idea of evolution.
Like all Darwin’s predecessors, Chambers described a process without a cause. He grasped the principle that later organisms evolved from earlier, simpler ones, but not until Darwin did the theory of natural selection emerge to explain how the process of evolution worked.
Chambers’ work earned scorn from scientists and condemnation from ministers, but the public devoured it. It became a bestseller in England and the United States. Darwin believed it prepared the way for his work.
Herendon wrote of Lincoln, “The treatise interested him greatly, and he was deeply impressed with the notion of the so-called ‘universal law’ evolution; he did not extend greatly his researches, but by continued thinking in a single channel seemed to grow into a warm advocate of the new doctrine.”
Lincoln scholar Michael Lind said, “Herndon’s testimony suggests Lincoln was not only familiar with the idea of evolution, but convinced by it.”
Lincoln and Darwin shared the greatest ideas of their time: emancipation and evolution.These great themes of modern thought have evolved far beyond what either could have foreseen. But their principles remain unchanged; their influence is omnipresent today.
Both are Great Emancipators.
Lincoln’s great achievement was to liberate the slaves. But he liberated their masters as well, since the two were inextricably bound. Breaking the chains of slavery liberated spirits as well as bodies. Whites as well as blacks.
Darwin liberated the human mind from the necessity of the supernatural to explain natural events — including our own evolution.
When Lincoln and Darwin are equally honored in our classrooms, they will emancipate young minds and spirits to challenge convention and authority with open-minded curiosity and a will to grow their minds.
But an education inculcating the humanity of Lincoln and the science of Darwin does not “have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority,” as some maintain.
Said author Adam Gopnik, “Lincoln and Darwin can be seen as symbols of the two pillars of the society we live in: one representing liberal democracy and a faith in armed republicanism and government of the people, the other the human sciences, a belief that objective knowledge about human history and the human condition, who we are and how we got here, exists.”
Both are essential for education today.