‘Twinned note of our time’

Honoring Lincoln and Darwin on the bicentennial of their births

In one of those cosmic coincidences out of which all kinds of gauzy postulations are spun, Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin were born within hours of each other exactly 200 years ago, on Feb. 12, 1809. There’s a tendency at times like this, the bicentennial of their birth, to ascribe similarities and a relationship to them that may not have existed. And yet it’s clear that they had at least this much in common: Both were transformational figures in world history and pre-eminent authors of modern consciousness.

“It’s impossible not to ask oneself which of the two has been the greatest emancipator,” writes Christopher Hitchens, in Newsweek. Hitchens notes that Lincoln “had read Darwin before most people had heard of him” and as a result believed in evolution as a universal law, which explains why he moved toward abolitionism “by means of graduated stages—evolutionary rather than revolutionary phases.” He knew slavery in America was on the wrong side of history, that the country’s own founding ideals of equality and justice inevitably would force its demise.

The argument is sometimes made that Darwin’s work changed the world, by establishing the pre-eminence of science over religion in explaining existence, while Lincoln’s work affected only the United States. But that fails to acknowledge that Lincoln’s determination to hold the Union together, despite the horrific cost in human lives of the Civil War, was the singular act of existential courage that proved that democracy was capable of defending itself.

As Lincoln said in his immortal Gettysburg Address, the war was a test of whether “a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal … could long endure.” He understood the magnitude and importance of that test not just for America, but for the rest of the world, as well.

What Lincoln and Darwin accomplished, writes Adam Gopnik, in his new book about the two men, Angels and Ages, was to change the shape of history. They expanded the role of democracy and science so they encompassed one another, and the resulting “marriage of science and democratic politics represents for us liberal civilization, the twinned note of our time.”