How Lincoln and Darwin Shaped the Modern World- page 2 | History | Smithsonian
Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin helped shape the modern world. (Illustration by Joe Ciardiello)

How Lincoln and Darwin Shaped the Modern World

Born on the same day, Lincoln and Darwin would forever influence how people think about the modern world

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We must be realistic about what they were like; not saints nor heroes nor Gods but people. Darwin and Lincoln are admirable and in their way even lovable men. But Lincoln, we have always to remember, was a war commander, who had men shot and boy deserters hanged. We would, I think, be taken aback at a meeting. Lincoln summed up in one word was shrewd, a backwoods lawyer with a keen sense of human weakness and a knack for clever argument, colder than we would think, and more of a pol and more of a wiseguy than we would like him to be: someone more concerned with winning—elections, cases and arguments—than with looking noble. Lincoln was smart, shrewd and ambitious before he was, as he became, wise, far-seeing and self-sacrificing. If we were around to watch him walk across a room, instead of stride through history, what we would see is the normal feet that left the noble prints.

Darwin we would likely find far more frumpy and tedious than we would like our heroes to be—one of those naturalists who run on and on narrowly on their pet subjects. He would have frowned and furrowed his brow and made helpless discomfited harrumphs if any of today's fervent admirers arrived and asked him what he thought of man's innate tendencies to relish Tchaikovsky. One can easily imagine him brought back to earth and forced onto a television studio platform with eager admirers (like this one) pressing him for his views on sexual equality or the origins of the love of melody in the ancient savanna, and his becoming more and more unhappy and inarticulate, and at last swallowed up in a vast, sad, melancholy, embarrassed English moan.

Not that Lincoln didn't care about morality; but he cared more about winning wars and arguments than about appearing to be a paragon. Not that Darwin wasn't interested in speculative consequences of his theory—he was—but the habit of pontification was completely alien to him, unless it was reassuringly tied with a bow of inductive observation.

Fifty years ago, not many would have chosen Darwin and Lincoln as central figures of the modern imagination. Freud and Marx would perhaps have been the minds that we saw as the princes of our disorder. But with the moral (and lesser intellectual) failure of Marxism, and the intellectual (and lesser moral) failure of Freud, their ideas have retreated back into the history of modernity, of the vast systematic ideas that proposed to explain it all to you. Lincoln and Darwin, by contrast, have never been more present: Lincoln is the subject of what seems to be the largest biographical literature outside those of Jesus and Napoleon, while Darwin continues not only to cause daily fights but to inspire whole new sciences—or is it pseudosciences? For the irony is that the most radical thing around, at the birth of the new millennium, turned out to be liberal civilization—both the parliamentary, "procedural" liberalism of which Lincoln, for all his inspirational gifts, was an adherent, and the scientific liberalism, the tradition of cautious pragmatic free thought, that engaged Darwin, who was skeptical of grand systems even as he created one. Science and democracy still look like the hope of the world (even as we recognize that their intersection gave us the means to burn alive every living thing on the planet at will).

The deepest common stuff the two men share, though, is in what they said and wrote—their mastery of a new kind of liberal language. They matter most because they wrote so well. Lincoln got to be president essentially because he made a couple of terrific speeches, and we remember him most of all because he gave a few more as president. Darwin was a writer who published his big ideas in popular books. A commercial publishing house published The Origin of Species in the same year that it published novels and memoirs, and Darwin's work remains probably the only book that changed science that an amateur can still sit down now and read right through. It's so well written that we don't think of it as well written, just as Lincoln's speeches are so well made that they seem to us as obvious and natural as smooth stones on the beach. (We don't think, "Well said!" we just think, "That's right!")

Darwin and Lincoln helped remake our language and forge a new kind of rhetoric that we still respond to in politics and popular science alike. They particularized in everything, and their general vision rises from the details and the nuance, their big ideas from small sightings. They shared logic as a form of eloquence, argument as a style of virtue, close reasoning as a form of uplift. Each, using a kind of technical language—the fine, detailed language of naturalist science for Darwin; the tedious language of legal reasoning for the American—arrived at a new ideal of liberal speech. The way that Darwin uses insanely detailed technical arguments about the stamen of an orchid to pay off, many pages later, in a vast cosmic point about the nature of survival and change on a planetary time scale, and the way that Lincoln uses lawyerly arguments about who signed what and when among the Founders to make the case for war, if necessary, to end slavery—these things have in common their hope, their faith, in plain English, that people's minds and hearts can be altered by the slow crawl of fact as much as by the long reach of revelation. Their phrases still ring because they were struck on bells cast of solid bronze, not chimes set blowing in the breeze.

In all these ways—their love of family, their shrewdness and sensitivity, their invention of a new kind of plain speaking—these two men are worth looking at together precisely because they aren't particularly remarkable. The things that they loved and pursued, the things that intrigued and worried them, were the same things that most other intelligent people in their day worried about and that worry and intrigue us still. Even mountains are made of pebbles, built up over time, and an entire mountain range of minds has risen slowly between them and us. Most of the rest have been submerged by time, but Darwin and Lincoln remain high peaks within those mountains of modernity, and they look out toward each other. From the top of one you can see the other, and what you see is what we are.

Copyright © 2009 by Adam Gopnik. Adapted by the author from Angels and Ages, by Adam Gopnik, published by Alfred A. Knopf in January.

Adam Gopnik is a staff writer at the New Yorker.
Joe Ciardiello's artwork has appeared regularly in the New York Times Book Review.

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