Evolution and Equality

What do Charles Darwin, Abraham Lincoln, and the Freedom Riders have in common with each other?

Charles Darwin
Charles Darwin Wikimedia Commons

Despite all the hullabaloo leading up to their shared bicentennial, it still seems incredible that Charles Darwin and Abraham Lincoln, two of the most important and most admirable people of the 19th century, whose deep contributions to their time continue to be felt in ours, were born on the same day, February 12, 1809. Though the English naturalist and the American president were worlds apart in life, there's something to be gained considering them side by side, some sparks of insight generated when their stories rub against each other. Thus our Two Centuries of Genius special feature: the distinguished historian Philip B. Kunhardt III parses the Lincoln mythology ("Lincoln's Contested Legacy"), Thomas Hayden reports on scientists today working to expand upon Darwin's everlasting breakthrough, evolution by natural selection ("What Darwin Didn't Know," p. 40), and Adam Gopnik looks into what truly made the men unique ("Twin Peaks").

Darwin and Lincoln might have had more in common than we thought. Lincoln, of course, was motivated by the cruel injustice of slavery, but recent scholarship suggests that so was Darwin, whose family was staunchly abolitionist. "He was disheartened to see advocates of slavery justifying their position by saying that white European humans and black African humans were not the same species," Hayden says. "One of the animating thoughts in the young Darwin's mind as he set out to understand the world was his conviction that all humans were one."

The idea of evolution as an equalizing force is worth pursuing, and you may do so at Smithsonian.com, where we have extra content about Lincoln and Darwin, including videos, photographs and stories, such as "Darwin on Lincoln, and Vice Versa." Our blog Surprising Science (Smithsonian.com/science) will debate which one, Darwin or Lincoln, was more important. Silly question? Maybe. But the sparks are illuminating. Please join in.

The fight to achieve racial equality in the United States is the subject of "The Freedom Riders", by associate editor Marian Smith Holmes. It's based on a new book of photographs and interviews, Eric Etheridge's Breach of Peace, about some of the men and women who protested segregated bus depots across the South in 1961. Some were beaten; most were jailed, and in shameful conditions.

"I was excited about having the opportunity to talk to some of those people who sat on the buses, who risked their lives, who endured in the dirty jails," Holmes says. "It made me feel very grateful and very humble. There was a feeling that we're all in this together, and I think we need to hang on to that idea, that whatever struggle one group might have, it's actually a struggle for all of us."

Terence Monmaney is the executive editor.

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