On this blog, several of the staff of Smithsonian magazine have been debating who was more important, Abraham Lincoln or Charles Darwin. T.A. Frail and Mark Strauss argued for Lincoln and Laura Helmuth for Darwin. And now it’s my turn.
I’m not going to take up Mark’s challenge and attempt to argue that Darwin would win the kickboxing match (Lincoln may have an advantage with his long limbs, but anyone who sailed around the world in the early 1800s couldn’t have been a sissy—that was no pleasure cruise). And though Lincoln made tremendous progress toward equality, some would say that we didn't reach our destination until last week (and maybe not even then).
Fundamentally, the difference between them is that Lincoln's greatness is largely confined to the United States. Slavery and bondage, sadly, continue throughout the world. Lincoln's words and ideas have spread, but other countries may need their own Lincolns to lead them out of the darkness and into the light of freedom.
Darwin, however, changed the way humanity thought about life itself. No longer was the world static, its creatures unchanged since time began. Darwin convinced people—and still makes new converts—that life is and has been evolving. Thousands of years of common knowledge upturned in (nearly) an instant. This was such a paradigm shift that today people still find the idea not only controversial but even dangerous, too dangerous to introduce to innocent, impressionable children.
That leaves the question of whether Darwin was fundamental to the spread of this idea, or would anyone have been able to popularize it. Others had preceded Darwin with ideas similar to natural selection, but they never caught on. And Darwin’s own ideas when first introduced didn’t make much of a splash; that didn’t happen until he published On the Origin of Species.
This is where Darwin’s true greatness shines. He was not only a great scientist but also an amazing science communicator. Origin, The Descent of Man and many of his other writings continue to be read today all over the world. His writing was clear, his tone respectful and friendly. The books are relentlessly logical, rich in description and painstakingly researched. (Kurt Vonnegut, in Galapagos, summed it up nicely, describing Origin as “the most broadly influential scientific volume produced during the entire era of great big brains.”) And in addition to becoming the basis for all of modern biology (would we have progressed as far as we have in science without them?), these works have had profound influences in other areas, such as literature and religion.
So, who wins the debate? Well, Darwin, of course. (You really thought Lincoln had a chance? It’s my blog. Science was always going to win.)
Think I’m wrong? Vote below and make your case in the comments.