As I write this, on February 12, 2015, today is the day that Charles Darwin and Abraham Lincoln would have both turned 206. They were born on the same day, in different hemispheres, in 1809. Adam Gopnik’s excellent book Ages or Angels is probably the best, most extensive consideration of this historical coincidence. As Gopnik suggests that we ask, do we know any other single day to have served as point of origin to any other multiple of figures of comparable importance?
I would take Gopnik’s inquiry further and ask: did any duo born after 1809 matter more to Anglo-American culture? Did anyone bestride the 20th century like the colossuses that we have, perhaps retrospectively, made of Darwin and Lincoln? Freud, maybe, and Martin Luther King, perhaps. How long does it take to gain perspective on a century, anyway? Best, most effective American satirist of the 18th century: Ben Franklin, and it’s not close. Best, most effective American satirist of the 19th century: Mark Twain, and it’s not close. Best, most effective American satirist of the 20th century? Well, it’s close. It’s hard to say. George Carlin? Woody Allen? H.L. Mencken? Gore Vidal? Depends what we’re talking about. Will we know someday? Or was there something about the 20th century’s diffusion of notoriety and celebrity and unforgiving film footage that makes it impossible to judge?
Darwin and Lincoln speak to us from a time before the word “celebrity,” when fame was only achieved through, well, achievement. And that’s not unrelated to how we venerate them today, because their relative absence of self-aggrandizement (compared with some of their peers) wasn’t just some clever Hollywood agent’s version of calculated modesty: Darwin and Lincoln really were often humble, naturally unselfish people.
As Gopnik stresses, the differences were many: Darwin was to the manor born, while Lincoln was born as close as white Americans came to chattel slavery; Darwin traveled the world, Lincoln dearly wished to simply traverse his continent and never did; Darwin was a biologist, Lincoln a lawyer. While Darwin arguably “killed” many traditional notions of piety, Lincoln, through his public speeches invoking divinity, actually provided future generations with a great president who invoked God in speeches…that’s nothing they ever got from the Founding Fathers. But then, as Gopnik describes with no small amount of rhetorical flourish, both of them were innate storytellers whose stories – about captive pigeons and captive people – changed our way of thinking.
Describing Darwin and Lincoln’s biographical similarities becomes something of a parlor game, but perhaps the most salient commonality is their relative lack of achievement before the age of about 50 – during an era when life expectancy was 37.* By today’s standards, when the life expectancy has doubled to 74, that’s the equivalent of changing the world at the age of 100. So it’s never too late – in more ways than one. Darwin and Lincoln may well have spent most of their 30s and 40s feeling like failures, feeling that they would never make the mark on the world they’d hoped to make – and may well have wished they’d been born in the previous century. The Enlightenment, which was the period of the Founding Fathers, was often discussed in salutary terms by Darwin and Lincoln; by the 1840s, religiosity had returned, and Lincoln, running for office, had to disclaim jokes he’d made about preachers, while Darwin was sufficiently concerned about the Church to delay publishing his treatise for 16 years. We think of them as ahead of their time; they may have thought they were behind a better time.
Darwin and Lincoln also tell us that you only need a good decade to make a permanent mark on human affairs. Darwin’s and Lincoln’s history-turning decade began in June 1858, with rivals: Lincoln began to schedule debates with his opponent for Illinois’s Senate seat, Stephen Douglas, who defended legal regulations that preserved “slave power,” while Darwin learned that Alfred Russel Wallace had published a paper “On the Law Which has Regulated the Introduction of New Species.” Darwin and Lincoln ended 1858 as losers: Douglas won the Senate, Wallace won some glory for his evolutionary ideas. From there, Darwin and Lincoln prepared their rhetoric to win the war, not just the battle. On November 22, 1859, Darwin published On the Origin of Species (a far more thorough, painstakingly researched account than Wallace’s) during abolitionist John Brown’s final week on Earth. On the Origin of Species became a surprise runaway best-seller; the hanging and martyrdom of John Brown set in motion the conditions by which Lincoln’s Republican Party would decide the fate of the world’s self-determined Republic.
Darwin and Lincoln spent the better part of their best decade, the 1860s, in a bit of a crouch. Even their famous beards weren’t vanity: Lincoln’s was grown in 1861 to fool assassins, Darwin’s was grown from falling ill in 1862. To read of the Civil War is hardly to read of a Roosevelt- or Jefferson-like list of proactive accomplishments. Lincoln hoped to institute federal reforms that Henry Clay and other Whigs had advocated for decades, and in some ways, Lincoln only won his rhetorical arguments by default – because of black soldiers he didn’t think he needed, because of the eventual ruthlessness of Grant and Sherman, because Republicans had the gears of power to themselves when the 13th and 14th amendments came up. Darwin experienced concerted (if less bloody) opposition to his ideas. His friend Thomas Huxley assiduously defended him against Members of Parliament and eventually secured him Britain’s highest scientific honor, the Royal Society’s Copley Medal, on November 3, 1864, the same week that Lincoln’s re-election secured his legacy once and for all. Lincoln’s ideas about free men and republicanism became ascendant and in some ways irrevocable in the years just after his death in 1865; Darwin’s ideas about man’s evolution and natural selection were more or less accepted by most British elites by the end of the 1860s. Of course, backlashes against Darwin and Lincoln’s assertions continue to this day, but it’s hard to argue that they didn’t change the argument.
For those of us who care about the fate of humanity, the power of reason, and the essence of freedom, Charles Darwin and Abraham Lincoln’s examples still shine strong. They prove that it’s not too late to help the world – a world we recognize as not so unlike our own. In two months, we’ll see the sesquicentennial of Lincoln’s tragic assassination – 150 small years, within our grandparents’ grandparents’ lifetimes. If we want our grandchildren’s grandchildren to remember us well, it’s never too late.
*It’s actually “incredibly misleading,” as Geoff Canyon points out, to say that the life expectancy of someone born in 1809 was about 37. If you take away infant mortality and mysterious child deaths, you get a much more robust figure. In the 1800s, if you survived to the age of 10, your average life expectancy was 58. By that formula, Darwin and Lincoln’s big achievements came in the current equivalents of your 60s – still a lot later than Slate warned about in a recent piece.