February 12, 2008

Happy Birthday Chuck and Abe

Darwin and LincolnToday is the 199th birthday of two men who belong to the ages, Charles Darwin and Abraham Lincoln. It is one of those great historical coincidences that both were born on the same day and that both held many values in common that shaped the respective legacies they left us. To review their accomplishments would be trite, I think. That Darwin formulated the first set of ideas that served to unify the field of biology, shifting the way in which mankind viewed the natural world and how it came to be, and that Lincoln undertook the unforgiving task of reforming American society to exclude one person's ownership of another are things that every school child understands in some way.

Darwin also had his own views on slavery. He wrote, for instance:

It is often attempted to palliate slavery by comparing the state of slaves with our poorer countrymen: if the misery of our poor be caused not by the laws of nature, but by our institutions, great is our sin; but how this bears on slavery, I cannot see; as well might the use of the thumb-screw be defended in one land, by showing that men in another land suffered from some dreadful disease. Those who look tenderly at the slave owner, and with a cold heart at the slave, never seem to put themselves into the position of the latter; what a cheerless prospect, with not even a hope of change! picture to yourself the chance, ever hanging over you, of you wife and your little children - those objects which nature urges even the slave to call his own - being torn from you and sold like beasts to the first bidder! And these deeds are done and palliated by men, who profess to love their neighbours as themselves, who believe in God, and pray that his Will be done on earth! It makes one's blood boil, yet heart tremble, to think that we Englishmen and our American descendants, with their boastful cry of liberty, have been and are so guilty: but it is a consolation to reflect, that we at least have made a greater sacrifice, than ever made by any nation, to expiate our sin.

The Voyage of the Beagle, Chapter 21

I don't know if Lincoln was ever aware of Darwin's theory of evolution, having been assassinated five years after its publication. I have no idea how he might have felt about the notion that life changes slowly over time, creating new organisms from old. I get an inkling from his preserved quotes that he would have agreed with the notion that diverse populations are more likely to survive longer than are homogeneous ones, but it's nothing I can prove. It will have to suffice that Lincoln ended legally-sanctioned slavery in the United States, one of the last European-descended nations to do so (Brazil was the last, I think, in 1888).

I will be teaching today; it seems an appropriate thing to teach a biology class on Darwin's birthday. I'm not sure how to work Lincoln into today's lab, though.

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