Tuesday, November 4, 2008

From Darwin and Lincoln to Obama: Freedom Evolves!

Darwin’s grandfathers, Erasmus Darwin and Josiah Wedgwood, were linked through the Lunar Society of Birmingham to Founding Fathers, Franklin and Jefferson. Thomas Paine’s skull was once housed in the vicarage in Darwin’s village of Downe. But another striking coincidence links Charles Darwin to the history of Great Republic. As American freethinker and Illinois orator, Robert Ingersoll wrote in the 1890s:
“On the 12th of February, 1809, two babes were born—one in the woods of Kentucky, amid the hardships and poverty of pioneers; one in England, surrounded by wealth and culture... One associated his name… with the emancipation of millions, with the salvation of the Republic. He is known to us as Abraham Lincoln. The other broke the chains of superstition and filled the world with intellectual light, and he is known as Charles Darwin.” [link]
But much else links the two men in addition to their shared birthday. Both opposed slavery—Darwin with passion, Lincoln with action. Darwin wrote just before the British government passed the Slavery Abolition Act in 1833: 
"What a proud thing for England, if she is the first European nation which utterly abolishes it. I was told before leaving England, that after in Slave countries: all my opinions would be altered; the only alteration I am aware of is forming a much higher estimate of the Negro character.”
Over two decades later, Darwin supported Lincoln’s war: “In the long run, a million horrid deaths would be amply repaid in the cause of humanity.”

Lincoln was familiar with and supportive of evolution. His law partner William Herndon wrote: 
"About the year 1843 he [Lincoln] borrowed The Vestiges of Creation... and read it carefully... Mr. Lincoln had always denied special creation, but from his want of education he did not know just what to believe. He adopted the progressive and development theory as taught more or less directly in that work" [link]. 
For both men, there was little in their early life that hinted at later greatness. Darwin flunked out of medical school in Edinburgh and was a wastrel while studying at Cambridge. It took the Beagle voyage to launch him on the trajectory towards greatness. Lincoln was born in a log cabin, worked as shop keeper, then slowly gained a reputation as an eloquent lawyer, rising to fame in Illinois before finally, despite a lack of political experience on assuming office, going on to become one of the greatest American Presidents.

Both men’s rhetoric justified death. Lincoln with 
“these dead shall not have died in vain… this nation…shall have a new birth of freedom”
Darwin with 
“Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving… directly follows.” 
The two men were just two handshakes apart—via abolitionist Moncure Conway or through Lincoln’s biographer/Darwin’s pallbearer James Russell Lowell.

Later American President Woodrow Wilson linked Darwin and Lincoln in the cause of progress and wrote of the US Constitution that 
“Living political constitutions must be Darwinian in structure and in practice... All that progressives ask or desire—in an era when "development", "evolution" is the scientific word—is to interpret the Constitution according to the Darwinian principle." [link]
In one of his notebooks, Darwin wrote: “Has not the white man, who has debased his nature by making slave of his fellow Black, often wished to consider him as other animal… I believe those who soar above such prejudices yet have justly exalted nature of man.”

A hundred years to the day after Darwin and Lincoln's joint birthday, W.E.B. du Bois and others established the National Association for Advancement of Colored People.

A little over a hundred years after Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, Martin Luther King “let freedom ring” in Lincoln’s “symbolic shadow” and dreamt that his "nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal."

Like the early Lincoln, Barack Obama was until recently merely a lawyerly political rookie from Illinois. But in February 2007, Obama declared his candidacy for President of the United States on the very spot where Lincoln delivered his historic "House Divided" speech.

And now, a hundred days before Darwin's and Lincoln's two hundredth birthday, the American people have elected Barack Obama, the first American President of (recent) African origin and a leader comfortable with and worthy of Darwin's and Lincoln's joint legacy. What's more, a modern understanding of human evolution sees all humans as Africans under the skin, linking former slaves and former slave owners together as the scatterlings of Africa and providing the strongest evidence that “All men are created equal”.

And, so, today, American history links Darwin, Lincoln and Obama together in a simple dictum: Freedom evolves!

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