Like everyone in the blogosphere I note the two-hundredth birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin today. Between them they represent rarely dreamed of heights of moral and scientific heroism. It is interesting that both have enjoyed increased attention recently for unrelated reasons, one because of a black President from Illinois and the other because of growing mainstream acceptance of evolutionary psychology. Why do these two grip the imagination so?
Lincoln's life was so unlikely and so symbolic as to be mere fancy, had it not all really happened. It had every element of the perfect story: the by-the-bootstraps education, the political longshot, the puzzling marriage, the enigma of the melancholic jokester, the epic national crisis, the elimination of an unequivocal evil, the appalling assassination occurring poignantly in the wake of victory, the reverential afterlife. Riven though it was by tragedy, it was in many ways the perfect life of action.
Darwin's life, by contrast, was outwardly placid and unruffled: the perfect life of knowledge. Many have described evolution as the single greatest scientific insight in history, and that seems true, for it changes profoundly our view of who we are and how we got to be that way. Pressure from Alfred Russell Wallace may have spurred him at the last, but Darwin sprang his theory upon a 19th-century world not eager for its religious implications. If many still repudiate his theory today, it is willful disbelief; they close their eyes against the clear light of day.
Being human, these two men had their imperfections, but they were titans of the modern age because in their complementary but equally magnificent ways, each undertook a supreme test and got it right. Lincoln said that "If slavery isn't wrong, nothing is wrong." If these two were not great, then the word has no meaning.