Thursday, February 12, 2009

The Bicentennial

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.


Anonymous said...

It's hard not to speculate. Were these men great in themselves or because they were born into eras that enabled them to become great. If Darwin had never been born, would Wallace or Huxley have put forward evolution in his place? Lincoln in turn, was born into a world where slavery was becoming increasingly unpopular around the world. Would slavery have continued in the South if Lincoln had never been born? We'll never know.

Novalis said...

"Some men are born great, some achieve greatness, some have greatness thrust upon 'em." (I paraphrase).

I know what you mean--no individual achievement can be disentangled from antecedents and environment, just as there is no hermetic self. But we still give credit where credit is due. Perhaps any number of folks could have done what they did in their situation--but they were the only ones who actually did it. (Well, like I wrote, Wallace almost did it).

Anonymous said...

Exactly, they did it -- many, many others would have stood by and done, or said, precisely nothing, no matter how ingenius their ideas. The gap between contemplation and public action is so wide it drives most to impotence.

Anonymous said...

Would the Holocaust have happened without Hitler?
Would nuclear war have happened without Gorbachev?
Would humans have happened without dinosaur extinction?

Things will/won't always happen into infinity. The happen-ers and the happen-ees are interchangeable within a finite set of probabilities; which still makes Hitler evil.