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by William H. Benson

February 5, 2009

     “Neither man gave much evidence of his future greatness until well into middle age.” so wrote Malcolm Jones last July in an article he wrote for Newsweek, in which he compared and contrasted Charles Darwin and Abraham Lincoln. Both of these men knew of the other, and both knew that they were born on the same day, in 1809, on February 12, two hundred years ago next week.

     Because “[b]oth were private and guarded,” few who knew them understood the powerful and deep thoughts that coursed through their minds. Darwin’s gardener said of him, “Poor man, he just stands and stares at a yellow flower for minutes at a time. He would be better off with something to do.”

     Mary Todd Lincoln said of her husband, “He is of no account when he is at home. He never does anything except to warm himself and read; he never went to the market in his life. I have to look after all that. He just does nothing. He is the most useless, good-for-nothing man on earth.”

     Neither man, when younger, got along well with his father. Charles Darwin’s father, Dr. Robert Darwin, a very successful family physician in Shrewsbury, England, north and west of London, told his son in a pointed letter, “You care for nothing but shooting, dogs, and rat-catching, and you will be a disgrace to yourself and all your family.” And Lincoln said of his father, “My father taught me to work, but he never taught me to like to work.”

     The world took little note of either man until they each had surpassed their fiftieth birthdays. On November 24, 1859, 150 years ago this year, Charles Darwin published The Origin of the Species, when Charles was fifty years old, and exactly a year later, Lincoln, at the age of fifty-one, won the Presidential election of 1860. Suddenly, the world was wondering about these two men, and the world still is wondering.

     Their successes—Darwin in science and Lincoln in politics—stemmed immeasurably from their ability to write. Malcolm Jones wrote, “Both men were compulsive scribblers and note takers, and the clarity of their writing enhanced the power of their ideas.” And their ability to write masterful English was derived from their great passion for reading.

     Darwin read the sciences. His father wanted him to become a physician, but because he could not endure the sight of surgery, he decided upon a career as a country parson. Shy, quiet, retiring, bookish, he thought the ministry would fit his life style, but beetle-collecting called him away from theology. Darwin certainly had access to far more books living in England than did Lincoln who grew up on the frontier in Kentucky and Indiana.

     A naturalist and a scientist, Darwin lived all of his life in England, save for the five years, 1831-1836, he lived aboard the Beagle, sailing around the world. While en-route, he shipped back to London fossils of extinct large mammals, such as a giant sloth and a pre-historic horse. In addition, he collected living animals, preserved them, and shipped them home; all told, he shipped back to England 5436 skins, bones, and carcasses.

     In a sense, Darwin read the earth’s record—its fossils and its living life forms—comparing and contrasting them, noting their differences due to mutations as the life forms had changed and evolved, because of a process he called “natural selection.”

     Lincoln was more of a literary man, a deep reader of any book that he could latch his hands onto. He read Blackstone’s Law and Euclid’s propositions and proofs within the Elements of Geometry, but above all else, Lincoln read Shakespeare and the King James Bible, memorizing numerous and lengthy passages. Steeped in Renaissance English, he wrote with a style seldom matched in his day or ever since.

     A consummate politician, Lincoln was more the man of action than was Darwin, who was content to observe and then write a readable science. And, yet, each in their own sphere of knowledge has had far-reaching influence. We, the members of Western Civilization, are still trying to come to terms with the implications contained within “the theory of evolution,” and “The Gettysburg Address.” 

     Where Darwin read earth’s record in its fossils and living life forms, Lincoln read the human written record in its books. Where Darwin extended and revolutionized the natural sciences, Lincoln extended and revolutionized the concepts of human freedom inherent within the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.

     Darwin and Lincoln, the two great thinkers of the nineteenth-century.