Lincoln and Darwin: Parallel Lives; Divergent Legacies
Taken from Doug Kutilek's "As I See It" Vol. 12, No. 2, Feb. 2009
Plutarch’s famous Lives of Illustrious Men, a standard volume from antiquity, pairs and compares the lives of selected individuals from the Greek and the Roman empires. Were he alive today, Plutarch might be tempted to pair the lives of the greatest of American Presidents, Abraham Lincoln, and that of the most famous and influential philosopher of science, Charles Darwin, as both were born on precisely the same day, February 12, 1809. This year marks the bicentennial of that event (as well as the sesquicentennial of the publication of Darwin’s most famous book, The Origin of Species, in 1859).
Though born on precisely the same day, Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin in their beginnings and their legacies could not be more in contrast. Darwin was born in comfortable upper class circumstances in England with prospects for a first-rate education--with the luxury of changing his focus from medicine (the profession of both his father and grandfather) to religion (for which he was notably unsuited) to amateur naturalist--and a place in the easy life of English aristocratic society. The other, Lincoln, was the second child of an abjectly poor American pioneer family, the son of an at best semi-literate father and a mother of questionable pedigree. He grew to manhood amidst all the severe disadvantages of the cultural and economic realties of frontier life, and had but small prospects for any kind of education except the most rustic. The panorama of his life held out hope of little beyond an existence of hard and bitter labor in the unforgiving wildness of the frontier. Only a life of unremitting toil seemed to lie ahead; many years of such toil did in fact mark his path from youth to manhood.
The portraits of both men are today enshrined on the currency of their respective nations--Lincoln’s profile is on the penny (and has been for a full century) and a full face portrait is on the five-dollar bill (beginning I know not when--at least as early as the 1930s). Darwin’s likeness is currently on the 10 pound note of the United Kingdom. I had one during my last visit to England two years ago, and was frankly glad to get rid of it as quickly as possible.
Both men are buried in prominent memorials, Lincoln in a massive mausoleum in a cemetery in Springfield, Illinois, Darwin in the scientists’ corner of Westminster Abbey, near the markers of such prominent Bible-believing Christians as Isaac Newton, Michael Faraday and Lord Kelvin. Lincoln’s mind and thought were molded by a limited but excellent corpus of literature read and re-read and mastered as a youth, chiefly the Bible and Shakespeare, but supplemented with such other books as he could find.
Darwin studied medicine for a time at the University of Edinburgh, then Divinity at Cambridge University, but was more interested in riding, hunting, and shooting than academics. He was much drawn to the study of nature--for which Cambridge offered no degree. Young Darwin, still just into his 20s, was signed on as the unpaid naturalist for a planned two-year voyage (that stretched to five) aboard the H. M. S. Beagle, to study the east and west coasts of South America, with its flora, fauna, geology and geography. Out of the raw materials of this journey, Darwin published a journal, took part in writing the official reports, and spun his hypothesis of biological evolution. Lincoln’s one notable journey by water, also undertaken in his 20s, was a barge trip down the Sangamon and Mississippi Rivers to New Orleans. Accounts of his pledge there of lifelong hostility to slavery are apocryphal.
Darwin is most noted for his books--the Voyage of the Beagle, On the Origin of Species, The Descent of Man, among others, plus numerous papers and studies on various scientific subjects (an important study of earthworms among them). His The Origin of Species is beyond doubt the single most influential work of the 19th century.
Lincoln wrote no books and kept no diaries, but was best known for his speeches--his debates with Stephen Douglas over the slavery issue in the 1858 Illinois Senate race which brought him national prominence, but particularly his two Inaugural addresses, especially the Second one, and his Gettysburg Address--the most famous speech of the 19th century--besides some written items such as the Emancipation Proclamation and, inter alia, his letter to the Widow Bixby. Lincoln was an absolute master of English prose.
Darwin was not the first to propose a purely naturalistic (i.e., non-supernaturalistic) explanation for the origin and existence of life in general and of human life in particular; the ancient Babylonians and Greeks (with myths of spontaneous generation of the gods out of eternal matter), and more recently Lamarck, and even his own grandfather Erasmus Darwin had done so. But the net effect of each of these was the same: to thereby distance man from God, or rather God from man, making man a product of natural forces and not of God’s direct creative activity. This has as a logical outflow the denial of the direct accountability of man to God, or of the constraint of human behavior by supposedly “Divine” laws and commands, which after all must be just merely human constructs, not Divine revelations.
Darwin’s theory (or strictly speaking scientifically, hypothesis, since its posits have been neither observed nor are testable) was built on at least two faulty presuppositional foundations: 1. the then-recently hypothesized uniformitarian geology (that is, that current slow processes of erosion and deposition or land mass uplift or recession, e.g., can be confidently and endlessly extrapolated into the past, requiring a very great age for the earth and its geologic features, in millions, not thousands of years) instead of the catastrophism that had held sway, and to which the earth’s surface features regularly bear witness; and 2. Thomas Malthus’ theories of population growth, namely, that populations of organisms increase geometrically while food supplies only grow arithmetically, setting the stage for intense competition for survival--“nature red in tooth and claw”--resulting in the “survival of the fittest.” Darwin, in complete ignorance of the genetic transmission of traits, accepted this competition as the driving force behind the improvement of each species, and its eventual transformation by small steps into a new species, or, by branching, into multiple new species. (What this competition for food supplies actually does is not drive the species to higher levels, but acts to preserve it from the degenerative drag of genetic defects, deformities and such. Rather than “the survival of the fittest” at the top, it is more accurately portrayed as “the elimination of the defective / unfit” at the bottom).
Darwin himself admitted that the weakest link in his argument was the absence of transitional forms in the known fossils, but he held out hope that with further discovery, these “gaps” in the record would be filled. Now 150 years and literally millions of examined fossils later, the absence of any transitional forms is as troubling for the theory as ever, indeed, more so, as the hope that theory-supporting transitional forms will be found out there somewhere has faded nearly to despair. Rather, the fossil record testifies repeatedly to stasis rather than transition--both plants (e.g., gingko trees) and animals (e.g., the coelacanth fish) appear in fossils allegedly tens and even hundreds of millions of years old without perceptible change from forms found living today. Occasionally a fossil bird or primate will be found and widely touted in the popular press, or in National Geographic (which has gotten egg on its face more than once in this regard), as “the missing link,” only to be discredited in short order. In truth, there is no one missing link, or ten or a hundred or a thousand, but literally millions of them, since the necessary genetic changes from one species to another would require many thousands of generations and a multitude of transitional forms, and this for every species. But they are simply non-existent. Oops!!
It has been justifiably stated that Darwin’s theory would have never been proposed had the modern knowledge of genetics and inheritance been current in Darwin’s day; they would have simply made his claims untenable. But Gregor Mendel did not begin his experiments until the 1860s, and his results were not published until decades later still; DNA was not discovered until a century after Darwin wrote.
Darwinism was embraced immediately by numerous philosophers and liberal theologians, chiefly, and opposed by many scientists, such as Louis Agassiz of Harvard, Lord Kelvin and Louis Pasteur, on scientific grounds. Leading conservative theologians such as Charles Hodge of Princeton and Charles Spurgeon of London also voiced strong opposition. So, too, did Robert Fitzroy, captain of the H. M. S. Beagle on which Darwin had sailed.
From Darwin’s limited hypothesis which he applied in the realm of biology alone, this surmise of accidental, undirected yet progressive development from lower states to higher ones over time via unbridled competition was extended by others to sociology, the history of religion, economics (laissez-faire capitalism, with its crushing of all competition in the quest for dominance of an industry), chemistry (alleged building up--in stellar “furnaces”--of simple helium into the whole periodic table of elements), and astronomy. Mindless, soulless, purposeless development over time by nothing but pure chance--this soon became philosophically and presuppositionally the universal “solvent” for explaining everything naturally (as opposed to supernaturally). In short, it served as a very convenient way to dispose of God.
The fruit that has been borne on the tree of Darwinism in the past century and a half is abundant and altogether poisonous. (The late Henry M. Morris in his book The Long War Against God [Baker, 1989] chronicled how from Darwinism and ‘pre-Darwinism’ sprang a broad spectrum of societal and social evils). Biological Darwinism--which has yet to make a real contribution to genuine scientific advancement, or to serve any useful purpose in scientific research--by making God unnecessary, is at foundation, essentially atheistic.
Religious Darwinism, the foundation of radical higher criticism of the Bible, which adopted a purely evolutionary view of Biblical teaching, theology and institutions is diametrically opposed to the teaching of the OT and NT, ascribing its doctrines and institutions to merely human developments, and denying expressly both the fact and even the possibility of Divine revelations, genuine prophecy or bona fide miracles.
From philosophical Darwinism has come Marxist communism (Karl Marx wrote to Darwin asking permission to dedicate his magnum opus, Das Kapital, to Darwin, who wisely refused; Josef Stalin, while in seminary studying for the priesthood, read Darwin and adopted his views). In the 20th century, the death toll from Darwin-inspired Marxism approached if it did not actually exceed 100 million lives. So, too, from applied social Darwinism came laissez faire capitalism with its unbridled competition, and an overriding design and intent to crush and destroy all opposition, regardless of the consequences to people or the planet.
Darwinism was expressly embraced by some military leaders of Germany prior to World War One, who (perhaps along with others) on the basis of the belief that competition for survival drives the human race forward biologically, actually welcomed the war, as an opportunity to prove the superiority of the German people, and to exterminate inferior groups. What human activity is more competitive than war? Therefore, war can serve to advance the superior races of mankind, and is ultimately a good to be embraced, not a horror to be avoided.
Darwinism is inherently racist, though almost no Darwinists will openly admit it (the full title of Darwin’s book is: “The Origin of Species: the Preservation of Favored Races in the Struggle for Life” (emphasis added); Nazism developed its Arian supremacy doctrine from Darwinism; it was no accident that Hitler’s book is called Mein Kampf--literally, “My Struggle,” an echo of the second line in the title of Darwin’s book.
Likewise, from the inherent racism and Malthusianism of Darwin’s philosophy come infanticide and euthanasia (extermination of the unfit), abortion on demand (extermination of the excess population), anarchy and more. All these readily find full justification for themselves in the adoption of biological Darwinism.
It is no coincidence that the first century in human history where Darwinism dominated the philosophy and worldview of the controlling institutions of human existence (governments, educational institutions and businesses),--that is, the 20th century--was also the most brutal, violent, bellicose and barbaric by far as regards man’s inhumanity toward his fellow man. This is the natural fruit of the philosophy of Darwinism.
It is difficult enough to restrain and control human behavior with the threat of human punishment here and Divine retribution hereafter. But eliminate God, His standards, and His promised day of judgment for humankind, and man is simply beastly in his conduct--not a remnant barbarism from some lower, more animal ancestry, but the appalling corruption of a once perfect but now utterly degraded nature originally created in the image of a holy God.
Whereas Darwin laid the foundation for a world devoid of God consciousness, one cannot read Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, his Second Inaugural Address, and much else that he wrote or spoke as President, without seeing that the dominant philosophy in his worldview was that of accountability to a close and personal Creator, and imitation of His compassion and mercy toward us in our treatment of our fellow man, a choice part of His purposeful creation.
Lincoln’s legacy was chiefly in actions. He was elected with the lowest plurality of votes in American Presidential history (39%) in a four-way race. He was immediately faced with the secession of 11 States and very soon a war he did not want or start. He had to endure repeated battlefield failures, setbacks and defeats as he worked through a long series of marginally competent, or outright incompetent general officers (only in the last year of the war did he find two first-rate commanders--Grant and Sherman); Lincoln was a better strategist than any of his generals, though he had no military training or background. He frequently battled both parties in Congress and experienced stern opposition from his own Cabinet (nearly every member of which thought himself Lincoln’s superior). He was lambasted with unbridled even brutal criticism in the press. And along with the crushing burden of daily and often massive casualties, unprecedented expenditures, and difficult foreign relations, he endured unspeakable personal sorrow in the death of a favorite son and the subsequent derangement of his wife. Somehow through all of these, he managed to save the Union (his first aim), free first by fiat and then Constitutional Amendment those enslaved, defeat the Confederate armies, and lay the groundwork for a reunification of the nation--a collective task almost certainly no other man then living could have or would have accomplished. An assassin’s bullet ended his life at 56, less than a week after the victory had been won. By almost universal acclamation, Lincoln is hailed as America’s greatest President.
Such then are these parallels lives--beginning the same day, but following highly divergent paths, and attaining sharply contrasting results. Darwin’s legacy is one of progressively intensifying darkness and horror and all that is worst in man, Lincoln’s that of a conscious dependence on our Creator, Who has revealed Himself to man, and who will hold man accountable for his conduct, particularly his treatment of his fellow man. Darwin’s hypothesis and subsequent worldview is truly a major driving force behind man’s descent--into the abyss. Lincoln’s worldview sets man in his proper relationship to the Creator, and to his fellow man, “with malice toward none, with charity for all.”