Abe or Chuck: Who was more important? Can they still help us?

lincoln-darwin Charles Darwin and Abraham Lincoln were both born this day, 200 years ago. Tina Kells writes in NowPublic: “The parallels in Lincoln’s and Darwin’s lives are also useful for the rest of a nation, which remains as bitterly divided over issues of homosexuality as we are about creation and evolution, and as we once were over human slavery.” So with a spirit of inquiry, let’s discuss. Some links: (continued)

Newsweek: Who Was More Important: Lincoln or Darwin?

NY Times: Charles Darwin, Abolitionist

NowPublic (‘crowd-powered media’): 200th Anniversary of Darwin-Lincoln Birthdays February 12, 2009

NY Times: Darwin’s God


  1. Anthony Pierre said:

    Wasn’t Abe Lincoln gay?

    February 12, 2009
  2. kiffi summa said:

    Trying to say which of these two men was most important or influential is not productive,IMO.
    The important aspect is to guide our lives by ‘fact’ over ‘fiction’; science over hyberbole, and tolerance over prejudice; all the while respecting the proof that the beak of the finch does change to adapt.

    February 12, 2009
  3. john george said:

    Anthony- I don’t think Abe was gay. Most of the depictions I have seen of him have a pretty dour expression on his face. Oh, wait….sorry, that is the other gay.

    February 12, 2009
  4. Anthony Pierre said:

    it was the beard dude, it hid his smile.

    February 12, 2009
  5. john george said:

    Anthony- You realize you don’t have a whisker of a chance with that answer.

    February 12, 2009
  6. Paul Zorn said:

    A very striking coincidence that two of the most influential people of the last 200 years should have been born on the same day.

    On the scientific front, Darwin was obviously more influential than Lincoln, who as far as I know never dabbled in science at all. Presidents have a lot of other stuff to do, of course, but that didn’t stop President Garfield, in 1876, from offering yet another proof of the Pythagorean theorem. And the distinguished French mathematician Paul Painleve served twice as Prime Minister of his nation, and once ran for President. But one digresses.

    IMO Darwin ranks up there with Newton and Galileo and Kepler in helping humans understand the natural world, and our place in it. Lincoln helped us see the political world in different and better ways. The analogy between D. and L. is probably labored, but that’s the best I can do. I’m celebrating both of them.

    February 12, 2009
  7. Rob Hardy said:

    Here’s what I wrote on the subject on my blog:

    On his fifty-second birthday, Abraham Lincoln was in Cincinnati, Ohio, en route to Washington, D.C., for his inauguration at the 16th President of the United States. In Cincinnati, he was asked to address an audience of German immigrants. In his brief remarks, Lincoln told his audience:

    I hold that while man exists, it is
    his duty to improve not only his own
    condition, but to assist in
    ameliorating mankind; and therefore,
    without entering upon the details of
    the question, I will simply say, that
    I am for those means which will give
    the greatest good to the greatest

    “The greatest good to the greatest number.” This is the basic principle of utilitarianism, the philosophical theory associated most closely with John Stuart Mill (whose book Utilitarianism was published in 1861). Both Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin absorbed the utilitarian idea of maximizing the good. Both men believed in moral progress that would result in increased goodness; both men believed in the process of “amelioration.”

    For Darwin, amelioration was a biological process first and foremost: it was a process by which advantageous traits were selected and passed along, allowing the improved organism to survive and to thrive. Natural selection is the mechanism for “ameliorating mankind”—not only on a purely biological level, but on a moral level as well. In The Descent of Man (1871), Darwin writes:

    The moral nature of man has reached
    its present standard, partly through
    the advancement of his reasoning
    powers and consequently of a just
    public opinion, but especially from
    his sympathies having been rendered
    more tender and widely diffused
    through the effects of habit, example,
    instruction, and reflection. It is not
    improbable that after long practice
    virtuous tendencies may be
    inherited… [T]he first foundation or
    origin of the moral sense lies in the
    social instincts, including sympathy;
    and these instincts no doubt were
    primarily gained, as in the case of
    the lower animals, through natural

    Darwin concluded that morals, like physical organisms, evolved. It’s interesting to note that even one of Darwin’s critics could write in a review of The Origin of Species: “We cannot help saying that piety must be fastidious indeed that objects to a theory the tendency of which is to show that all organic beings, man included, are in a perpetual progress of amelioration…” Darwin demonstrated that amelioration was more than an article of faith. It was a fact of life.

    Both Darwin and Lincoln are representative nineteenth-century men in their belief in the progress of humankind toward something better: toward greater goodness, toward greater biological fitness, toward a greater adherence to our inherited ideals. Darwin was remarkable in finding a biological basis for this faith in human amelioration; Lincoln was remarkable in putting it into political practice and in giving it such enduring expression. Both men believed strongly in the ties of sympathy—the “bonds of affection,” as Lincoln put it—that bind humans together. Both men believed that these bonds were inherited, and strengthened, and passed on. Both men looked back at our lowly origins, and marveled at what we had become, and what we were capable of becoming.

    February 12, 2009
  8. john george said:

    Rob- Thanks for sharing a well researched and articulated overview. Your post eliminates about 10 weeks (maybe a little exagerated) of research on my part.

    February 12, 2009

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