Saturday, February 12, 2005

Lincoln and Darwin

Oh what the sun, moon, and stars conspired to bring us when on February 12, 1809 two of the greatest minds of the 19th century were born: Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin. Their influence is almost immeasurable, but suffice to say that here it is nearly two hundred years after their births and we are still dazzled by the depth and breadth of their reach and grasp.

The sheer number of spellbinding speeches and quotes of Lincoln is enough to make me weep anew that this man was not permitted to complete his presidential journey. What we lost can never be known, and that provokes an ache all its own.

In 1861, on his way to deliver his first inaugural address, Lincoln stopped in Philadelphia on the site where the Declaration of Independence had been signed in Independence Hall and spoke:

I am filled with deep emotion at finding myself standing here, in this place, where were collected together the wisdom, the patriotism, the devotion to principle, from which sprang the institutions under which we live. You have kindly suggested to me that in my hands is the task of restoring peace to the present distracted condition of the country. I can say in return, Sir, that all the political sentiments I entertain have been drawn, so far as I have been able to draw them, from the sentiments which originated and were given to the world from this hall. I have never had a feeling politically that did not spring from the sentiments embodied in the Declaration of Independence. I have often pondered over the dangers which were incurred by the men who assembled here, and framed and adopted that Declaration of Independence. I have pondered over the toils that were endured by the officers and soldiers of the army who achieved that Independence. I have often inquired of myself, what great principle or idea it was that kept this Confederacy so long together. It was not the mere matter of the separation of the Colonies from the motherland; but that sentiment in the Declaration of Independence which gave liberty, not alone to the people of this country, but, I hope, to the world, for all future time. It was that which gave promise that in due time the weight would be lifted from the shoulders of all men. This is a sentiment embodied in the Declaration of Independence. Now, my friends, can this country be saved upon that basis? If it can, I will consider myself one of the happiest men in the world, if I can help to save it. If it cannot be saved upon that principle, it will be truly awful. But if this country cannot be saved without giving up that principle, I was about to say I would rather be assassinated on this spot than surrender it.

It is almost hard to imagine that while we were facing the Civil War and the greatest upheaval in our nation's history, Charles Darwin was penning his groundbreaking Origin of Species in 1859-- in a strange concurrence of psychic, spiritual, and social disruption. In the introduction he wrote:

No one ought to feel surprise at much remaining as yet unexplained in regard to the origin of species and varieties, if he makes due allowance for our profound ignorance in regard to the mutual relations of all the beings which live around us. Who can explain why one species ranges widely and is very numerous, and why another allied species has a narrow range and is rare? Yet these relations are of the highest importance, for they determine the present welfare, and, as I believe, the future success and modification of every inhabitant of this world. Still less do we know of the mutual relations of the innumerable inhabitants of the world during the many past geological epochs in its history. Although much remains obscure, and will long remain obscure, I can entertain no doubt, after the most deliberate study and dispassionate judgement of which I am capable, that the view which most naturalists entertain, and which I formerly entertained — namely, that each species has been independently created — is erroneous. I am fully convinced that species are not immutable; but that those belonging to what are called the same genera are lineal descendants of some other and generally extinct species, in the same manner as the acknowledged varieties of any one species are the descendants of that species. Furthermore, I am convinced that Natural Selection has been the main but not exclusive means of modification.

The battles Lincoln and Darwin waged and fought are ever-present with us. We now find the offspring of the secessionists, segregationists and the foes of science in the highest offices of our great nation. And those of us who adhere to the principles of equality and rationality are merely the inheritors of that same battle.

I say, happy birthday and thank you.

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