Is it an unprecedented coincidence? 200 years ago today, just minutes apart according to some unconfirmed accounts, Abraham Lincoln was born in a rude log cabin on Nolin Creek, in Kentucky, and Charles Darwin was born into a wealthy family at the family home in Shrewsbury, England.
Lincoln would become one of our most endeared presidents, though endearment would come after his assassination. Lincoln’s bust rides the crest of Mt. Rushmore (next to two slaveholders), with George Washington, the Father of His Country, Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence, and Theodore Roosevelt, the man who made the modern presidency, and the only man ever to have won both a Congressional Medal of Honor and a Nobel Prize, the only president to have won the Medal of Honor. In his effort to keep the Union together, Lincoln freed the slaves of the states in rebellion during the civil war, becoming an icon to freedom and human rights for all history. Upon his death the entire nation mourned; his funeral procession from Washington, D.C., to his tomb in Springfield, Illinois, stopped twelve times along the way for full funeral services. Lying in state in the Illinois House of Representatives, beneath a two-times lifesize portrait of George Washington, a banner proclaimed, “Washington the Father, Lincoln the Savior.”
Darwin would become one of the greatest scientists of all time. He would be credited with discovering the theory of evolution by natural and sexual selection. His meticulous footnoting and careful observations formed the data for ground-breaking papers in geology (the creation of coral atolls), zoology (barnacles, and the expression of emotions in animals and man), botany (climbing vines and insectivorous plants), ecology (worms and leaf mould), and travel (the voyage of H.M.S. Beagle). At his death he was honored with a state funeral, attended by the great scientists and statesmen of London in his day. Hymns were specially written for the occasion. Darwin is interred in Westminster Abbey near Sir Isaac Newton, England’s other great scientist, who knocked God out of the heavens.
Lincoln would be known as the man who saved the Union of the United States and set the standard for civil and human rights, vindicating the religious beliefs of many and challenging the beliefs of many more. Darwin’s theory would become one of the greatest ideas of western civilization, changing forever all the sciences, and especially agriculture, animal husbandry, and the rest of biology, while also provoking crises in religious sects.
Lincoln, the politician known for freeing the slaves, also was the first U.S. president to formally consult with scientists, calling on the National Science Foundation (whose creation he oversaw) to advise his administration. Darwin, the scientist, advocated that his family put the weight of its fortune behind the effort to abolish slavery in the British Empire. Each held an interest in the other’s disciplines.
Both men were catapulted to fame in 1858. Lincoln’s notoriety came from a series of debates on the nation’s dealing with slavery, in his losing campaign against Stephen A. Douglas to represent Illinois in the U.S. Senate. On the fame of that campaign, he won the nomination to the presidency of the fledgling Republican Party in 1860. Darwin was spurred to publicly reveal his ideas about the power of natural and sexual selection as the force behind evolution, in a paper co-authored by Alfred Russel Wallace, presented to the Linnean Society in London on July 1, 1858. On the strength of that paper, barely noticed at the time, Darwin published his most famous work, On the Origin of Species, in November 1859.
The two men might have got along well, but they never met.
What unusual coincidences. Today is the first day of a year-long commemoration of the lives of both men. Wise historians and history teachers, and probably wise science teachers, will watch for historical accounts in mass media, and save them.
Go celebrate human rights, good science, and the stories about these men.
- Darwin 200
- About Darwin.com; links to Darwin texts online
- On the Origin of Species online
- C. Warren Irvin Collection of Darwin and Darwiniana, University of South Carolina