Today is the anniversary of two of histories great names – Darwin and Lincoln. Both men made significant (albeit different) contributions to our current understanding of the world. Simon Jenkins of the Guardian asks which was the greater?
Was it the man who transformed our understanding of the human race, or the man who made the mightiest nation on Earth also the custodian of liberty and democracy? Was it the scientist or the statesman?….
Science is a linear dialectic, from thesis to antithesis to synthesis, from evidence to conclusion. Its challenges are notionally resolved by recourse to facts.
Darwinians might feel threatened by religious fundamentalists, but the contest is of wisdom against fools.
Politics has no such angels on its side. Its arguments are rarely susceptible to evidence – other than from unread history. Its conflicts are visceral and concern the interest of groups, taxes, privileges and vendettas. Politics reflects the basest emotions, and resolving them is difficult beyond the imagining of science. When Auden opined that no poem had “saved one Jew from the gas chambers”, he might have been speaking for science as much as for literature or art. Only politics has that power to hand.
I believe in the primacy of politics as a human activity for the simple reason that it is more important than anything else. Science must dance to its tune, not vice versa. The calibre of politicians is a crucial determinant of human happiness. Theirs is not a profession but the consummation of social activity.
That is why Darwin died in his bed and Lincoln to an assassin’s bullet. That is why Darwin gets my admiration, but Lincoln gets my vote.
For those interested in the ongoing influence Darwin has within the science community there’s also an interesting piece in the New York Times which says:
Darwin’s theory of evolution has become the bedrock of modern biology. But for most of the theory’s existence since 1859, even biologists have ignored or vigorously opposed it, in whole or in part. It is a testament to Darwin’s extraordinary insight that it took almost a century for biologists to understand the essential correctness of his views.
Perhaps one lesson to learn is that it is only with time that we can gain the perspective on truely judge the worth of contributions – and that this holds as true for politicians as for science.