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Marking time: Darwin to Lincoln

Written By: - Date published: 7:30 pm, February 13th, 2009 - 19 comments
Categories: articles, science - Tags:

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.

19 comments on “Marking time: Darwin to Lincoln ”

  1. TightyRighty 1

    Hear Hear. never realised two of histories greatest luminaries shared an anniversary. Thank you for enlightening me dancer.

  2. Con 2

    Simon Jenkins is talking out of his arse.

    Darwin claims the crown for the scale of his intellectual revolution, but was he no more than an observer, a describer, a cataloguer?

    Did he not fail Marx’s test, that any philosopher can interpret the world while “the point is to change it”?

    If we’re going to quote Marx, let’s try this one, in which he writes about the way that theoretical work can actually change the world:

    It is clear that the arm of criticism cannot replace the criticism of arms. Material force can only be overthrown by material force, but theory itself becomes a material force when it has seized the masses. Theory is capable of seizing the masses when it demonstrates ad hominem, and it demonstrates ad hominem as soon as it becomes radical. To be radical is to grasp things by the root. But for man the root is man himself.

    Darwin’s theory (of Natural Selection) radically changed the prevailing view of the nature of humans. We can see ourselves now as a branch in the tree of life; a particular species of highly social ape, descended from other apes (and of course from primordial sludge) via a natural and mundane process, not created by God in some pre-ordained state.

    I think this has had an enormous positive influence on the development of progressive political ideas. No more “The rich man in his castle, The poor man at his gate, He made them, high or lowly, And ordered their estate. ”

    All due respect to Lincoln (who did a power of good, of course), but he wasn’t in the same league as our mate Charles, IMHO.

  3. Janet 3

    But only Darwin visited NZ.

  4. Lew 4

    I agree with Con. Democracy’s great and all, but it’s reason which has enabled humanity to thrive, and Darwin’s Origin of Species represents one of the great leaps of reason.


    But only Darwin visited NZ.

    And hated it, calling Kororareka a “hell-hole” and referring to its inhabitants as “the very refuse of society”. Which, in 1835, it might well have been 😉


  5. Con 5

    Hey Janet, did you know that Darwin hated NZ?

    I believe we were all glad to leave New Zealand. It is not a pleasant place. Amongst the natives there is absent that charming simplicity which is found in Tahiti; and the greater part of the English are the very refuse of society. Neither is the country itself attractive. I look back but to one bright spot, and that is Waimate, with its Christian inhabitants.

    From Journal of researches into the natural history and geology of the countries visited during the voyage of H.M.S. “Beagle” round the world, under the command of Capt. Fitz Roy, R.N., p313

    Edit: Gah, Lew beat me to it, but at least I got the quote in 🙂

  6. Lew 6

    Con, I see I’ve met another Darwin geek 🙂


  7. Con 7

    Lew. Yes it’s true … I’m a fan of Charles Darwin on Facebook, even.

    But quite honestly, I credit Charles Darwin with innoculating me against religious ideology when I was a child. I am very grateful for that.

  8. Janet 8

    Yes I know that he didn’t like NZ much. But it was Christmas, he was young, and he had been away from home for years and was probably lonely and homesick. And had probably run out of good books. Just imagine what he would have done with a blog or twitter even.

  9. northpaw 9

    Perhaps one lesson to learn is that it is only with time that we can gain the perspective on truely(sic) judge the worth of contributions – and that this holds as true for politicians as for science.


    Pertinent I feel is how within 8 years of Darwin’s publication came the Second Reform Act to British political life.. I guess Simon Jenkins was more focussed on the transatlantic parallel.

    As I’ve mentioned elsewhere here the Victorian era was a melting pot for political change.. and public curiosity not least influenced late by Darwin and his scientific colleagues was the melt, as it were.

    Been an interesting week: I reckon I’ve been called everything now. To explain this in my own way is to say how a few years ago I had a written ‘defense’ of the BBC declined by a kiwi institution because I – note, not the article – was too leftwing… ;-).

    Gotta be the price of .. no EV, never “rightwing mindset” .. of seeking always reflect an independent streak..

    Have a good weekend folks.

  10. Ben R 10

    “Darwinians might feel threatened by religious fundamentalists, but the contest is of wisdom against fools.”

    That is true, but David Friedman points out that the left have issues with Darwin also.

    “People who say they are against teaching the theory of evolution are very likely to be Christian fundamentalists. But people who are against taking seriously the implications of evolution, strongly enough to want to attack those who disagree, including those who teach those implications, are quite likely to be on the left.”


    Peter Singer has also written a book about how the left can adapt to Darwin:

    “This time, he chooses to antagonize those most sympathetic with his positions, arguing that the political left should re-evaluate its dependence on Marxism and its shunning of Darwinism. His writing is lucid and pulls no punches in examining the consequences of 20th-century answers to poverty; fans of the welfare state are in for some discomfort.”

  11. had enough 11

    ‘Darwinians might feel threatened by religious fundamentalists, but the contest is of wisdom against fools.’

    “The fool hath said in his heart there is no God”

  12. Westminster 12

    Except it was Darwin’s birthday on 12 Feb. We are victims of being on the wrong side of the dateline for these kinds of Northern Hemisphere events.

  13. randal 13

    it is simply a case of the truth versus desire
    all politics is the desire of the individual to inflict his wishes on the world at large to which we the electorate issue a licence for a term
    science on the other hand attempts to describe and explain the world and natural phenomena
    even the truth a bout politicians and that becomes obvious when politicians attempt to destroy those who would tell the truth

  14. burt 14


    Darwin’s theory of evolution has also evolved a little over the years but I suspect that a bit like evolution the idea will take some time to catch on.


    There are some great books on this theory which essentially extends the theory of evolution but replaces the concept of “random mutations” with environmentally expedient mutations.

    There is one book “The unified theory of existence (a love story)” which is just amazing in it’s simplicity of description. However I lent it to a friend and haven’t seen it since. It’s now described as a rare and valuable book selling for about $200 second hand.

    If you get the chance to read it then it’s worth the time.

    Justin Murphy – if you are reading this – do you still have my copy ?

  15. Ben R 15

    “Darwin’s theory of evolution has also evolved a little over the years but I suspect that a bit like evolution the idea will take some time to catch on.”

    Burt, have you read the new book “The 10,000 Year Explosion” by Henry Harpending and Greg Cochran? I’ve ordered a copy, I think it’s been dubbed ‘Guns, Germs, Steel, & Genes’:

    “Cochran and Harpending first present the evidence for recent, accelerated human evolution after the invention of agriculture. In its own right that argument is a fairly revolutionary proposition, but one with clear data, both skeletal and genetic, to back it up; investigations of the human genome undertaken as part of the International Hap Map Project and elsewhere have clearly demonstrated that selection has been ongoing and has accelerated over time. This has been a landmark finding in human biology, and Cochran and Harpending, building on their own work and that of others, including John Hawks of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, convincingly tie the advent of agriculture — and the stresses resulting from the new diets, new modes of habitation, new animal neighbors, and new modes of living that agriculture made possible — to this accelerating evolution. It is work destined to launch a thousand careers. But Cochran and Harpending have bigger aims than just changing how biological anthropologists think about evolution or population genetics. Their argument’s most important implication is that because evolution is ongoing, history has not taken place with a cast of roughly fungible actors. Rather, the dynamic relationship between cultural and biological evolution means that history, especially macrohistory, has taken its shape because of the inherent genetic diversity of its actors, both individuals and groups.

    Much of this was attempted before, in Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel, a book whose influence is clear in The 10,000 Year Explosion. But Cochran and Harpending do one better than Diamond. Where he was content with environmental determinism and sought to write around and even against human biology, Cochran and Harpending embrace it. That discussion of gene flow becomes the lynchpin in the argument for biology as central to history, and the backdrop for the book’s two biggest set pieces….

    Even with its flaws, Cochran and Harpending’s book has provided the best example to date of what E.O. Wilson would recognize as consilient history: not history done just with science in mind or even done scientifically, but history done with human biology treated as an essential cause and effect of the stories that history tells, and as a key without which history cannot make sense.”


  16. Carol 16

    Lincoln: the man who made the mightiest nation on Earth also the custodian of liberty and democracy?

    Say what?

  17. Lew 17


    There are some great books on this theory which essentially extends the theory of evolution but replaces the concept of “random mutations’ with environmentally expedient mutations.

    Sounds a bit like Lamarckian inheritance, which is a fine concept when applied to anything other than genes, but … well, genes are genes, you have ’em at the start and you have ’em at the end and they don’t change in between. So put me down in the `skeptics’ column (having not read the thing : )


  18. Alex 18

    Darwins theory will eventually be abandoned because there is no evidence for it.

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