199 years ago, in a log cabin in Kentucky, a boy was born to a pair of farmers on the American frontier. His parents named him Abraham, after the father prepared to sacrifice his own divinely promised son when called to do so by his God, and who, the Apostle Paul said, “against hope believed in hope, that he might become the father of many nations.”
Abraham’s first son, Isaac, is said to be the direct ancestor of all Jewish peoples, while his son Ishmael claimed as the scion of the Arabs, including Muhammad the founder of Islam. These lines of descent are woven through centuries of warfare; but for a different choice on Abraham’s part, today’s front pages would read very differently. Just so, had Abraham Lincoln’s life taken different turns, world history would be of a very different sort. We can be grateful that both Abrahams were ready to make a sacrifice for the benefit of future generation.
On the same day that Abraham Lincoln was born, Susannah Darwin (née Wedgwood, as in the china) gave birth to her fifth son, and named him Charles. Through a life of careful observation, Charles Darwin came to appreciate the importance of contingent events in long lineages. Just as Isaac and Ishmael started out very similar, but left descendants so very different, a population of animals can be split apart to produce very different descendants. Darwin saw that selective breeding could produce a vast diversity of dogs, cats, pigeons and other domestic plants and animals, and that no reason existed that the same forces which allowed a breeder to separate a given lineage out in captivity could not operate in the wild. Indeed, it could hardly help but operating in the world we know.
We live in a changing world, where food becomes scarce, where boundaries can form anew or shift slightly, cutting off groups from one another. Such subtle shifts can have dramatic consequences. They can separate groups, letting them pursue novel and different ways of living. Or those events can bring together populations once separated, and force them to compete for scarce resources. This competition for scarce resources drives further change, as each group must adapt or die out.
This imperative to adapt or die out was at the center of Abraham Lincoln’s life and death. Darwin’s conatalian (h/t Glenn for the neologism) came to the presidency as his nation’s north and south struggled over scarce resources. The North had industrialized, and seemed likely to dominate the South economically. The South, feared losing political power, and thus the institution of slavery, and thus yet more economic and political power. “These slaves,” Lincoln observed “constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war.” And the war came, and Lincoln, hoping against hope, fought to preserve this nation’s moral core, and in prevailing became a father to this nation, and a revered figure in many others.
But I suppose you are all too overwhelmed with the public affairs to care for science. I never knew the newspapers so profoundly interesting. N. America does not do England Justice: I have not seen or heard of a soul who is not with the North. Some few, & I am one, even and wish to God, though at the loss of millions of lives, that the North would proclaim a crusade against Slavery. In the long run, a million horrid deaths would be amply repaid in the cause of humanity. What wonderful times we live in. Massachusetts seems to show noble enthusiasm. Great God how I should like to see the greatest curse on Earth Slavery abolished.
Years later, Lincoln called the nation’s attention to the nearly 700,000 fatalities, and placed them in the hands of that same God, echoing the notion that death is sometimes necessary for greater moral good:
Neither party expected for the war, the magnitude, or the duration, which it has already attained. … Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces; but let us judge not that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered; that of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has his own purposes. “Woe unto the world because of offences! for it must needs be that offences come; but woe to that man by whom the offence cometh!” If we shall suppose that American Slavery is one of those offences which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South, this terrible war, as the woe due to those by whom the offence came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a Living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope—fervently do we pray—that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bond-man’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether”
How seriously Lincoln took these religious passages is subject to debate. In his youth he said “It will not do to investigate the subject of religion too closely, as it is apt to lead to Infidelity,” and his widow recalled “Mr. Lincoln’s maxim and philosophy were: ‘What is to be, will be, and no prayers of ours can arrest the decree.’ He never joined any Church. He was a religious man always, I think, but was not a technical Christian.”
That attitude toward religion was not far from Darwin’s. While he was a satisfied Christian early in life, the deaths of his daughter and the wanton cruelty which abounds in the world tempered those views. In 1862, he wrote “I feel most deeply that this whole question of Creation is too profound for human intellect. A dog might as well speculate on the mind of Newton! Let each man hope and believe what he can.” In 1880, he wrote to Edward Aveling (perhaps the Sam Harris of his day): “though I am a strong advocate for free thought on all subjects, yet it appears to me (whether rightly or wrongly) that direct arguments against Christianity & theism produce hardly any effect on the public; & freedom of thought is best promoted by the gradual illumination of men’s minds which follows from the advance of science. It has, therefore, been always my object to avoid writing on religion, & I have confined myself to science.”
Of course, there is but one world, a house with science and religion and a multitude of other ideas all clamoring about. Lincoln was right that a house divided against itself cannot stand, and both Darwin and Lincoln envisioned days in which their sundered landscapes would cease to be divided, and in a way that would keep that house from from falling. This policy of malice toward none, charity for all and firmness in the right served both men fairly well, though neither lived to see the final victories of their lifelong quests. Thanks to the efforts of both men, we live in an age where less stock is placed in the accident of ancestry and parentage. We are still divided in other ways, and it falls to the intellectual heirs of those great leaders to take stock on their mutual birthday, and to rededicate ourselves to the grandeur of their views of life.