Abraham Lincoln & Charles Darwin

by Patricia Miller, CPL Librarian
Originally published by the Columbia Daily Tribune.

See also: Subject Guides on Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin

February 12, 2009 is the bicentennial of the birth of Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin, both of whom have been commemorated in recent biographies, essay collections and reprint editions.

Lincoln historians have been discussing the parallels between Lincoln and Barack Obama: entering office in times of crisis; apparent inactivity while waiting to take office; inclusion of rivals in their cabinets; and the ability to connect with audiences through speech and the written word. Harold Holzer’s “Lincoln President-Elect: Abraham Lincoln and the Great Secession Winter 1860-1861 (Simon & Schuster, 2008) defends Lincoln from the charge that as president-elect he underestimated the dangers of Southern secession. Holzer contends that Lincoln, in the transition and afterwards was “astonishingly intuitive and gifted with remarkable instincts for communication.” Ronald White’s A. Lincoln: A Biography (Random House, 2009) describes how Lincoln’s ideas about race and slavery changed as he “never stopped asking questions of himself.” The ability to reflect on the great ideas of his time gave him the moral gravitas and “authenticity” we seek today. Our Lincoln” (W.W. Norton, 2008), edited by Eric Foner, is a collection of essays including James Oakes’ Another Look at Lincoln and Race and David W. Blights’s “The Theft of Lincoln in Scholarship, Politics, and Public Memory” on how politicians and scholars have misquoted and distorted Lincoln’s words for their own agendas. Other new collections are by C-Span editors Brian Lamb and Susan Swain and by the Organization of American Historians. In the recent election we were reminded that words do matter, giving extra relevance to Fred Kaplan’s work Lincoln: The Biography of a Writer(Harper, 2008). The power of visual records and images is evident in Looking for Lincoln: The Making of an American Iconby Philip Kunhardt (Alfred A. Knopf, 2008). It contains never before seen letters and photos covering the period from Lincoln’s death to his son’s death in 1926.

This year the scientific world celebrates Charles Darwin, who wrote the “one book that started it all.” November 24, 2009 will be the sesquicentennial of the publication of “On the Origin of Species,” probably the greatest scientific book of all time. In From So Simple a Beginning (W.W. Norton, 2006), the evolutionary biologist Edward O. Wilson introduces the four great works in which Darwin “documents the evidences of organic evolution and introduces the theory of natural selection.” In Charles Darwin: the Concise Story of an Extraordinary Man (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009), Tim Berra asserts that Darwin’s idea of transmutation or descent with modification is “arguably the greatest idea the human mind ever had.” David Quammen’s The Reluctant Mr. Darwin (W.W. Norton, 2006) is an accessible account of how the reclusive English naturalist waited 22 years after his travels on the Beagle to publish his ideas. Quammen also writes the introduction to On the Origin of Species: the Illustrated Edition (Sterling, 2008), which adds photographs, illustrations and background information to the text of the first edition. The Beagle Letters (Cambridge University Press, 2008), edited by Frederick Burkhardt with an introduction by Darwin biographer Janet Browne, is also lavishly illustrated and describes Darwin’s adventures in remote parts of the globe as well as depicting the social milieu of his sisters’ lives in Jane Austen’s England.

Natural selection as the mechanism of evolution remains the intellectual framework for all subsequent biologists such as Richard Dawkins, Stephen Jay Gould and Jared Diamond. Gifted writers all, their works include: The Ancestor’s Tale by Dawkins (Houghton Mifflin, 2004), Dinosaur in a Haystack (Harmony, 1995) by Gould and The Third Chimpanzee (Harper Perennial, 2002) by Diamond. All passionately defend Darwin’s logic that evolution is universal and applies to all living species. The recent work of geneticists and other researchers in decoding genomes further supports Darwin’s logic and adds the “molecular clock” to the evolutionary evidence in the extant fossil record. In “Darwin’s Ghost: The Origin of Species Updated (Random House, 2000), Steve Jones describes how the evolutionary behavior of the retrovirus HIV “contains in its brief history the central argument of the Origin of Species.

Perhaps the most tantalizing new title to come out this month is Darwin’s Sacred Cause: How a Hatred of Slavery Shaped Darwin’s Views on Evolution (Houghton, 2009) by Adrian Desmond & James C. Moore. Imagine the possibilities if Darwin and Lincoln had ever corresponded or met.

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