Adam Gopnik (2009)

On February 12, 1809, two men, who changed the world, were born: Charles Darwin, in England, and Abraham Lincoln, in Kentucky. The erudite journalist, Adam Gopnik, has written a fascinating and entertaining comparison of the lives, prose and contributions of these giants. He begins observing poetically, “We are all pebbles dropped in the sea of history” and by recalling Langdon Smith’s prologue, “When I was a tadpole and you were a fish/ In Paleozoic time” (Smith’s tale of two lovers from one geologic era to another), and makes the case that Lincoln was “an icon of Justice” and Darwin (1809-1882) “an icon of Truth” and concludes that, if one word could sum up Lincoln, it would be “shrewd” and for Darwin “sensitive” (and “loving”).

About Lincoln (1809-1865), Gopnik offers interesting data: Lincoln admitted that he was not a member of any church or a churchgoer, as his wife and law partner affirmed. His references to God were his way of affording some solace to those mourning the war’s losses and of maintaining as much good will with the electorate as he could, especially in that emotionally-charged era. Reading was his first love, and Shakespeare, especially Macbeth, was his favorite: “Nothing is but what is not” – reminding us of Poe’s, “All that we see or seem /Is but a dream within a dream.” Shakespeare’s tragedies (Lear, Richard, Henry, Hamlet) are all dramas of unexpected murder and ambition turned evil. Lincoln saw his own ambition and the massacres of the war as latter day tragedies; however “right” he saw the cause, he bore the burden of responsibility for the slaughter. In well written prose, the author favors us with endless such facts.

About Darwin (1809-1881), we learn lesser known facts. He published his triumphant Origin of The Species (Origin) in 1859, after withholding it for twenty years, in deference to the staunchly religious sensitivities of his wife, whom he loved passionately, and his family. The theses of his Origin, of course, have been accepted by 90+% of the scientific community, and, in the 150 years since, an overwhelming body of data support Darwin’s original research and insights: e.g., genes and DNA were discovered (in 1952); the earth was dated at 4.55 billion years old (also in 1952); the Cambrian Explosion 600MYA, chimps 8MYA, humanlike predecessors 3MYA, to homo erectus 100KYA and homo sapiens about 50KYA, have been documented by countless fossils as unveiled by learned paleontologists.

Darwin, we learn, like Lincoln was an avid reader (making a habit of “reading dictionaries”), a superb writer, almost poetic, and a very sensitive and loving human being. His last words to his wife were simple and sufficiently loving to touch us our hearts 150 years later: “My love, my precious love”. Who among us would not treasure such a last utterance to us? Creationists accuse Darwin of robbing mankind of place and purpose, while evolutionists applaud him for answering many of their troubling questions and for giving them a reason to revere Mother Nature and the gift of life, however abbreviated it may be. “There is solace in sleep,” he concluded, concurring with Voltaire, Shakespeare and endless others. Although Darwin believed that the level of senseless human suffering is incompatible with the idea of a benevolent god, Darwin never argued against religion, noting that the value of religion is “best promoted by the gradual illumination of men’s minds, which follows from the advance of science.” The Age of Enlightment, the Encyclopedists, Hume, et al had broken the ice. According to the religious census of 1851, less than half of Britain’s population was attending church by the time that Darwin published The Origin.

There are two, central challenges to evolution: First, creationists argue that the human eye is too complex to have “evolved”, but Darwin notes that the eye was created incrementally, rather than in one creative act, and he explains the increments in convincing detail. Second, creationists aver that the “missing link” in the fossil chain negates evolution. Darwin explained that there is “no missing link”; that is, that men and apes come from totally separate branches of the tree of life; neither “descended” from the other, but both sprung from the same protoplasmic, atomic globules. As the renowned paleontologist, Steven J. Gould, notes, “All life is one.” All life-forms evolved from bacteria in the once gaseous surface of our planet. He added that, since all humans compose one family, racism is ludicrous. The strongest or most adaptable do survive. The point of “Natural Selection” is that Nature doesn’t play favorites, just the odds.

Darwin, The Great Victorian Sage, does not write like a sage but, rather, like a novelist. No book, except The Principia, ever aroused as much opposition — or support – as his Origin. Darwin, himself, like Lincoln, was an existentialist and a humanist, and a humble and most loving man. His Origin remains among the most influential and compelling books ever written. It is “A Must Read” for all would-be educated readers, and Gopnik deserves our applause for his delightful, flowing perspectives on two giants who shared a common birthday.