Lincoln and Darwin

Lincoln and Darwin

By Robert A. Hedeen

Lincoln and Darwin

Editor’s note: Dr. Robert Hedeen is a naturalist who writes about the Rock River Valley watershed. He was a resident of Maryland’s eastern shore from 1971 to 1999 but has lived in Rockford since September 1999. He has a B.A., M.A. and Ph.D. in zoology and botany from the University of Texas. He was a professor of Biological Science and department chairman at Salisbury State University, Maryland, from 1971-92. He has had 30 scientific papers published in a variety of journals concerning the biology and control of arthropods. He wrote a weekly newspaper column in Salisbury, Md., on natural history, and has written numerous magazine articles about natural history, hunting and fishing. He is the author of two books, Naturalist on the Nanticoke, The Natural History of a River on Maryland’s Eastern Shore and The Oyster, the Life and Lore of the Celebrated Bivalve, both published by Cornel Maritime (Tidewater) Press.

February 12th is coming up, and many may forget to remember this date as Lincoln’s birthday. Not too many years ago, we celebrated both our first president’s and our 16th president’s birthdays on separate days in February, but now they are combined into Presidents’ Day on a Friday or Monday to ensure a long weekend. This year, that date is February 18.

Lincoln was born on February 12, 1809, but a little-known fact is that another famous and influential individual was born on the same day: Charles Darwin. What a study in contrast these two men present; yet in many ways, they were similar, and both greatly influenced all mankind.

One was born of impoverished parents in a log cabin in the primitive wilderness of frontier Kentucky. The other entered the world in a palatial manor named Downe House, an estate in the county of Kent in civilized England, with upper class, educated and wealthy parents.

Their ancestral roots could not have been more different; and though these two boys never met, they grew into men whose contributions to human thought and endeavor have been surpassed by very few others. For a better perspective, perhaps we should consider the differences between and the similarities between the two.

Abraham Lincoln grew to manhood amid the hardships, hazards and heartbreaks of early Kentucky, Indiana and Illinois. Lacking the benefit of formal schooling, his quest for knowledge was satisfied largely by self-education. He supplemented his meager access to books (it is said he wrote his own arithmetic book) by long, leisurely thoughts of his own. As he split rails, tramped the hills, or plowed a furrow around a stump, he formulated his philosophy of life and developed the moral principles which would become the basis for his future ethical decisions.

On the other hand, Charles Darwin, having been born to wealthy parents, had the advantage of the best schools in Victorian England. However, he was a poor student and required the assistance of an array of special tutors to enable him to complete preparatory school. His father was a physician and insisted that Charles follow in his footsteps, so the young Darwin reluctantly enrolled in medical school but dropped out after the first year. The sight of blood made him violently ill; and once, he fainted while observing a surgical procedure being performed without the benefit of anesthetic.

With hopes for a career in medicine gone, his parents decided upon another suitable profession for a young gentleman of that era: the ministry. Charles was more amenable to this line of endeavor and eventually graduated from Cambridge University with a degree in theology. He was, however, destined to be a clergyman who never practiced his profession.

Like Lincoln, Darwin was fascinated by the natural world and spent countless hours hunting, riding and studying the fauna and flora of his beloved English countryside. While at Cambridge, he spent considerably more time with professors of the various branches of natural history than he did with his instructors of theology and philosophy. Also, he was similar to Lincoln in that his keen mind delved into the why and wherefore of matters he encountered. It is ironic that both men considered themselves to be failures in life when they reached 40 years of age.

Nearly two centuries later, Lincoln and Darwin should be remembered whenever and wherever men seek freedom. Lincoln as president led the nation through a bloody civil war to preserve the union and to abolish slavery. Darwin, with the aid of a mountain of scientific data he had amassed from the far corners of the earth and an acute insight into the intricacies of natural history, formulated the theory of the evolution of species by means of natural selection. His theory, which is accepted as scientific law by most scientists today, explained how all animals and plants are related through fundamental biological and physical forces and are governed by the natural forces of the environment.

Both men were prepared for their greatness by their intimate knowledge of nature. They were simplistic, kind and honest individuals who were afflicted with periodic states of deep depression. The depressions were brought on by the fact that each suffered for years from chronic illness and in part by the important ethical and moral decisions each was required to make.

Many scholars now believe that Lincoln was a victim of Marfan’s Syndrome, a hereditary condition affecting the skeletal structures of the body including connective tissue, muscles and ligaments. A victim of Marfan’s has an irregular, unsteady gait, and is lean and tall with stooping shoulders. Lincoln is considered by some to have been in the last stages of this disease when he was assassinated.

Likewise, many scholars now generally accept that Darwin was a long-time sufferer of Chagas’s Disease, which is also known as South American Trypanosomiasis. He probably acquired this parasitic protozoan infection during his extensive travels in South America. In fact, he writes of awakening one morning after passing the night on the pampas of Argentina, and to his horror, finding his bedroll infested with large bloodsucking bugs. These insects are known to be the transmitters of the parasites causing Chagas’s Disease.

In any event, both were able to overcome the periods of deep melancholy by relying on their ingrained sense of humor.

Many individuals erroneously believe that Darwin was an atheist and Lincoln was at best an agnostic. From middle age onward, neither Lincoln nor Darwin was a practitioner of any organized religious denomination, but each had a firm and unshakable belief in God as their higher power. Lincoln’s references to the Deity are numerous, and Darwin added the following to the last paragraph of his book, The Origin of Species by Natural Selection:

“There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into forms or into one; and that whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved.” Darwin is affirming his belief that species have evolved according to natural laws laid down by the Creator. He knew his theory that species do change over a period of time in response to environmental pressures, would invoke an outrage among those who believe in a literal translation of the book of Genesis. In fact, he did not want to become involved in such controversy and willed a sum of money to have his book published after he died. Circumstances, however, mandated his work be published before his death.

The birthdays of these two men and what they stood for should be remembered on February 12th of each year.

Lincoln, the statesman, set free men’s bodies; Darwin, the naturalist, liberated their minds.

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