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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.



Our struggles in America did not escape Charles Darwin’s notice. To the Harvard botanist Asa Gray, Darwin wrote in June of 1861:

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.

Comments

  1. #1 The Ridger
    February 12, 2008

    Wonderful piece of writing. Simply lyrical.

  2. #2 William Wallace
    February 12, 2008

    Your writing skills, as noted above, are outstanding, and your points well worth consideration.

    This competition for scarce resources drives further change, as each group must adapt or die out.

    Clearly Darwinian thought. But can you guess who wrote:

    Struggle is the father of all things. It is not by the principles of humanities that men live or is able to preserve himself above the animal world, but solely by means of the brutal struggle. If you do not fight for life, then life will never be won.

    According to Professor Robert Weiner of Lafayette College, it was Adolph Hitler, using language very similar to Darwin’s.

    Also applying Weiner’s observations on the Industrial revolution in Europe during the “long nineteenth century”, another motivation for freeing the slaves in the United States was economic.

    Industrial societies in Europe needed to emancipate serfs to provide a mobile work pool, and surely the same need existed in the United States. Economies based on agriculture, as in the South, benefited more from slavery.

    Weiner seems to argue that freeing of serfs in Europe was more about the needs of the industrial revolution and less about morals. The moralquestion of slavery in the United States did not come to a head until the Industrial revolution reached a tipping point in the 1860s.

    You might want to see my other thoughts on this Darwin day.

  3. #3 Corey Smith
    February 12, 2008

    Godwin’s law usually takes longer than two posts to come into effect.

    Also, I think you meant descendants when you said “Just as Isaac and Ishmael started out very similar, but left ancestors so very different,”
    Very beautiful piece though

  4. #4 Josh Rosenau
    February 12, 2008

    Corey, thanks for the catch.

    William: Who said “With how hard a struggle will the possessors of riches enter the Kingdom of Heaven”? Who said “For I desire to have you know how greatly I struggle for you, and for those at Laodicea,” or “remember the former days, in which, after you were enlightened, you endured a great struggle with sufferings”? Who sang “For there are no struggles in their death, but their strength is firm”? Unto whom were we to “also labor, striving according to his working, which worketh in me mightily”?

    I mean, heaven forfend that someone should think struggle is a major part of life. Next you’ll be saying that Hitler was a Buddhist, what with the Buddha having held that suffering lies as the end of all existence. Stupid word games don’t undermine empirical data, nor do they constitute historical evidence.

    Darwin was far less racist than many of his era, as evidenced by quotes above and others which can be readily found. The quality and continuing scientific value of his scientific insights are undiminished by other people’s abuse of those ideas.

  5. #5 the chaplain
    February 12, 2008

    Beautiful piece of writing.

  6. #6 William Wallace
    February 13, 2008

    Generally thought to be Jesus (MK 10:23), Paul (COL 2:1), Unknown: (HEB 10:32), King David (PS 73:4), and Paul (COL 1:29).

    “Next you’ll be saying that Hitler was a Buddhist, what with the Buddha having held that suffering lies as the end of all existence.”

    You act as though I (or D. James Kennedy or Ann Coulter) were the first to notice Darwinian poetry out of the mouth of Hitler.

    You seem to imply that only those with an agenda have noted this “coincidence”.

    I doubt very much that Robert Weiner and other historians I’ve studied are Discovery Institute members.

    While the minimization or disregard of social Darwinism makes for a useful NCSE talking point, the truth of the matter is several historians, in their field of expertise, have made philosophical connections between Darwin and Hitler.

    “Darwin was far less racist than many of his era”

    No dispute there. But who beside Darwin laid such philosophical authority?

    “The quality and continuing scientific value of his scientific insights are undiminished by other people’s abuse of those ideas.”

    I am curious: Do you also believe Manhattan Project scientists have no blood on their hands?

    Besides, the idea that “nothing in biology makes sense…” is an evolutionist talking point akin to the nonsensical “nothing in physics makes sense except in light of M-Theory.” Macro evolution and common descent are not a necessary bedrock for most biological research.

    While macro evolution and common descent are rational models, common descent and the theory of evolution are ultimately origin stories, notable only because they best fit the “facts” as we understand them.

  7. #7 Josh Rosenau
    February 13, 2008

    The evidence you and Richard Weikart (not, so far as I can tell, Robert Weiner, though) and Ken Ham use to link Darwin to Hitler seems like it would do just as well at linking Jesus or King David or Paul to Hitler. Darwin wasn’t a philosopher, so talk about “philosophical connections” or “philosophical authority” is irrelevant.

    I also don’t see the relevance of the Manhattan Project. Do you blame Dalton’s atomic theory for the bombing of Hiroshima?

    Your use of “macro evolution” is ambiguous, but common descent and evolution at all scales are unquestionably fundamental to modern biology, and are not “origin stories” (origin of life research is a separate field). Don’t take my word for it though. The National Academy of Sciences recently put out a new booklet about evolution, which states:

    Biological evolution is the central organizing principle of modern biology.

    The study of biological evolution has transformed our understanding of life on this planet. Evolution provides a scientific explanation for why there are so many different kinds of organisms on Earth and how all organisms on this planet are part of an evolutionary lineage. It demonstrates why some organisms that look quite different are in fact related, while other organisms that may look similar are only distantly related. It accounts for the appearance of humans on Earth and reveals our species’ biological connections with other living things. It details how different groups of humans are related to each other and how we acquired many of our traits. It enables the development of effective new ways to protect ourselves against constantly evolving bacteria and viruses.

    Evolution does not just “fit the facts,” it makes powerful predictions which produce new treatments for disease and important insights even in fields like computer science, engineering and astronomy, not to mention medicine, agriculture and basic biological research.

  8. #8 William Wallace
    February 13, 2008

    Well, when you find some time, start studying nineteenth century history. Robert Weiner is not alone. But don’t take my word for it. Study it yourself.

  9. #9 Josh Rosenau
    February 13, 2008

    I have studied 19th century history and 20th century history. Your own quote from Weiner demonstrates that he disagreed with your claim. He writes “Well let�s redeem Darwin. Darwin would never have gone ahead with that second half [your Hitler quote above], because Darwin would have wanted to compensate for human decency.” You quoted that, but didn’t have the integrity to actually represent what Weiner was arguing.

    No credible historian or philosopher of science supports your claim. Even the historian you offer to support it actually disagrees with you. I don’t mind disagreement, but I do mind dishonesty, and your abuse of quotations is dishonest.

  10. #10 William Wallace
    February 14, 2008

    Josh quipped
    No credible historian or philosopher of science supports your claim.

    See Antony Flew’s “No true Scotsman” logical fallacy. Fortunately, evolutionists don’t get to sternberg professors of history.

    Josh falls back to NCSE talking points…abuse of quotations is dishonest.

    Sounds like you’re getting expert coaching from Eugenie or Wesley, now.

    One might argue that Weiner was simply paying due respect to the NCSE line so that he did not get Sternberged by Darwinian apologists.

    Clearly, if Weiner did not think there were something to the Darwin/Hitler/”scientific-racism” connection, he would not have wasted time on it in his lectures.

  11. #11 Josh Rosenau
    February 14, 2008

    The errors in your latest post fall into two basic categories. On one hand, trivial errors of fact. It was not a “quip,” but an assessment of the historical literature. Flew didn’t invent the “no true Scotsman” line, and Weiner didn’t claim a Darwin/Hitler link, he disavowed it.

    The other error is more substantial. You reduce a point about the ethics of quoting to “a talking point,” trivializing a serious concern. As CUNY’s “Writing on History” site for students explains“:

    While minor modifications are permissible, you must never present the quote in a manner that changes the author’s original meaning. Especially if done with the purpose of distorting the author’s intention and/or manufacturing support for an entirely different argument, intentionally changing the meaning of a quote is academically dishonest and risks severe penalty.…

    Be smart, be honest, quote accurately, and do not distort an author’s intended meaning. If you are having a hard time finding quotes to back up your thesis, consider whether your thesis may be shaky. Rather than manufacturing false evidence, re-think your argument.

    Good advice. A shame you didn’t take it.

    Can you present any evidence at all that the only source you’ve offered for your claim secretly supports you while actually disavowing that link? That is, can you provide evidence that “Weiner was simply paying due respect to the NCSE line so that he did not get Sternberged by Darwinian apologists”? You are accusing a scholar of lying in his published work, a serious charge, and not one to be made lightly. While we’re at it, could you define what you think it means to “get Sternberged”?

  12. #12 William Wallace
    February 14, 2008

    Now that was deceitful.

    The context of and introduction to the Wiener quote is:

    Contrary to evolutionist claims, many mainstream historians have noted the link between Darwinism and Hitler. An example I recently encountered is Robert Wiener of Lafayette College. In his lecture on The Long 19th Century, Wiener notes:[1]

    Wiener originally and clearly intended to link Darwinism and Hitler.

    Furthermore, your command of the written language is such that I can only assume based on your use of the term disavow in the sentence “Weiner didn’t claim a Darwin/Hitler link, he disavowed it.” is clearly and intentionally dishonest. Wiener stating that Darwin would “never have gone ahead with that second half [of the Hitler quote]” is not disavowing a link. It is Wiener clarifying extent.

    I’ll let you take the last snipe, since this is your blog.

  13. #13 Josh Rosenau
    February 14, 2008

    Dude, he explicitly cut the link between Darwin’s work and the Hitler line you quoted. That is a disavowal. He rejects your purported link!

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