February 12, 2009 will mark the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin's birth, and the naturalist shares his birthday with Abraham Lincoln. There will surely be a few articles comparing the two famous figures, particularly their views on race and slavery, but such articles will probably miss the greatest commonality shared between them. Both men have been written about extensively but are still poorly understood by the majority of the public. There are plenty of people who wish to remake them in one image or another.
That's why I enjoyed the interview (included above) with Henry Louis Gates, Jr. that was featured on the Colbert Report the other night. For all that has been written about Lincoln (which is quite a bit) very few people know who the "real Lincoln" was. We are familiar with the sainted incarnation of Lincoln (or the demonized version, depending on the company you keep), but it seems that much of what people claim to know of our 16th president is more myth than reality.
Charles Darwin is similarly afflicted, particularly given the efforts of creationists to make him the Devil's servant and scientists who wish to honor Darwin without knowing very much about their hero. Unfortunately, I have the feeling that historians will have to keep writing about the real Darwin & Lincoln for many years to come. The mythology surrounding both men is extremely pervasive and persistent.
You've also got to remember that Lincoln had accomplished, perhaps, more than Darwin. The biggest accoplishment that Darwin made was chang our views about ourselves and our place and nature. Although, that one action made, arguably, more of an impact than Lincoln's accomplishments in the U.S. during the Civil War. However, they both should be celebrated. I, however, will celebrate Lincoln, slightly more than Darwin, because, in all honesty, Lincoln accomplished MORE, in quantity than Charles Darwin did. Lincoln, in my opinion was a true American leader.
Well, of course, Darwin was not an American leader. I would guess the amount of historical scholarship on Lincoln is considerably more than that on Darwin. There are a lot more historians interested in political history as compared to the few who study the history of science.