Two years ago was the bicentennial celebration of their births. Only a few weeks after his inauguration as President, Barack Obama contributed to this celebration by delivering a speech to the Abraham Lincoln Association in Springfield, Illinois. In the central paragraph of his speech, he recognized the link between Lincoln and Darwin:
Only a union could speed our expansion and connect our coasts with a transcontinental railroad, and so, even in the midst of civil war, he built one. he fueled new enterprises with a national currency, spurred innovation, and ignited America's imagination with a national academy of sciences, believing we must, as he put it, add "the fuel of interest to the fire of genius in the discovery . . . of new and useful things." And on this day, that is also the bicentennial of Charles Darwin's birth, let us renew that commitment to science and innovation once more.
Here Obama quotes from Lincoln's "Lecture on Discovery and Inventions," which is the clearest expression of Lincoln's Darwinian view of human evolution and technology. In a previous post, I have commented on Obama's rhetorical debt to Lincoln and his acceptance of Darwin's science.
Beginning in the 1980s, I have written about the intellectual links between Lincoln and Darwin in various articles and books--for example, in the chapter on slavery in Darwinian Natural Right. But I have learned a lot from some of the recent scholarship related to the Lincoln/Darwin bicentennial. Three books are especially good: Adam Gopnik, Angels and Ages: A Short Book about Darwin, Lincoln, and Modern Life, Adrian Desmond and James Moore, Darwin's Sacred Cause: How a Hatred of Slavery Shaped Darwin's Views on Human Evolution, and James Lander, Lincoln & Darwin: Shared Visions of Race, Science, and Religion. Some of my previous posts on some of this scholarship can be found here, here, here, here, and here.
I see at least six points of similarity between Darwin and Lincoln. (1) Both saw the universe as governed by natural laws, which included the natural laws for the evolution of life. (2) Both were accused of denying the Biblical doctrine of Creation. (3) Both spoke of God as First Cause. (4) Both appealed to the Bible as a source of moral teaching, even as they also appealed to a natural moral sense independent of Biblical religion. (5) Both abhorred slavery as immoral. (6) Both were moral realists.
As I have indicated in previous posts, there is debate about each of these points. But I find that what is most difficult for many people to understand is the last point--their moral realism. Previously, I have taken up this point in my response to Desmond and Moore in my post "Did Darwin Naturalize Genocide?--Or Does Right Make Might?" My reading of Lander's book has stirred me to think more about this.
Here's how I interpret the moral realism of Lincoln and Darwin. Because they see moral and political order as rooted in evolved human nature, they see moral progress as both possible and imperfect. Moral progress is always possible, because human beings can learn how to extend social cooperation and sympathetic concern to ever wider circles of humanity. But moral progress is always imperfect, because human beings will always face tragic conflicts of interest that arise from their complex nature as animals who are both selfish and social, both competitive and cooperative. Consequently, a world of perpetual peace and universal cooperation is impossible. Moral and political history often coincides with military history.
Lincoln showed his moral realism in his handling of the slavery issue. Lincoln always recognized the immorality of slavery, and therefore he disagreed with the proslavery extremists (like John C. Calhoun) who defended slavery as a "positive good." But Lincoln also recognized the imprudence in trying to immediately abolish slavery, and therefore he disagreed with the abolitionist extremists like William Lloyd Garrison who were willing to overturn the Constitutional compromises with slavery.
Lincoln looked for a practical compromise that would allow for the gradual extinction of slavery. He hoped that slaveholders could be compensated for liberating their slaves, while the freed slaves would move to a colony in Africa. He thought this would strike a balance between self-interest and moral concern. To many people today, his colonization plan looks like evidence of racist bigotry. But for Lincoln, this arose from a tough-minded recognition that racial prejudice would make it hard for blacks and whites to live together peacefully. If the freed slaves remained in America, Lincoln predicted, there would be at least 100 years of racial conflict before racial equality could be achieved. For example, Lincoln saw the natural disgust with racial intermarriage as a sign of the natural human disposition to in-group/out-group conflict.
When the proslavery extremists in the American South refused Lincoln's offers of practical compromise and then launched a war of secession, Lincoln was forced to wage war to save the Union as a condition for the ultimate extinction of slavery. Here, again, we see his moral realism. (Let's remember that this year is the sesquicentennial of the beginning of the Civil War in 1861, which will stir new debate about the decisions that led to the war, by far the bloodiest war in American history and one of the bloodiest wars in all of human history.)
We hope to settle moral conflict through persuasion. But when persuasion fails, we must sometimes appeal to force of arms to settle the disagreement. As Pascal observed, we look for the union of force and justice, so that what is just must be strong, or what is strong must be just.
Many American religious believers thought that the Bible should settle such moral disagreements. But as Lincoln noted, the Bible was unclear about the morality of slavery. And so in the Civil War, "both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other." This theological dispute was resolved by the military victory of the North.
We see this same moral realism in Darwin's thought. Darwin believed that one crucial element in the evolution of morality was group selection through tribal warfare, because those tribal groups with the moral virtues of courage and patriotism would tend to prevail in war against those groups whose members lacked those virtues. In The Descent of Man (Penguin ed.), he writes:
When two tribes of primeval man, living in the same country, came into competition, if (other circumstances being equal) the one tribe included a great number of courageous, sympathetic and faithful members, who were always ready to warn each other of danger, to aid and defend each other, this tribe would succeed better and conquer the other. Let it be borne in mind how all-important in the never-ceasing wars of savages, fidelity and courage must be. . . . Selfish and contentious people will not cohere, and without coherence nothing can be effected. A tribe rich in the above qualities would spread and be victorious over other tribes: but in the course of time it would, judging from all past history, be in its turn overcome by some other tribe still more highly endowed. Thus the social and moral qualities would tend slowly to advance and be diffused throughout the world. (155)
This competition in war continues today. "At the present day civilized nations are everywhere supplanting barbarous nations, excepting where the climate opposes a deadly barrier; and they succeed mainly, though not exclusively, through their arts, which are the products of the intellect" (153). And we can expect this to continue into the future. "At some future period, not very distant as measured by centuries, the civilised races of man will almost certainly exterminate, and replace, the savage races throughout the world" (183).
This last passage is often quoted by Darwin's critics--people like Richard Weikart and Gertrude Himmelfarb--to support their claim that Darwin promoted the militaristic Social Darwinism that led to Adolf Hitler.
But the intellectual shallowness of people like Weikart and Himmelfarb make it impossible for them to think through the complexity of Darwinian moral realism. We can recognize the evil of Hitler's Nazism, while still recognizing the historical truth that "civilized races" have prevailed in war with "savage races," because the advantages of "civilized" social organization create military superiority. Desmond and Moore show a similar shallowness when they criticize Darwin for his "rationalizing the darker side of tribal conflicts" or "biologizing of genocide."
In his Voyage of the Beagle, Darwin described the revulsion he felt towards the atrocities committed by the European races against the native people of South America, Tasmania, and New Zealand. He lamented: "Wherever the European has trod, death seems to pursue the aboriginal." Describing how "all the Indians are butchered" by the Europeans in Argentina, he observed that those "a little superior in civilization" are also superior in military power, although "inferior in every moral virtue."
And yet while feeling sympathy for the suffering of the "savage races," Darwin also recognized the barbarism in the life of "a savage who delights to torture his enemies, offers up bloody sacrifices, practises infanticide without remorse, treats his wives life slaves, knows no decency, and is haunted by the grossest superstitions" (Descent, 689).
Darwin looked forward to the moral progress that would come with the extension of moral sympathy to all of humanity:
As man advances in civilization, and small tribes are united into larger communities, the simplest reason would teach each individual that he ought to extend his social instincts and sympathies to all the members of the same nation, though personally unknown to him. This point being reached, there is only an artificial barrier to prevent his sympathies extending to the men of all nations and ages.(Descent, 147)
But Darwin suggests that this humanitarian sympathy will generally be weaker than the love for one's own--for one's own family, friends, and fellow citizens. Consequently, there will always be tragic conflicts between human groups, and when those conflicts become severe, human beings will go to war.
A similar moral realism was expressed by President Obama in his Nobel Peace Prize Lecture in 2009. Obama acknowledged the awkwardness in accepting the Nobel Peace Prize while acting as Commander-in-Chief in two major wars. He stated his admiration for the pacifist morality of Martin Luther King and Mohandas Gandhi. But he recognized that their pacifist morality was unrealistic. He explained: "As a head of state sworn to protect and defend my nation, I cannot be guided by their examples alone. I face the world as it is, and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people. For make no mistake: Evil does exist in the world. A non-violent movement could not have halted Hitler's armies. Negotiations cannot convince al Qaeda's leaders to lay down their arms. To say that force may sometimes be necessary is not a call to cynicism--it is a recognition of history: the imperfections of man and the limits of reason."
Obama defended the tradition of "just war," the moral tradition that tries to combine justice and force by specifying the moral criteria for the justice of going to war and the just conduct of war. Even if one disagrees--as I do--with Obama's claim that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are just, one can agree with the moral realism of the just war tradition.
Obama saw the tragic character of war:
"So yes, the instruments of war do have a role to play in preserving the peace. And yet this truth must coexist with another--that no matter how justified, war promises human tragedy. The soldier's courage and sacrifice is full of glory, expressing devotion to country, to cause, to comrades in arms. But war itself is never glorious, and we must never trumpet it as such."
"So part of our challenge is reconciling these two seemingly irreconcilable truths--that war is sometimes necessary, and war at some level is an expression of human folly."
Moral progress is possible in matters of war to the extent that we can enforce standards of just war, but even just war manifests the moral tragedy of the human condition, a tragedy rooted in our evolved human nature.
Of course, Obama's election as President is another example of moral progress. Just as Lincoln predicted, it took America over 100 years of racial conflict before the country could begin moving towards racial equality. The moral progress manifest in Obama's election is especially dramatic because of Obama being the child of a racially mixed couple.
Not long ago, Obama joked that his family dog was a "mongrel" just like him! This seems to be part of a general social change in which racial intermarriage does not provoke as much disgust as it once did. There is no reason to believe that racial conflict will ever be totally abolished. But, at least, we can see this as another example of how moral progress is possible, even if imperfect.