Sunday, July 06, 2008

The Bicentennial of Darwin and Lincoln

Next year will bring the bicentennial of the birthday of both Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin, who were born on February 12, 1809. There are many programs scheduled to celebrate either the Lincoln bicentennial or the Darwin bicentennial, but there are few programs bringing the two together. The only program that I know of that explores the link between Lincoln and Darwin is a program over the academic year--2008-2009--sponsored by the Center for Critical Inquiry at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro on the theme "Identity, Race, and Human Rights: Social Authority and the Legacies of Lincoln and Darwin."

The current issue of Newsweek has a cover article by Malcolm Jones on "Who Was More Important: Lincoln or Darwin?. There's a new book comparing Lincoln and Darwin by David Contosta entitled Rebel Giants. In January, Knopf will publish Adam Gopnik's Angels and Ages: Lincoln, Darwin, and the Making of the Modern Age.

On this blog, I have often written about the points of intellectual contact between Darwin and Lincoln. Some of these posts can be found here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here. These blog posts along with my chapter on slavery in Darwinian Natural Right convey my thoughts about the links between Darwin and Lincoln in their thinking about morality, politics, religion, and the place of human beings in nature.

Here I have one point to add. Lincoln had a remarkably deep understanding of human cultural evolution that follows the pattern of Darwinian universal history set forth by Darwin and by David Christian in the book that was the subject of my last post.

In his "Lecture on Discoveries and Inventions, his "Address to the Wisconsin State Agricultural Society," and in his meeting with some American Indian chiefs, Lincoln laid out his conception of cultural evolution as moving through three stages of society--from foraging societies to agrarian societies to societies based on commercial exchange and free labor. Like Darwin and Christian, Lincoln believed that what made human beings unique in the animal world was the human capacity for symbolic speech, which allowed for collective learning in the artful domination of nature for the material, moral, and intellectual improvement of human life. Originally, all human beings lived by foraging--gathering wild plants and hunting wild animals. Some of the native American Indians manifested this way of life. The invention of agriculture--based on the cultivation of domesticated plants and the herding of domesticated animals--supported human civilization as an advance beyond the savage life of foragers. But despite the advance in civilization in agrarian states, such states were founded on slavery and other forms of coerced labor so that rulers lived by exploiting peasant labor. Lincoln saw that the Industrial Revolution based on commercial exchange and free labor was bringing a new revolution in human cultural evolution that promised the physical, moral, and intellectual liberation of labor. He saw the abolition of slavery as the crucial move towards this new state of society that would bring a "new birth of freedom," in which all human beings would have a fair chance in the "race of life."

Darwin saw this same revolution in the cultural evolution of humanity. That's why he followed with great interest the news reports of the American Civil War. We can see this in his correspondence with Asa Gray in the 1860s. Like Lincoln, Darwin was a life-long opponent of slavery who looked forward to its abolition. But like Frederick Douglass, Darwin was frustrated by Lincoln's slowness in attacking slavery, because he did not fully comprehend Lincoln's prudence in working for the "ultimate extinction" of slavery over time. Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation illustrates his prudence, because he justifies the emancipation of slaves in the rebellious territories as a military necessity in time of war, while recognizing that the final and complete abolition of slavery would require the 13th Amendment. Here we see the complexity and contingency of moral judgment. It is not enough to appeal to some abstract principle of absolute morality. We must be able to judge what can be done and should be done in the circumstances of action. And since such practical judgment can never be exercised with certainty or precision, we can never be sure that our decisions are correct.

We see here how a Darwinian science of morality and politics would have to account for the complex interaction of natural evolution, cultural evolution, and individual judgment.

Many of these points will surely come up in my seminar on Lincoln this fall at Northern Illinois University.

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