Wednesday, February 08, 2023

Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin: The Evolutionary Science of Liberty, Slavery, and the Bible

On Sunday, Americans will be celebrating their most important national holiday--Super Bowl Sunday.

But that day will also be the birthday of Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin.

On February 12, 1809, Darwin was born in England, and Lincoln was born in Kentucky.  They had more in common than just the coincidence of their birth on the same day.  Almost every February 12th, I have posted an essay on some of the common themes in their lives.  I have identified ten 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 and human beings.

2. Both denied that the Bible was a divine revelation, and they denied the Biblical doctrines of divine special creation in the first chapters of Genesis and the divinity of Jesus in the New Testament.

3. Both were accused of being atheists or infidels.

4. Both spoke of God as First Cause in a deistic sense.

5. 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 that could correct the Bible's moral mistakes (such as the Bible's endorsement of slavery).

6. Both rooted that natural moral sense in the evolved moral sentiments.

7. Both abhorred slavery as an immoral violation of evolved human nature, and they saw the American Civil War as a crucial turning point for the abolition of slavery.

8. Both were moral realists.

9. Both saw human history as moving through a Big History of three evolutionary eras--the foraging era, the agrarian era, and the modern commercial and liberal era.

10. Both were classical liberals.

Although there is no evidence that Lincoln ever read Darwin, we do know from William Herndon that Lincoln was persuaded by his reading of Robert Chambers' Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation (1844) to embrace an evolutionary science of the history of the Universe very similar to Darwin's theory.

Now, we have a new book by David Kent--Lincoln: The Fire of Genius: How Abraham Lincoln's Commitment to Science and Technology Helped Modernize America--about how Lincoln's life-long study of modern science and technology shaped his moral and political life.  Although Kent recognizes some of my ten points of similarity between Lincoln and Darwin, he is remarkably silent about the second, third, fifth, and ninth points.

Kent says nothing about the popular charge against Lincoln that he denied the truth of the Bible and therefore was an atheist or infidel.  When Lincoln ran for a seat in the U.S. Congress in 1846, his opponent--Peter Cartwright, a Methodist minister--circulated a rumor that Lincoln was an infidel.  The basis for this charge was that as a young man, Lincoln had read some notorious books of skeptical deism--particularly, Volney's Ruins of Empires and Tom Paine's The Age of Reason--and he wrote his own pamphlet arguing that the Bible was not divinely inspired and that Jesus was not truly the Son of God.  His friends warned him that the reputation for being an infidel or atheist would ruin his life, especially if he wanted to have a political career.  So, he burned his pamphlet,  and he became very secretive about his religious beliefs.  Darwin was similar.  As I have indicated in some previous posts (here and here), Darwin denied that the Bible was a divine revelation and that Jesus was divine; but he wrote about this only in private correspondence.  Kent is silent about this.

Kent has a long section in his book on Lincoln's "Lecture on Discoveries and Inventions."  But he does not notice how Lincoln mocks the Bible in that lecture.  As I have indicated, Lincoln suggests that "in the beginning," there is no divine creation of man, and man depends totally on himself "to dig out his destiny" without any guidance from God.

Kent also does not notice Lincoln's suggestion that the Bible's endorsement of slavery needs to be corrected.  While Kent surveys some of the attempts to justify slavery as supported by the Bible, he does not confront the fact that the Bible really does affirm slavery.  Frederick Ross's Slavery Ordained by God (1857) shows that all of the references to slavery in the Bible are proslavery.  Lincoln read this book, and Kent points to Lincoln's note on the book's proslavery theology.  But Kent does not notice Lincoln's failure to refute Ross's reading of the Bible.  Nor does Kent reflect on Lincoln's remarkable observation in his Second Inaugural that in the Civil War between North and South, "Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other."

Kent also fails to see how Lincoln's Darwinian evolutionary science of human history moves through three eras--from foraging to farming to commerce.  By embracing the moral progress to the modern commercial society, Lincoln shows the classical liberalism that he shares with Darwin. 

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