Each born on February 12, 1809 in very different parts of the world, Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin never met. Darwin spent five years traveling the world on The Beagle and eventually defined how we think about life. Lincoln spent four years staying pretty much in Washington DC and eventually came to define how we think of leadership.
To examine these two men who each went on to have a dramatic impact on the future, I review a book called Rebel Giants: The Revolutionary Lives of Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin, by David R. Contosta. The author takes us back and forth between the parallel lives of these two great thinkers.
Parallel in terms of age and impact, but not on much else it seems. While Contosta notes that they both lost their mothers in childhood, had strained relations with their fathers, went “through years of searching for a direction in their lives,” and struggled with religious doubt, the similarities come off as largely contrived. The differences are much more evident. Lincoln was born a poor pioneer while Darwin inherited wealth from his father and wife (an heiress to the Wedgewood pottery fortune). Lincoln went to school “by littles” while Darwin attended the best schools money could buy. Lincoln was of generally robust health, though did sometimes suffer from depression, while Darwin had severe health problems all his life. Lincoln sought out politics and the enamor of the crowds while Darwin was largely reclusive, preferring to let his writing and others carry his work forward.
Still, the book toggles between Lincoln’s life and Darwin’s life, comparing the two at key junctures in their maturation as thinkers, family men, and leaders. Because they were the same age many of these life choices occurred at roughly the same period of time. Contosta notes that both put off making decisions as to their life’s work since neither really wanted to follow too closely in the footsteps of their fathers. Lincoln traveled down the Mississippi on a flat boat before settling for some years in New Salem, Illinois. Darwin traveled around the world by ship for five years doing the research that would eventually lead to his most famous works. Once this phase was completed they each “found their calling,” Lincoln in politics and the law, Darwin in development and experimentation on what would eventually be called evolution.
During the time of their greatest achievements it seems unlikely that Lincoln had heard of Darwin or followed his work. After all, Darwin’s “Origin of Species” was published just days after Lincoln’s election as President and with Civil War brewing he likely was a tad busy. Darwin, however, had heard of Lincoln once the war started. He was what could be called an abolitionist and he carried on a long letter correspondence with botanist Asa Gray at Harvard regarding the progress of the war and slavery in general. Contosta only touches on this correspondence but the glimpse he gave makes me want to see more of these letters.
The book spends some time after the early death of Lincoln and the much later death of Darwin to assess their impact on the world. Clearly the emancipation of the slaves and the subsequent problems with reconstruction led to issues experienced for another century (and continuing). And clearly Darwin’s theory of natural selection challenged the conventional thinking of the day. History has shown that many would “adapt” the work of these two influential men to serve their own purposes (e.g., “social Darwinism,” which Darwin would have been aghast to see).
Overall this 2008 book is an interesting read and a fascinating glimpse into the lives of these men. Based on my own knowledge I have some quibbles with what I see as the superficiality of the information about Lincoln, and perhaps the same is true for Darwin as I’m less familiar with the details of his personal life. But that won’t detract from reading for most people. I recommend the book, especially for anyone who would like better to understand the process leading up to Darwin’s greatest, and most controversial, contributions to modern knowledge.
More about Abraham Lincoln.