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Lincoln vs. Darwin

My life outside of blogging has been a little hectic recently.  This has led to a few new experiences for me.

  1. I haven’t had much time to blog.
  2. I haven’t done much reading outside of medicine.
  3. I crave real-life information so much that I’ve bought magazines just to keep in touch with the outside world.

All of this resulted in my purchasing Newsweek the other day.  And why not?  The cover featured two people on my list of folks I’d want to meet if they weren’t dead.

The article tried to decipher whether Abraham Lincoln or Charles Darwin was more important, the answer to which was obvious to me.  Recall that without Darwin, there would have been Wallace; without Lincoln, we’d have…  The article did bring to my attention several interesting factoids about these men’s lives.  I may have once known they were born on the same day (Feb. 12, 1809), but had forgotten.  Also,

Both lost their mothers in early childhood. Both suffered from depression (Darwin also suffered from a variety of crippling stomach ailments and chronic headaches), and both wrestled with religious doubt. Each had a strained relationship with his father, and each of them lost children to early death. Both spent the better part of their 20s trying to settle on a career, and neither man gave much evidence of his future greatness until well into middle age: Darwin published “The Origin of Species” when he was 50, and Lincoln won the presidency a year later.

Consider this description of Darwin’s The Origin of Species by the article’s author (Malcolm Jones):

Reading “The Origin of Species,” you feel as though he is addressing you as an equal. He is never autocratic, never bullying. Instead, he is always willing to admit what he does not know or understand, and when he poses a question, he is never rhetorical. He seems genuinely to want to know the answer. He’s also a good salesman. He knows that what he has to say will not only be troubling for a general reader to take but difficult to understand—so he works very hard not to lose his customer. The book opens not with theory but in the humblest place imaginable: the barnyard, as Darwin introduces us to the idea of species variation in a way we, or certainly his 19th-century audience, will easily grasp—the breeding of domestic animals. The quality of Darwin’s mind is in evidence everywhere in this book, but so is his character—generous, open-minded and always respectful of those who he knew would disagree with him, as you might expect of a man who was, after all, married to a creationist.

So too, was Lincoln generously open minded.  It has been said that he held one of the most politically diverse cabinet of advisers of any American president.  While this is an opinion I’m in no position to argue or agree with, it does make sense to me based on the little I know about Lincoln’s leadership style.

I tried to connect the fact that both men ‘wrestled with religious doubt’ with their eagerness to hear opposing opinions and perspectives that might shape their plans or idea.  I think that too many staunch proponents of creationism have never really wrestled with their faith – at least in terms of their understanding of the natural world.  These need to take their lead from Jacob; he wrestled so much, he dislocated his hip.  And many defenders of evolution have wrestled with a religious faith that they ended up leaving behind in favor of agnostic or atheist perspectives.  Ironically, the occasional post-religion self-righteousness makes it hard for these folks to sit at the same table with religious people and discuss matters influenced by faith.  It’s the respect for those who would disagree that I see missing in so many of today’s ideological conflicts.  If I think literalist creationism is a silly idea, I must still strive not to think the proponent of or believer in that idea is silly.  The chances are good that respect and humility will make more inroads to revealing that evolution doesn’t actually conflict with Christian faith than browbeating.

I’m not saying this is easy.  Maintaining respect and humility when your reasoning suggests there is no logical basis for another person’s beliefs is mighty hard.  I certainly have a long way to go in these regards.  I think it’s useful to call upon Patience and Fortitude.

Patience and Fortitude are also the names of the lions in front of New York City's public library.

Patience and Fortitude are also the names of the lions in front of New York City's public library.

When you move into a new neighborhood, rarely are you accepted immediately.  Maybe you look different than the others.  No one knows you.  Perhaps the previous occupants were anti-social, or you could never live up to the friendliness of the folks who were there before.  Most of the time, fostering good relationships takes time.  Don’t move in and put up a fence right away, or try to tear one down.  Instead, stop by with a misdelivered letter, or shovel the sidewalk.  I think it’s the same way in the science-religion debate.  Do I need to call a differing perspective silly?  Some would advise to call a spade a spade.  That tack lacks the generosity of Lincoln and Darwin.  Perhaps hanging in there and keeping up the conversation will help shape some future greatness.  It worked for Abe and Chuck.

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