Spinning Earth: click to choose language
Darwin Day Celebration

1. Lincoln & Darwin - The Emancipators' Legacies

These two great men were born on the same day, in the same year: Sunday, February 12, 1809. This section is devoted to essays and articles that specifically address their legacies. Lincoln freed American slaves from physical servitude while Darwin freed the human mind from the bonds of supernatural dogma. The positive influences of their legacies are as relevant in the world today as they were in the 1800s. We invite you to send a brief statement or an essay of 1000 words or fewer, regarding their lives and relevance, to info@darwinday.org for consideration.

Two Famous Men -- 1. Charles Darwin and 2. Abraham Lincoln:
Born in the same year, on the same day -- February 12, 1809 -- and their Legacies

Robert J. Stephens

In America we are aware that both Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin were born on the same day, in the same year, February 12, 1809. As a result of this coincidence I was asked the following question during an interview on BBC in Shrewsbury, England (Darwin's birthplace) on July 30, 2003 : "Since Lincoln and Darwin were born on the same day, how do you deal with this obvious problem when you're celebrating science and humanity on Darwin's birthday?" I replied: "In my view, Feb. 12, 1809 was a very good day for our planet because Lincoln became the great emancipator of the slaves in America, and Darwin became the great emancipator of the human mind, so they both deserve to be celebrated!" As I thought about this reply after the broadcast, it seemed to me that there was something particularly poignant about the relationship between Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection, published November 24, 1859, that freed the human mind from superstition, thus permitting the interpretation of scientific data through the lens of naturalism instead of through the lens of theology, and Lincoln's signing of the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, that freed humans from physical servitude. Together their actions represent a major step forward in the acquisition of freedoms for the entire human family. The magnitude of these accomplishments by visionary men, born on the same day, in the same year, gives their achievements a unique resonance, and enormous benefits have accrued to humankind ever since. Today both men are recognized around the world for the ongoing positive effect their efforts have had on developing the ethics of progressive modern thought.

For those of us celebrating science and humanity it is of interest to note that Darwin, as well as both his paternal and maternal grandparents, Erasmus and Mary Darwin, and Josiah and Sarah Wedgwood, were also opposed to slavery that was so prevalent in the British West Indies at that time. In fact, Josiah Wedgwood designed and manufactured an antislavery medallion that was used in the campaigns against slavery in both England and America (see below). Benjamin Franklin, who was acquainted with both Erasmus Darwin and Josiah Wedgwood through his 'corresponding membership' in the Lunar Society, was given a medallion while he was in England, and when he returned to Philadelphia received a shipment of these medallions for use in the American antislavery movement.

Clearly, Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection presents an intellectually acceptable alternative to supernaturalism, thus significantly freeing the minds of modern humans so that we now understand our existence in an entirely new light. Not only biologists, but investigators in all areas of scientific research no longer need to interpret their empirical data through religious dogma. One needs only to remember the treatment of Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, and others, by the Church, to recognize the control it exercised over the interpretation of scientific discoveries. Even though there are echoes of superstition with us today in the interpretation of the natural world, it is almost exclusively exercised by those that deal in pseudo-science or mythology.

2. The Other Great Emancipator:
Charles Darwin's Legacy for Our Lives

Elof Axel Carlson*
Darwin shares more than being a birthday twin with Abraham Lincoln. Both held unpopular views and both gave to the world documents of enduring value. Lincoln provided the Emancipation Proclamation, which destroyed the institution of slavery in the United States. Darwin provided The Origin of Species, a work, I hope to show, that liberated humans from a once universal fatalism. Darwin's intent was to seek the laws governing the origin of species. He was motivated to do so by his doubts. In his five-year voyage around the world, from 1831-1836, on the HMS Beagle, he encountered contradictions to the beliefs with which he, as a fledgling minister in the Church of England, had anticipated as correct. His initial assumptions were shaped by William Paley's Natural Theology. Paley assumed all creatures were created by God as described in the Book of Genesis; that God's design was seen throughout nature - and that nature was a harmonious whole, designed not only for human happiness, but for all living things. In this fated world, God called the tunes and set forth life's expectations. Darwin had no reason to doubt that he had a soul; that he would be judged; and an afterlife awaited him. He had no reason to doubt that species were fixed in their characteristics and that his role as a naturalist was to describe them, catalogue them, name them, and reveal, as best he could, God's handiwork seen through an inferred bible of nature.

Five years later Darwin knew this view was wrong. He had seen too much. He saw a war of nature in which organisms produced far too many offspring who struggled to survive. He saw what to any human being looked like a massive destruction of life, especially among the newborn. He saw distributions of organisms that did not make sense unless some scientific laws were governing their past history. He saw evidence of extinction when he unearthed the bones of fossilized mammals in Patagonia. He saw past upheavals of ocean floors that were lifted up into the Andes mountains. He saw remarkable adaptations of animals and plants to their surroundings. He became so expert at dissecting barnacles that he could look at a museum specimen and identify its place of origin within fifty miles from any place on South America. When he returned home he was already famous, his letters to his teacher, Henslow, having been privately published without his knowledge and distributed to the leading naturalists of Great Britain. Darwin returned with a secret he could not share. He had lost his faith. He had demoted himself to a Deist, that Unitarian-like penultimate descent to atheism. The word agnostic did not then exist. His secret shaped his career. He was fortunate that he came from the Darwin-Wedgwood family. He was born to wealth and did not have to earn a living to survive. He realized that a university career would be too dangerous because he would not be allowed to teach or publish his views without bringing scandal to his employers.

He chose the life of a private scholar, a role not unknown those days, but rare and still honored. Three years after his return and one year after his having read Malthus's Essay on Population, Darwin had it figured out. The truth of his theory dismayed him. He saw its philosophic and religious implications and realized it would bring denunciations on his name; and, as a young man launching a family, he wanted to protect his wife and children. His 1839 sketch was expanded in 1844. He showed it to his closest friends who shared his secret. By 1857 he had a considerable amount of writing done for a planned series of volumes that he hoped to release en masse, like an avalanche of evidence in support of his still secret theory. It was Wallace's letter that changed his plans. His friends Hooker and Lyell assembled some extracts from his 1844 draft and letters he had written to them and had these read with Wallace's manuscript at the Linnaean Society in London in 1858. The following year what Darwin called his abstract (over 350 pages) was published as The Origin of Species. That brief narrative tells us something about the way Darwin's secret was finally revealed to the world. What was that secret and why did he fear revealing it more than 20 years?

Darwin argued that life is connected through descent. From microbial beings to giant sequoias, from lice to giant whales, all of life had arisen from ancestors dissimilar from themselves and their ancestry could be traced back through their comparative anatomy. He proposed a theory of evolution with an observable mechanism that he called natural selection. Just as domesticated forms or breeds could be traced back to wild ancestors, the power of natural selection, responding to natural forces, shapes the destinies of populations. Darwin marshaled enormous evidence in support of this theory - he used island biogeography; he compared the fossil ancestors he dug up with the present creatures of the countries he visited; he did experiments on the survival of seeds soaked in brine - he calculated the number of days it would take for branches torn free by storms to float along ocean currents from South America to the Galapagos; he estimated the number of progeny each species produced and how their populations would grow beyond our capacity to count them if they were unchecked by natural forces. He described those natural forces in the lives of the species that were always vulnerable to competition for the space, food, and safety they required to reproduce and leave descendants. He studied vestigial organs. He studied comparative embryology. He related weather, food resources, parasites, competitors, disasters, and other components of the real life of plants and animals and estimated their chances for survival. Darwin was not just a theoretician. He was immersed in the details of life that he studied and without which he would have had neither doubts nor theory. But the science of evolution, as well as science itself, has changed a lot since 1859 and the publication of the Origin of Species. Darwin's theory of natural selection still remains solid despite much testing and criticism from scientific critics. The evidence and detailed mechanisms of evolution are impressive.

Here are some of the important additions to our view of the universe:

It is immensely older and bigger than in Darwin's day. Few then would have imagined our sun to be on an outer arm of a spiral galaxy containing one hundred billion stars nor that our galaxy was only a tiny piece of the known universe which consists of hundreds of billions of galaxies. Where does this put earth in cosmic perspective? Nor was it then imagined that the earth was four and half billion years old and our sun a third or fourth generation star, its heavier elements having been recycled from dying ancestor stars. Carl Sagan's perception in The Cosmic Connection that we are "star children" did not even exist in mid-nineteenth century imagination.

Geology has changed, especially with the finding that the earth's continents float and move like a glove. Plate tectonics explain much about the past aggregations and breaking up of landmasses and their fossil deposits. It provides a natural explanation for the volcanic activity of the world and formation of mountain chains. Atomic isotopes allow a chronological measurement of the fossil contents independently confirming that dating by index fossils and strata layers. In Darwin's day few fossils were known. Today, hundreds of thousands of fossils of extinct species allow a reconstruction of the evolution of the major phyla and other categories of taxonomic groups.

The universality of biochemical pathways and metabolism in all organisms from bacteria to humans independently supports Darwin's theory of a common descent of all life. The structure of DNA, its universal genetic code, the common set of amino acids in the proteins of all living things, and the rise of the field of comparative genomics supports the line of descent down to the molecular level. The phylogenetic trees constructed in the nineteenth century correspond in their broad features to the phylogenetic trees constructed from comparisons of genomes of and partial genomes of all living things. The rise of classical genetics and population genetics supports evolution by natural selection. The chromosome theory of heredity, the theory of the gene, the analysis of gene and character relations, the analysis of quantitative traits, the mathematical prediction of gene frequencies under changed environmental conditions, and the study of chromosome rearrangements in the evolution of chromosomes all support the Darwinian theory of descent from common ancestors.

What Darwin did not do is articulate in print the philosophic perception of his views. He shared these with his friends and when he attempted to do so with his wife, who adored him, it so horrified her that she wrote him a letter expressing her deep pain. This is what Darwinism meant to Darwin and what it means to us: life probably arose from non-life by natural processes of which he and his generation knew nothing. Once life arose it had a capacity for producing variations. Environments constantly change but there is a reasonable amount of repetition and a range within which life can multiply. Disturbances of this range can lead to selection of those better adapted to surviving these hard times. That is natural selection.

Those that survive pass on their favored hereditary combinations for those adaptations to their progeny. Over long periods of time these accumulated changes can lead to new species and a divergence of body structure and organ systems adapted for new environments. The process of evolution is not progressive. There are no goals or destinies for life. Evolution is not on a trajectory to a foreordained end. Evolution is opportunistic: it makes do with what is there (it has no other choice). The process of evolution is not guided by a creator. There are no detectable signs of a creator's hand at work. The processes involved are natural and governed largely by chance. From these aspects of evolution by natural selection we can infer some much more troubling consequences for Darwin's generation as well as our own:

If humans accept that they too have evolved, whatever purposes they assign, they do so by their own choice.

This means humans are free of revealed knowledge from a non-existent creator; they are free to make choices; they are obliged to learn and to think. They are responsible for their actions and values.

Darwin gave us a freedom most people are not willing to accept. We have to be ethical without fear of divine punishment. We have to live a life of virtue for its own sake because there is no Heaven awaiting us. We have to accept our mortality and justify the satisfaction of living without the existence of an afterlife. No religion has ever given humans such unrestricted freedom, such a responsibility, and such a task. Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection gives humans, with their evolved brains, a capacity for self-examination, for wonder, for deeper meaning, and for the nurturing values that sustain us in our relatively short stay in this unbroken journey of life that now extends over three billion years. And that is why Darwin deserves to be called a Great Emancipator.


* Elof Axel Carlson is Distinguished Teaching Professor Emeritus in the Department of Biochemistry and Cell Biology at Stony Brook University and a geneticist and historian of science. He received his BA at NYU and PhD at Indiana University. Prior to coming to Stony Brook in 1968 he had taught at UCLA and Queen's University (Canada). He is the author of The Gene: .A Critical History; Genes, Radiation; also Society: The Life and Work of H. J. Muller and The Unfit: A History of A Bad Idea. Carlson has been a visiting Professor at the University of Minnesota, the University of Utah, San Diego State University, Tougaloo College, and Semester at Sea. He was a Fellow of the Institute for Advanced Study at Indiana University and he is a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).

[SOURCE: From Darwin Day Collection One, pages 87-90.]

This paper was presented by Elof Axel Carlson to the Long Island Secular Humanists for Darwin Day 2002.