Michael Bolton and I share the same birth date, February 26th (he being considerably older than I, of course). Who is better? It’s an absurd question (I opted out of comparing myself to Johnny Cash and Victor Hugo; I know when I’m beat), especially since it’s like comparing apples and lawnmowers. The ever-respectable, serious journalists over at Newsweek have decided to do just that, though, setting Charles Darwin and Abraham Lincoln (who were born on the same day, February 12, 1809) up for a no-holds-barred deathmatch to see who would come out on top. Ok, maybe it’s not that over-hyped but it is still pretty strange, and why bring up this topic now? Wouldn’t a Darwin vs. Wallace throwdown been more appropriate given the significance of what happened 150 years ago yesterday?
Darwin and Lincoln did have more in common than just a birthday; they both despised slavery. Lincoln is most famous for his action to abolish it in the U.S. but Darwin could not stand the practice either, nearly being kicked off the Beagle early in the trip because his Whig upbringing conflicted with Captain FitzRoy’s Tory leanings on the subject. (Next year the book Darwin’s Sacred Cause will be published on just this topic.) Other similarities between the two could be noted, but to what purpose? They were contemporaries that lived in different social worlds from each other, the accomplishments of one not overshadowing those of the other.
Even if we overlook the strange way in which the article is framed the biographical sketches of each man are not very good, either. I don’t know nearly as much about Lincoln as I do about Darwin, but from what’s printed accuracy seemed to take a back seat to sensationalism. There is nothing as egregious as saying Darwin converted on his deathbed or anything of that sort but there are many small errors that add up to little more than some rehashed textbook cardboard. Take this sentence, for example;
Small wonder that instead of rushing to publish his theory, [Darwin] sat on it–for 20 years.
Darwin was certainly conscious of the social repercussions his theory might have but he did not squirrel it away out of fear. He had a plan to build up his reputation during a time when science was becoming increasingly professionalized and some of his work (i.e. his research on barnacles) took much longer than expected. He confided his ideas to a number of people close to him, his actions contradicting the notion that he hid natural selection away for fear of some kind of reprisal.
I won’t dive into a point-by-point response to the piece because it isn’t necessary. The author of the work, Malcom Jones, recognizes that the question posed is absurd and forges ahead anyway because there must be a winner. The victor, unsurprisingly, is Lincoln. The reason for this is that Jones sees the Darwin archetype, a champion of evolution by natural selection, as being inevitable while Lincoln is irreplaceable.
It is true that the systematic and careful study of nature would have eventually caused evolution by natural selection to be revealed but to simply wave away Darwin because someone else had a similar idea is unfair. Let’s not forget that natural selection was recognized at least twice before Darwin and was twice ignored; there’s no guarantee that Wallace would have succeeded had Darwin never been born. (Given that Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle influenced young Wallace I have to wonder how Wallace’s own career may or may not have been changed if that journal was never written.) Likewise, natural selection was not universally accepted after it was given greater attention. Huxley might have thought “Of course!” to himself but many thought that the mechanism was too brutish and violent; for nearly 80 years the primary mechanism of evolution was in debate until the modern synthesis vindicated Wallace & Darwin. Regardless of whether it was an inevitable archetype or a unique publication, On the Origin of Species sparked off a vigorous scientific debate and a new way of thinking, something that I think is of great significance but is often overlooked as “simpler” histories are preferred by those who can’t be bothered to look up the details.
There is one more petty detail that bothered me about this piece; the portrayal of scientists;
And Darwin, at least at the outset, was hardly even a scientist in the sense that we understand the term–a highly trained specialist whose professional vocabulary is so arcane that he or she can talk only to other scientists.
We’re constantly beat over the head with the notion that scientists are inherently bad communicators. Not every researcher is eloquent and modern science does require some degree of specialization, but the accomplishments of scientists who want to bridge the gap between the public and the professionals are often overlooked so stereotypes can be flogged. The longer we keep believing that there are two distinct cultures the longer we’ll live with this problem.