On February 12, 1809, two of the 19th century’s most influential figures were born. Christopher Hitchens hailed them both as great emancipators, enlightening us to higher truths and moving humanity forward. Abraham Lincoln preserved the Union, abolished slavery, and set America on the path to becoming the most powerful nation in history. Charles Darwin revolutionized the field of biology, challenged the religious understanding of the origin of species, and transformed the way we understand life on Earth.
These men shared little in common other than the influence they exerted over their fellow man — one through high-powered leadership, and the other through lonely scientific discovery. Through their actions, passion and wisdom they pulled humanity out of ignorance and awoke us to a new paradigm of truth. It is difficult to measure whose legacy has been more influential, as we are still seeing the ripples of their accomplishments today.
Charles Darwin was an English naturalist whose theory of evolution forged the modern understanding living things. One of his most noteworthy journeys was a five-year voyage on the HMS Beagle, which allowed him to observe a rich diversity of species across the planet. In seeing how each creature had adapted to the natural settings of their surroundings, Darwin surmised that all species of life had descended from common ancestors, evolving over time to survive in their environments. He was a one-man internet, travelling the globe and binding nature under a common web of understanding.
Darwin’s discoveries stood in radical defiance of the religious theories surrounding Man’s origin, and to this day he is a central figurehead in the misguided science vs. religion debate. He framed the idea of survival of the fittest, which biologists of our generation like Richard Dawkins explain as being driven by a “selfish gene” that prioritized our survival after millennia of facing nature’s wrath.
By revolutionizing the way we saw our origin, nature, and purpose, Darwin in turn made us aware that technology had begun to substitute our natural selection. We circumvent and respond to nature with our invention, fighting disease with medicine, migrating with vehicles and harvesting our food. We no longer wait to see which of our traits merit survival, and instead build a better tomorrow in defiance of fate.
Abraham Lincoln is one of America’s most celebrated presidents, having led us though our most troubled times. He was made great not by the circumstances that he found himself in, but the fortitude and honor with which he navigated them. The Civil War that erupted, and the manner in which Lincoln quelled it, showed us that however varied the ideas within our flourishing democracy may become, our strongest virtue comes in sustaining our unity and resolving our differences.
Lincoln’s election was the signal fire that rallied southern states into secession, forming the Confederacy. To this day, the confederate flag is still used as a symbol of petulance against federal control. During his second inaugural address, Lincoln spoke of the civil unrest:
“Both parties deprecated war, but one of them would make war rather than let the Nation survive, and the other would accept war rather than let it perish, and the war came."
Lincoln met the extremity of his circumstances with patience, diligence and fortitude. His goal was to unite the nation. He famously surrounded himself with cabinet members who vehemently opposed him, ensuring an informed leadership of balanced decisions. At the close of the war, Lincoln sought to reunite the country through policies of generous reconciliation, despite lingering hostile divisiveness.
Although he exerted great powers, Lincoln always sought out the brightest future for the common man. He demonstrated the sacrifices required to carry great burdens of responsibility, and the delicate balance that must be struck between decisiveness and adaptability. The country survived, and was made stronger, by his enduring example.
These men leave in their wake echoes which still guide us today. Darwin discovered hidden truths no one else could see, and in exploring them opened our eyes to the reality around us. Lincoln carried us through a chaotic conflict of ideals, reining in our hatred and giving us hope for a brotherhood we had forgotten.