Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The Spirit of Science

In Lincoln & Darwin: Shared Visions of Race, Science and Religion, James Lander continues -- and deepens -- a new trend in tracing lines between parallel lives.

The following review was posted yesterday on the Books page of the History News Network site.

"Seek and ye shall find"
--Matthew 7:7

The bicentennial of Charles Darwin's and Abraham Lincoln's births on February 12, 1809 has prompted a flurry of comparisons in the lives of two men who on the surface would not seem to have much in common, notwithstanding the fact that Darwin certainly knew of Lincoln and Lincoln, we can safely extrapolate, knew of (but probably didn't read) Darwin. Perhaps the best of the lot is Adam Gopnik's Angels and Ages, recently published in paperback (see my review here). Gopnik's book was a marvelously evocative meditation on how the power of good writing allowed both men to achieve gigantic aims. But if your interest lies in more systematically tracing the similar, and even shared, frames of reference that shaped the lives of the two men, James Lander's deeply researched and elegantly executed study will likely become the standard work.

At the core of Lander's study, as with many who have studied the two men separately and together, is a shared dilemma.  Lincoln and Darwin were two men who almost miraculously rejected the racial prejudices of their time as well as conventional ideas about religion, and yet practiced a savvy pragmatism in remaining as diffident as possible on their personal feelings even as they advanced public discourse in terms of principle. Lander no less than Gopnik is attentive to the sculpted prose that made this possible, but Lander goes a good deal further in providing a rich sense of context in recreating the mens' shared world. Many Lincolnphiles are aware, for example, that he was a tinkerer and inventor who is the only president to hold a patent. It is nevertheless startling to learn, as one does here, that Lincoln's interests extended to geology -- of course a crucial field of inquiry in the articulation of a theory of evolution -- and to have multiple accounts of Lincoln reading the same 1844 study that had a significant impact on Darwin. Conversely, it's a little surprising to learn just how avidly Darwin followed the Civil War in the London Times, articulating a very clear and consistent abolitionist position that was as deeply informed, passionate (and disappointed by Lincoln's slow pace on emancipation) as one could find on the streets (er, make that parlors) of Boston.

But what may be even more interesting here is the degree to which Lander brings the state of mid-nineteenth scientific discourse to life in discussing the state of public conversation in the Atlantic world generally. Though it has been noted before, one sees with new clarity here just how quickly the educated classes galloped to (sometimes erroneous) conclusions about On the Origin of Species in 1859, particularly as they extended to race relations.  I never realized until reading this book just how quickly and assiduously some Southern apologists for slavery actually abandoned biblical justifications for slavery in favor of scientific ones that came from people who argued in Darwin's name and against him. As such, the book is a sobering reminder to those who forget that the progress of science marches in lockstep with the progressive politics.

But Lander makes his argument in terms of form no less than content. Carefully conceptualized chapters with titles like "Campaigning" and "Delegation and Control" capture the way Lincoln and Darwin grappled with similar problems in their life cycles. Both men were politicians; both men had agendas. And both men had powerful rivals. For Lincoln, it was Democratic senator Stephen A. Douglas; for Darwin it was the Swiss-born American Louis Agassiz, whose polygenetic notions of race, which insisted black people belonged to a different species, dominated science in a way comparable to that by which Douglas dominated U.S. politics. (As someone who has often crossed paths with Douglas in a lifetime of reading, it was startling to bump into him here attending a lecture by Agassiz.) Such execution makes the book pleasurable as well as informative.

I don't agree with Lander on every particular; I'm among those, for example, who believe a deep vein of spiritualism marked Lincoln's religious evolution, which is largely stinted here. But this is a provocative and edifying book that serves its principals, and readers, well.