Friday, February 26, 2010

Evolving emancipators

Adam Gopnik makes an unlikely, but profound, comparison in Angels and Ages: A Short Book about Darwin, Lincoln, and Modern Life

The following review was posted last week on the Books
page of the History News Network website.

"He is as greedy of cases and precedents as any constitutional lawyer."
--T.H. Huxley on Charles Darwin's The Origin of Species, 1859

The fact that Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin were both born on the same day -- February 12, 1809 -- has long been regarded as a historical curio. In this regard, it's a bit like the famous set of coincidences regarding Lincoln and John F. Kennedy (one was born elected president in 1860, the other 1960; both names had seven letters, both shot on a Friday, et. al.), though never as annoying, because no one has strained to make as much of it. But in Angels and Ages, just issued in paperback by Vintage (and thus giving me an excuse to circle back to it) New Yorker critic Adam Gopnik draws meaningful parallels between Lincoln and Darwin with insight and verve. This is a remarkable little volume.

In a series of
alternating essays that look at them individually, framed by a pair that handle them together, Gopnik argues that Darwin and Lincoln did not so much invent as embody the modern liberal conscience, a feat they accomplished largely on the basis of their skills as writers of the best prose of their time. Their method involved a comparable empirical style rooted in careful observation, tight reasoning, and a determination to express themselves with the greatest possible degree of clarity for the broadest possible audience. Their faith involved a confidence in the power of persuasion as an agent of historical change. That this was a faith stemmed from both mens' chastened recognition that they lived in a post-Enlightenment era in which power, interest, and superstition -- not to mention more welcome influences like love -- made it far from evident that reason could prevail in public life or co-exist with a livable private one. That both men grappled with such problems, Gopnik believes, is about as important as their respective solutions. As Gopnik says of Darwin but could just as easily say of Lincoln, in a sentence typical of his burnished prose, "His habits of mind -- fairness, popular address, and the annealing of courage with tact -- are worth revering even if scientists abandon or revise half his tenets."

Similar personal circumstances were crucial to the mens' achievements. Darwin was born
to wealth at the heart of a global empire, and Lincoln achieved it at the periphery of an emerging one. But both were devoted family men -- and both went through the excruciating experience of losing a child in devoted marriages. In both cases, Gopnik believes, these events were transformational, because in both cases the two figures were confronted with the the experience of personal grief in a context of impersonal death. For Lincoln, of course, it was the Civil War, over which he presided the killing of hundreds of thousands of people. For Darwin, it was the entire realm of biology, in which death -- implacably certain even as evolution was implacably random -- was the defining fact of life.

Their respective lives and careers sent the two men in different psychic directions. Lincoln, ever the skeptic, arrived at an idiosyncratic Calvinism in which he saw himself as a blind and chastened instrument of God's will. Darwin, who famously withheld the results of his research for decades, in large measure out of consideration of his wife's religious feelings, surrendered his faith in a teleological God and with it a logic of suffering. And yet, as Gopnik notes, "both gave liberalism a tragic consciousness without robbing it of a hopeful view." That hopeful view
-- the notion that a kind of progress is nevertheless possible in improving the existential experience of those live on earth at a given time -- ultimately became a working definition of what liberalism now is. And with it a notion that any definition is a working one, keeping alive the possibility, as science always does, of a different way of looking at the world. Gopnik distills this worldview into an assertion that "we can turn to faith for meaning, but not for morality." As he notes, both men were, from our standpoint, racists. But in marked distinction to a great many of their contemporaries, they were notably mild-mannered, compassionate ones, always willing to reconsider their views in light of changing circumstances. Here it is worth noting that Darwin over and over again specifically rejected the tenets of Social Darwinism, and that it was a speech in which Lincoln publicly entertained the notion of giving black men the vote -- i.e. moving beyond freedom toward the even more radical notion of equality -- that made John Wilkes Booth decide to kill him.

Reading this book was a somewhat startling experience, and not simply because it proved to be unexpectedly coherent. Living in the shadows of the American Century (and the Western millennium), I did not expect to hear such a full-throated celebration of the world that Darwin and Lincoln represented. As Gopnik notes, "Slow, carefully argued evidentiary-minded speech sure doesn't seem like a winning ticket in modern life." And yet, if the values that Darwin and Lincoln embodied are not self-evident, or even permanent, Gopnik makes a convincing case here for their resilience and their beauty. It's enough to make you believe in the (bitter)sweet power of reason.