Thursday, July 10, 2008

Forget Lincoln-Douglas - How about a Lincoln-Darwin debate?

In case you did not see it - it is worth seeing the discussion of Lincoln vs. Darwin in Newsweek (How Darwin and Lincoln Shaped Us).  They set up the discussion by pointing out that they had the same birthday.  They say Lincoln was more important.  Not going to argue but not sure they are right.  My favorite section on this article:
This questioning spirit is one of the most appealing facets of Darwin's character, particularly where it finds its way into his published work. Reading "The Origin of Species," you feel as though he is addressing you as an equal. He is never autocratic, never bullying. Instead, he is always willing to admit what he does not know or understand, and when he poses a question, he is never rhetorical. He seems genuinely to want to know the answer. He's also a good salesman. He knows that what he has to say will not only be troubling for a general reader to take but difficult to understand—so he works very hard not to lose his customer. The book opens not with theory but in the humblest place imaginable: the barnyard, as Darwin introduces us to the idea of species variation in a way we, or certainly his 19th-century audience, will easily grasp—the breeding of domestic animals. The quality of Darwin's mind is in evidence everywhere in this book, but so is his character—generous, open-minded and always respectful of those who he knew would disagree with him, as you might expect of a man who was, after all, married to a creationist.


  1. I have to say that Lincoln was more important realistically. After all, if Darwin wasn't born, the main difference would be that instead of calling evolution by natural selection "Darwinian evolution" and having Creationists rant against the evils of "Darwinism", evolution by natural selection would be called "Wallacian evolution" and the slur would be "Wallacism". In fact, if Lyell hadn't tipped off his buddy Darwin that Wallace was about to publish, that would have happened anyway -- Wallace would have scooped Darwin.

    But if Lincoln wasn't born, it would be very likely that the inevitable American Civil War would have ended in a Balkanized America. Most Northern politicans were for making peace with the South to avoid what was quite frankly America's deadliest war ever. Now, people outside America might say "Well, that wouldn't affect me". But it would.

    The Kaiser lost in World War I because America came in on the side of the Allies towards the end. Two weak American states would be unlikely to make this impact on World War I -- if they entered at all, they would probably be on opposite sides. A Germanized Europe would make for a completely different 20th century. Of course, on the positive side, World War II and the Holocaust wouldn't happen because Hitler's rise to power was due to the humiliation and economic ruination of Germany after losing World War I.

  2. Oh - I think Lincoln was definitely better for the world.

    But whether he had more influence on the world (for better or worse) is what I was wondering about. He probably had more influence too, but I am just not sure.

    As for "Wallacian" evolution, I think you are partially wrong there. It would have taken much longer for the notion of natural selection to spread without Darwin's meticulous documentation of the evidence behind it.

  3. It would have taken much longer for the notion of natural selection to spread without Darwin's meticulous documentation of the evidence behind it.

    Well, maybe. Although Wallace gathered quite a bit of evidence himself in his younger days (his "Malay Archipelago" is a fascinating read) before he tarnished his reputation by getting involved in the Victorian fad of seances in the late 1860s.

  4. Who are you to say seances were a fad.

  5. :-) Yeah, a lot of the late 19th century mystics would fit in with modern Newagers -- like them, they were often educated people who despite their knowledge felt that the scientific world view was too "cold".

  6. (Independent of Abe vs Chuck)...

    Wallace did not conceive of global common descent, so without Chas, who knows when the tree, coral, or "choose your own adventure of life" would've been invented.. Darwin did way way more than just co-invent natural selection (as did Wallace, not to short his genius).

  7. Wallace was not nearly as good at writing to the general reader as was Darwin (as the Newsweek writer so corrrectly pointed out). If you haven't done so, try reading some of Wallace's stuff alternating with Darwin. It's a striking contrast.

  8. Well courses for horses, I suppose, but I found Wallace to be more interesting and readable. Getting though the _Origin_ was a struggle (all that tedium about pigeons before getting down to the interesting science in chapter 4). I had no problem breezing through the _Malay Archipelago_ -- it's little wonder that the novelist Joseph Conrad was a fan of that work.

  9. Somehow, I had anticipated jonathan b.'s reply there. And I didn't mean that "you" would refer to him, but instead to the general readers of these comments.


    In my graduate class ("Darwin to Today") last spring we read:

    Wallace (1859) On the Zoological Geography of the Malay Archipelago.
    Wallace (1863) On the Physical Geography of the Malay Archipelago.

    I found them good, but a bit tedious. (and jonathan's point is well taken on tedium of Chapters 1-3 in Origin, too).

    To be fair, I have not read Malay Archipelago. So perhaps I should not compare Wallace's papers to the Origin.

  10. To be fair, Wallace's _Archipelago_ is probably most comparable to Darwin's _Voyage of the Beagle_ - that is to say, it is a combination of a travel diary mixed with scientific observation.

  11. Well I guess I am the bad evolutionary biologist. I have read little of Wallace other than his natural selection paper . Maybe I should have taken your class John.