Thursday, 12 February 2009

Birthday Boys


In a month overburdened with anniversaries, not all of them happy, today marks the high-point: the 200th birthdays of Charles Darwin and Abraham Lincoln. Both, in their ways, profoundly shaped the modern world. Evolution and natural selection would have been discovered - was discovered - without Darwin, but the breadth of his research and interests gave the new science of biology an inspiring founding father. The very word "Darwinism" testifies to the centrality he still maintains in the imaginations of his scientific descendants, even after the discovery of the genetic code overturned many of Darwin's own assumptions about heredity. No-one calls physics "Newtonism", or even "Newton-Einsteinism".

As for Lincoln, his role was pivotal. It is unlikely, had the Civil War gone the other way, or not been fought, that slavery could have long endured in the Southern states: as a legal institution, its time was almost passed. It might have persisted another twenty years, perhaps forty, but eventually it would have been suppressed as contrary to the developing humanitarian conscience of mankind. Conversely, the work of emancipation would not be completed for a further hundred years; perhaps it still has not. But the United States with which we are familiar today, the superpower that dominated the 20th century and that, under Barack Obama, once more aspires to global leadership, was forged in the bloody struggle that Lincoln directed and to which his eloquence gave a moral dimension.

A divided America could not have flexed its muscles abroad: the Northern states might have emerged as a wealthy industrial nation comparable in size and influence to Germany or Japan, but lacking their aggressive militarism they would have had little impact on the world; the southern states for their part would eventually have sunk to the status of Mexico or Brazil. It is even possible that North America would, come the late twentieth century, have ended up as a kind of EU, without clear leadership or direction, punching below its weight.

Darwin and Lincoln worked in very different fields and came to contrary ends: the man of power and politics gunned down in a theatre at the height of his powers, the semi-reclusive naturalist dying at home surrounded by his family. Yet more than a mere birthday connects them. Both knew the power of language. Both, too, fought against oppression and, in particular, slavery. Neither man was free of the racial prejudices and assumptions of the age; yet both were liberals whose principles informed their work. Darwin's researches led him to conclude that "probably all the organic beings which have ever lived on this earth have descended from some one primordial form" - an idea that, unlike many of his contemporaries (and many since) he found congenial, even inspiring. Lincoln, for his part, famously wrote that "if slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong".

So I share with you some words from each of today's birthday boys in which they describe a personal encounter with the evil of slavery.

First, here is Darwin, in a passage from the Voyage of the Beagle, recounting his visit to Brazil in 1832.


April 14th. -- Leaving Socego, we rode to another estate on the Rio Macae, which was the last patch of cultivated ground in that direction. The estate was two and a half miles long, and the owner had forgotten how many broad....

While staying at this estate, I was very nearly being an eye-witness to one of those atrocious acts which can only take place in a slave country. Owing to a quarrel and a lawsuit, the owner was on the point of taking all the women and children from the male slaves, and selling them separately at the public auction at Rio. Interest, and not any feeling of compassion, prevented this act. Indeed, I do not believe the inhumanity of separating thirty families, who had lived together for many years, even occurred to the owner. Yet I will pledge myself, that in humanity and good feeling he was superior to the common run of men. It may be said there exists no limit to the blindness of interest and selfish habit. I may mention one very trifling anecdote, which at the time struck me more forcibly than any story of cruelty. I was crossing a ferry with a negro, who was uncommonly stupid. In endeavouring to make him understand, I talked loud, and made signs, in doing which I passed my hand near his face. He, I suppose, thought I was in a passion, and was going to strike him; for instantly, with a frightened look and half-shut eyes, he dropped his hands. I shall never forget my feelings of surprise, disgust, and shame, at seeing a great powerful man afraid even to ward off a blow, directed, as he thought, at his face. This man had been trained to a degradation lower than the slavery of the most helpless animal.


Here is a passage from the private diary he kept on the Beagle:

Cap Paget has paid us numberless visits & is always very amusing: he has mentioned in the presence of those who would if they could have contradicted him, facts about slavery so revolting, that if I had read them in England, I should have placed them to the credulous zeal of well-meaning people: The extent to which the trade is carried on; the ferocity with which it is defended; the respectable (!) people who are concerned in it are far from being exaggerated at home. I have no doubt the actual state of by far the greater part of the slave population is far happier than one would be previously inclined to believe. Interest & any good feelings the proprietor may possess would tend to this. But it is utterly false (as Cap Paget satisfactorily proved) that any, even the very best treated, do not wish to return to their countries. “If I could but see my father & my two sisters once again, I should be happy. I never can forget them.” Such was the expression of one of these people, who are ranked by the polished savages in England as hardly their brethren, even in Gods eyes.


And from Lincoln, a letter written on Sept. 27th. 1841 to Miss Mary Speed, elder half-sister of his lifelong friend Joshua Speed:

You remember there was some uneasiness about Joshua's health when we left. That little indisposition of his turned out to be nothing serious; and it was pretty nearly forgotten when we reached Springfield. We got on board the Steam Boat Lebanon, in the locks of the Canal about 12. o'clock. M. of the day we left, and reached St. Louis the next monday at 8 P.M. Nothing of interest happened during the passage, except the vexatious delays occasioned by the sand bars be thought interesting.

By the way, a fine example was presented on board the boat for contemplating the effect of condition upon human happiness. A gentleman had purchased twelve negroes in different parts of Kentucky and was taking them to a farm in the South. They were chained six and six together. A small iron clevis was around the left wrist of each, and this fastened to the main chain by a shorter one at a convenient distance from, the others; so that the negroes were strung together precisely like so many fish upon a trot-line. In this condition they were being separated forever from the scenes of their childhood, their friends, their fathers and mothers, and brothers and sisters, and many of them, from their wives and children, and going into perpetual slavery where the lash of the master is proverbially more ruthless and unrelenting than any other where; and yet amid all these distressing circumstances, as we would think them, they were the most cheerful and apparantly happy creatures on board. One, whose offence for which he had been sold was an over-fondness for his wife, played the fiddle almost continually; and the others danced, sung, cracked jokes, and played various games with cards from day to day. How true it is that "God tempers the wind to the shorn lamb,'' or in other words, that He renders the worst of human conditions tolerable, while He permits the best, to be nothing better than tolerable.


Some years later, in 1855, he recalled the incident in a letter to Joshua, who disagreed with Lincoln on the slavery question:

I confess I hate to see the poor creatures hunted down, and caught, and carried back to their stripes, and unrewarded toils; but I bite my lip and keep quiet. In 1841 you and I had together a tedious low-water trip, on a Steam Boat from Louisville to St. Louis. You may remember, as I well do, that from Louisville to the mouth of the Ohio, there were, on board, ten or a dozen slaves, shackled together with irons. That sight was a continued torment to me; and I see something like it every time I touch the Ohio, or any other slave-border. It is hardly fair for you to assume, that I have no interest in a thing which has, and continually exercises, the power of making me miserable. You ought rather to appreciate how much the great body of the Northern people do crucify their feelings, in order to maintain their loyalty to the Constitution and the Union.


Lincoln did not fight the Civil War to end slavery, any more than Churchill fought the Second World War to prevent the Holocaust. But it is the nature of great events that they find their ultimate significance only with hindsight. It is the same with Darwin. Although his own science has long been superseded, the questions he posed and the suggestions he threw out continue to inspire, even to define, the work of biologists today.

Happy birthday to them both.

2 comments:

Olive said...

In endeavouring to make him understand, I talked loud, and made signs...

So Darwin not only formulated the theory of evolution, he also invented the method by which generations of Britons would attempt to communicate with the locals whilst on holiday in Spain.

valdemar squelch said...

Nicely done. Glad you made the point that Darwin's science has been superseded, because so many creationist loons seem to think nobody has done any biological research since the 1880s.