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Great emancipators

DAVID P. BARASH is a professor of psychology at the University of Washington.

CHARLES DARWIN and Abraham Lincoln were born on the same day: Feb. 12, 1809. It’s a nice coincidence.

Both were great emancipators. Lincoln, as every schoolchild knows, freed the slaves. Darwin, as every creationist resists, freed our minds.

Both were motivated by multiple agendas, and both were genuinely conflicted about assuming the role of liberator. Lincoln feared that freeing the slaves would unleash resistance and resentment on the part of Southern slaveholders (and their Northern allies), making it more difficult to hold the Union together. Darwin feared that his findings would unleash resistance and resentment of those slavishly devoted to a literalist biblical view of creation, making it difficult for him to hold on to his own cherished peace and quiet. And so each delayed making his particular emancipation proclamation.

Lincoln was eventually swayed not so much by a burning desire to liberate the enslaved as by his hope of prodding at least parts of the rebellious Confederacy into abandoning their course.

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Emboldened by the defeat of Robert E. Lee’s army at Antietam on Sept. 17, 1862, Lincoln announced the freeing of the slaves five days later. As of Jan. 1, 1863, those slaves living within states still in rebellion would be free; in states and territories that weren’t part of the Confederacy, however, slavery remained legal, at least for a while. So the Emancipation Proclamation was issued as an act of war and propaganda rather than of conscience.

It’s unclear exactly how long Lincoln had been planning his executive act. But Darwin’s “proclamation,” best known as “On the Origin of Species,” surely had been gestating longer before its publication. And whereas Lincoln was prodded, in part, by a victory, Darwin was moved by fear that he was about to be defeated (scooped, actually). Another English biologist, Alfred Russell Wallace, had intuited the process of natural selection and expressed his insights to Darwin in a letter. Darwin had been working on “The Origin” for decades but, until he got Wallace’s letter, couldn’t bring himself to go public.

Tons of ink have been spilled in efforts to illuminate the lives and motivations, not to mention the impact, of these men. I suspect that more has been written about each of them than any other scientist or American politician. Yet, despite the glare of biographers and intellectual historians, Darwin and Lincoln remain enigmas.

What was the exact nature of the physical infirmity that kept Darwin a convalescent and virtual recluse after his globe-circling trip on the HMS Beagle? Was he medically ill or psychologically unnerved by the revolutionary implications of his discovery? Was Lincoln clinically depressed? Was he gay? A brilliant idealist? A cynical politician?

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The two great liberators pointed to the same phenomenon: reconciliation and unity beneath conflict and diversity. Thus, the underlying logic that defeated slavery is not that a country cannot survive half-slave and half-free but that human beings are not divided into distinct “species” -- namely the slaveholders and the enslaved. It is a fundamental truth, part of our biology no less than of our politics.

The underlying logic of evolution is similarly one of unity: Living things were not specially created as separate, isolated entities. Rather, there is an unbroken thread connecting all, including ourselves. And evolution, long the cornerstone of all that we know of biology, is gradually also becoming part of our politics.

Perhaps the best way to honor both birthday boys, however, is to let them speak in their own words about the interconnectedness they so clearly envisioned -- and to reflect on how these two towering figures, a politician and a scientist born on the same day, functioning in different realms, expressed and applied their strikingly similar realizations.

“With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”

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-- Lincoln’s Second Inaugural

“Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”

-- Darwin, “On the Origin of

Species”

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