- Lincoln and Darwin: Shared Visions of Race, Science, and Religion
James Lander has produced an engaging, highly readable account of the way that scientific developments of the nineteenth century shaped debates over slavery and racial equality. Lander’s study focuses on Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin, two men born on the same day in 1809 who shared a strong moral opposition to slavery. Lander argues that Lincoln is also linked to Darwin by his interest in science, and that the two men possessed in common a skeptical outlook on religion that they strove to conceal from the public with only partial success. These three overlapping sets of concerns make the pair a useful focal point for a study of “the [End Page 425] clash between rationality and religion” (xiii) during the period in which American slavery became the subject of vitriolic debate and conflict.
Lander states at the outset that his intention is not to present a dual biography, but rather a study of certain ideas shared by both men. Lander’s book is a work of historical synthesis rather than original archival research. The concepts upon which Lander focuses—the development of evolutionary paradigms in natural history, the increasing public awareness of geological theories of the age of the earth, and the debates between polygenists and monogenists—have already been described in numerous scholarly works, in fields ranging from social history and biography to the history of science. What Lander does not take from these secondary sources comes from well-known manuscript collections such as Lincoln’s papers at the Library of Congress and Darwin’s at Cambridge. The originality of Lander’s study comes from the way he presents his two very diff erent subjects, so widely divided by geography, social position, and education, grappling with similar intellectual, political, and moral problems. The book takes the form of alternating narratives (a structure reminiscent of a nineteenthcentury novel) in which we follow each man through the events and discoveries of the crucial decades of the middle of the century.
While the resulting narrative is lively and often compelling, the “shared vision” of Lincoln and Darwin that Lander seeks to describe is not always completely convincing. It is inarguable that both men opposed slavery and were progressive thinkers in the context of their time, but Lander’s eff ort to portray Lincoln as an enthusiastic follower of contemporary developments in natural history works mostly through supposition. Many of Lander’s suggestions about Lincoln’s possible reading are derived from the contents of the library of his law partner, William Herndon, and from the kinds of books that were reviewed in major periodicals of the day. Virtually every literate American of this period had some exposure to developments in natural history, so Lander’s assertion that Lincoln was aware of contemporary science is neither unreasonable nor especially revealing. Our thin knowledge of the specifics of Lincoln’s reading (which Lander acknowledges) means that we don’t really know the extent to which scientific theories truly shaped his ideas about slavery and racial identity. One of the only scientific texts Lander can be sure that Lincoln read was Robert Chambers’s anonymously published Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation (1844); however, this was, as Lander notes, a book that Darwin found well written but scientifically misleading. Thus, while it is possible that Lincoln’s ideas about race were informed in some crucial way by his reading in science, it seems equally plausible to suppose that Lincoln simply appropriated a few scientific ideas of the popularized sort that he and most of his [End Page 426] contemporaries frequently encountered, and that he used these ideas (such as monogenism) to buttress an antislavery position that he would have maintained in any case. Indeed, Lander portrays both Lincoln and Darwin as possessing a strong moral opposition to slavery and racial injustice that predated most of the scientific developments described in this book. It is difficult to imagine that someone who recorded his own abhorrence of...