In a surprising coincidence not unnoticed on the bicentennial celebration of their births, Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin were born on the same day in 1809, February 12. Opinion pieces in newspapers acknowledged the strange happenstance that two giants of the nineteenth century shared the same birthday. From slightly different perspectives at least two books (besides the one under review here)—David Contosta’s Rebel Giants: The Revolutionary Lives of Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin (Prometheus Books, 2008) [End Page 405] and Adam Gopnik’s Angels and Ages: A Short Book about Darwin, Lincoln, and Modern Life (Knopf, 2009)—examined their genius as writers and as practical visionaries who shifted the paradigm of nineteenth-century behavior and thinking. James Lander’s Lincoln and Darwin: Shared Visions of Race, Science, and Religion offers a profound comparison of the two men’s perspectives and is a worthy addition to the numerous individual studies of either man. Those most familiar with Lincoln (or Darwin) will benefit from the close dissection Lander has delivered in this outstanding book.
Lander eschews an entirely biographical portrait, choosing instead to concentrate on the two men’s similar interests, ideas, and ultimately approaches to the future. The focus is on three significant considerations in the mid-nineteenth century—race, science, and religion. To be sure, Lincoln and Darwin also proceeds chronologically, as readers are informed of the obvious differences between an under-schooled farm boy growing up in primitive homes in Kentucky and Indiana and a to-the-manor-born Englishman raised in a large home overlooking the Severn River in Shrewsbury, England, and later educated for three years at Cambridge University. Yet in one of the many insights sprinkled throughout this absorbing study, Lander notes that both men later saw themselves as autodidacts—that is, creatures of their own making, an important understanding for anyone willing to test the norms of conventional thinking. Both read omnivorously, were provoked by what they observed on their travels, and benefited from their mental agility to create their own ideas. One of Lander’s interesting sources is William Herndon’s auction list, which contained many of Lincoln’s books. But no one knows if the American president actually read Darwin’s signal contribution to humankind, On the Origin of Species, though Lander speculates that he could hardly have avoided reviews of the book in American magazines. Besides the tragedy of losing their mothers at an early age, both spent their childhood with parents who dissented from conventional views on religion and slavery.
To be sure, Lincoln and Darwin reached middle age conscious of their perceived inadequacies, and Lander agrees that they in fact had done little of significance. Of course Darwin had already taken his five-year voyage on the HMS Beagle, on which, along with the famous adaptive finches of the Galápagos Islands that he had observed, he commented on the horrors of Brazilian slavery. But not much had come of this now-famous voyage begun during the late 1820s, save for his commitment to a career in science rather than in religion, the latter his family’s choice, and his continuing empirical [End Page 406] research on barnacles. Meanwhile, the ambitious Lincoln had completed his single, controversial congressional term in 1849 and, having been rejected for two patronage jobs, felt “as bad as any failure in my life” (64). Both men were depressed, though Lander pays little attention to their similarity of temperament, as Darwin, beset by the illnesses that slowed his inquiries into “my species theory” (64), retired to a health spa. Lander is especially insightful on how Lincoln and Darwin became lifetime inquirers because of their high intellect, curiosity, and contrarian, autonomous thinking.
During the 1850s and 1860s, both men emerged with mature and surprisingly similar visions of race and religion. At this point Lincoln and Darwin begins its somewhat disproportionate coverage of Lincoln, the only American president to apply for a patent and a war president fascinated by the science of...