Sunday, February 15, 2009

Lincoln/Darwin: Providential Gifts or Survivors of Struggle?

Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin were born two hundred years ago this week, within hours of one another. They are both, in my estimation, great men who made essential acts at a crucial moment in history. Lincoln saved the American union and refounded the country. Darwin showed how billions of micro-competitions in the whole integrated living world produce the great macro-outcomes that we see in lineages, species, and the entire ecology.

Some Darwinists today think that Darwin's insight requires that we believe that there are only material forces shaping these competitions. We evolve, but we don't progress. We change through time, but not in a meaningful way. Nature "selects," but there is no Providence guiding the selection. By this logic, the great intellectual achievement of Darwin and Darwinism itself is ultimately meaningless; it is just another change, not better or worse than any other idea with social consequences.

Lincoln, on the other hand, believed that Providence had a plan for the world. He was a humble man, and did not think that he was forcing Providence to follow his plan. On the contrary, Lincoln thought the American nation had a destiny, in which he was but one humble worker in it.

In the great competition to produce scientific theories, someone would have come up with some kind of evolutionary synthesis eventually. Wallace almost did, which spurred Darwin to publish the work he had in a drawer for years. In the great competition of politics, someone will get elected president. The election of 1860 produced a very rich crop of men with great gifts - and great flaws - who came close to winning. If the Democrats had not split, surely their nominee, Douglas or Breckenridge, would have been president that year. Lincoln's rivals within the Republican Party likewise had many serious contenders to win the election. It is part of Lincoln's genius that he not only prevailed in that competition, but then united many of his rivals for the worse competition, the civil war, that followed.

Perhaps Darwin and Lincoln were just the guys who happened to win the particular competition of their day. If not them, then someone else; if someone else, then history takes some other turn. And if we take materialist views seriously, those other turns of history would have been just as meaningful, and meaningless, as the history we turned out to have.

But as for me and my house, I believe the Lincoln -- and Darwin too -- were helped to become the right people for their time in history by the Providence that ultimately superintends nations and species, with and sometimes the despite the choices we make in our micro-competitions.

1 comment:

Tyler Ward said...

Rather profound my friend!