Posted by: justawriter | February 19, 2010

Far Afield – an amazing day in February

I don’t know if the stars aligned a certain way, or if it was just coincidence but this week marks the 201st anniversary of an amazing day.
Feb. 9, 1809, saw the birth of not one, but two men who single handedly changed history and created the world that we live in today. The two men and their paths through life could not be more different. One was born on a frontier, educated himself and became a country lawyer. The other was born into a family of famous thinkers and industrialists but left a comfortable life for an epic journey of discovery that circled the globe.
One became famous for holding his country together when it was nearly shattered by war. The other saw a pattern where others saw a confusing jumble. Both were masters of the written word. One inspired and rallied a nation with his speeches. The other convinced a skeptical world of the truth of his scientific vision.
Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin were very different men who shared more than just a birthday. Both helped create the modern world we live in today.
Before Lincoln, there was a powerful debate in the United States whether we were one nation or a collection of separate states. People were as likely to declare themselves a Virginian or a New Yorker before they would consider themselves an American. That identity, and the idea that the states themselves could break the bonds of nationhood, were close to the heart of Civil War. For five of the bloodiest years in this country’s history, brother fought brother over the issue of whether we were one Union or a collection of states.
Throughout the increasingly bloody conflict, Lincoln held the nation together through sheer force of will. During the dark days of 1861 and 1862 when his armies seemed to be outfought at every turn and there were cries from his allies and enemies alike to end the war, Lincoln held firm to his belief that the United States was a single nation and people. And when the fighting was finally done, he was preparing to welcome the prodigals back into the family when an assassin’s bullet felled him.
But his contribution lived on. One of the greatest legacies of Lincoln was the passage, after his death, of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. Prior to its passage, many argued that the Constitution and the Bill of Rights were only binding on the federal government and not on the states. The Amendment made all people born or naturalized in the United States citizens and that no state could abridge the freedoms guaranteed in the Constitution. With that, the United States truly started on the path of becoming “one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”
Darwin was a man who loved nature. He studied to be a doctor but was repulsed by the bloody savagery that was 19th century surgery. His family, which included famous doctors and scientists as well as the Wedgewood pottery empire, were preparing him to be a country parson, a profession that would allow him to continue his hobby of bug collecting and provide him a modest income.
Fate intervened, and he gained a position as a companion of the captain of the HMS Beagle and a role as the ship’s naturalist. The Beagle was to sail around the world with a primary mission of mapping the coast of South America.
What the young Darwin saw on that voyage didn’t register at first. But after he returned to England he studied his extensive notes and the thousands of specimens he had collected. The pieces soon began to fall into place and he began to grasp that the great diversity of life he had seen was not only related, but had to be derived from common ancestors.
He spent the next 30 years collecting evidence and honing his arguments while publishing important scientific works on coral islands, barnacles and earthworms. He published his great theory in 1859, just as Lincoln and the United States were facing his great conflict.
Darwin worked out that force that shaped living things was a process he called natural selection. It was such a simple and profound idea that the 20th century biologist Theodosius Dobzhansky said, “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.” If one looks carefully, evolution’s fingerprints are visible on every aspect of modern medicine, agriculture and even genetic engineering.
I doubt anyone on a frosty cold morning in 1809 would have predicted that two tiny babes would so effect the course of human history. One preserved freedom by preserving his country. One shined a light on the story of life itself. Just imagine all that potential within every newborn drinking in his or her mother’s milk. As Darwin concluded at the end of “On the Origin of Species,” “there is grandeur in this view of life.”

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