Wednesday, July 02, 2008


Comparing which historical figure was "greater" than another one is a titillating, entertaining and often ultimately futile exercise. Yet we love to indulge in it. I myself have done it before. Sometimes such a comparison can actually give us insights into history or personality; more often it essentially boils down to demonstrating personal preferences and likings.

With such a frequently flimsy rationale for comparing personalities, one had better come up with valid cases. Comparing Churchill and FDR is fine in this context, Newton and Einstein is probably a little unwarranted (considering that they lived in vastly different times). As Silvan Schweber has demonstrated in his recent beautiful book, Oppenheimer and Einstein is a worthy comparison.

But Charles Darwin and Abraham Lincoln?? Even an amateur would have a hard time thinking of such a pointless and disparate comparison. And yet we can always trust the mainstream media for a steady supply of sub-amateurish dilettantes who get paid for entertaining their own personal quirks and musings. In this case it's Newsweek which actually has managed to turn this comparison into a cover story. The reason for the comparison? A very serious one; it turns out that both Darwin and Lincoln were born on the same day...

There are other reasons many of which are trivial; the fact that both men were riddled with depression often in their life, were workaholics, harbored doubts about their religious convictions, and were compulsive scribblers. I am pretty sure that Newsweek would have found a hundred pairs of "great" people who share such events and qualities. With such a trite and pointless comparison, I myself don't want to spend more than a paragraph on it. But what I found curious was the article's conclusions. If "greatness" were defined in terms of impact and influence of ideas, Darwin is of course the hands down winner. Or so you would think. In fact the title of the article is "Who was greater?" and that should be an easy one. But this is America, and it's that fact that makes the article more interesting. To be fair, it is well-written. That's not the criticism. The criticism is that it seems to be written by someone who on a whim thought of writing about Darwin, and then because of no particular reason thought of writing about Lincoln, and then wanted to combine the two together in some ad hoc way. And the last line makes it clear what the author's goal was all the way along- "Answer- Lincoln"

Clearly Lincoln is enormously important for Americans, with polls regularly putting him at the top of the "greatest presidents" list (although the lists are always to be taken with more than a pinch of salt, especially considering that Ronald Reagan also usually makes it into the top 5). Lincoln abolished slavery and definitely belongs on the great Americans list. But Lincoln was not a complete slavery-hater all life, as weren't many of his predecessors and contemporaries. Although this might reflect the very different outlook on this practice during those times, it does call into question Lincoln's "greatness". However, it's worth giving him the benefit of doubt and noting that at least on a relative basis he was one of the most outspoken opponents of slavery during those times. But other facts also need to be considered. It has been argued by many humanists and historians that the Civil War was unnecessary for abolishing slavery. Many diverse figures including Freeman Dyson and Ron Paul have said for example, that England got rid of slavery by buying the slaves. Perhaps this attitude would not have worked with slave-happy Southerners in white America. But did Lincoln try? Did others try hard enough?

I am not trying to put a blemish on Lincoln's stature, but considering him great begs answers to these questions. He was definitely a wise, honorable and astute man. But that does not mean his achievements go down in history unquestioned.

Now Darwin. His theory had a great impact on the whole world. It answered perhaps the single most important question that we as human beings can ask ourselves; Who are we? Where do we come from? Darwin not only discovered the answer to this question but in the process also discovered an overriding theory of unparalleled elegance and all encompassing generality that explained our origins and our journey into the past and the future. What I personally find really astonishing about Darwin is how many of his predictions came to be true. Some of his ideas were discounted, but so many of them have stood the test of time and are in fact being corroborated every single day. That he could make these predictions in spite of the absence of any knowledge of genetics, hereditary mechanisms and intact human fossils is really extraordinary.

Newsweek dug itself into a ditch by trying to compare two very different and completely unrelated people. That should have made the answer to the question "Who was greater?" very simple. In terms of influence, Lincoln changed a country but Darwin changed the whole world and our future.

But emblematic of modern day America, the magazine in fact leans towards saying that Lincoln was greater. The main point here, not entirely unreasonable, is that Darwin's theory is greater than the man, while Lincoln's ideas could have come only from himself. However, "Darwin's theory" involved a truly enormous amount of field work, rumination, classification and ratiocination that Darwin individually did. Evolution and natural selection may have been discovered by others, but it would have taken long efforts by many to reach such a stage. Exceptional credit belongs to Darwin simply for thinking of so many things and weaving them coherently together.

On the other hand, slavery and mistreatment of minorities did not go away in America for another hundred years after the Civil War. Lincoln made a substantial difference in the short-term, but even he could not instantly eradicate perhaps the greatest evil this country has seen. On a practical basis Lincoln did not change the face of slavery in the United States. His importance seems more symbolic than substantial; a President who put his foot down and officially declared that one of the oldest human institutions which had been taken for granted for years had always been a great moral travesty.

But far and away, what is more telling for me is that if you take a poll and ask the general public "Who was greater?", they would side even more with Lincoln. And not just because he was their president, but because in no other developed country today are there as many public opponents of "Darwinism" as in the United States. The reasons are many; religious, political and in many cases, plain ignorance of the beauty and applicability of natural selection. But whatever the reasons are, this is what it is.

And that is the real tragedy of this comparison. Not the fact that the comparison is trite and superficial. Not the fact that you are comparing apples and oranges. But the fact that the magazine's conclusions will be mirrored in a greatly amplified manner by the general population of this country.

P.S. For all the complexities of comparison, ask me who I think was the greatest American president and I will say "F.D.R." without batting an eyelid. And before that, I think we will have to go back to Jefferson to find a truly great and important president.

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