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Lincoln, Darwin, and the Birth of the Modern Age

Written by Adam GopnikAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Adam Gopnik

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On Sale: January 27, 2009
Pages: 224 | ISBN: 978-0-307-27121-1
Published by : Vintage Knopf
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

In this captivating double life, Adam Gopnik searches for the men behind the icons of emancipation and evolution. Born by cosmic coincidence on the same day in 1809 and separated by an ocean, Lincoln and Darwin coauthored our sense of history and our understanding of man’s place in the world. Here Gopnik reveals these two men as they really were: family men and social climbers, ambitious manipulators and courageous adventurers, grieving parents and brilliant scholars. Above all we see them as thinkers and writers, making and witnessing the great changes in thought that mark truly modern times.

Excerpt

The middleweight champion [of the early twentieth century, Stanley Ketchel] was stunned by [Wilson] Mizner’s recitation of the Langdon Smith classic that starts “When you were a tadpole and I was a fish, In the Palaeozoic time” and follows the romance of two lovers from one geological age to another, until they wind up in Delmonico’s. Ketchel had a thousand questions about the tadpole and the fish, and Mizner, a pedagogue at heart,took immense pleasure in wedging the whole theory of evolution into the fighter’s untutored head. Ketchel became silent and thoughtful. He declined an invitation to see the town that night with Mizner and [Willus] Britt. When they rolled in at 5 a.m., Ketchel was sitting up with his eyes glued on a bowl of goldfish. “That evolution is all the bunk!”he shouted angrily,“I’ve beenwatching those fish nine hours and they haven’t changed a bit.”Mizner had to talk fast; one thing Ketchel couldn’t bear was to have anybody cross him.
—Alva Johnston, The Legendary Mizners


Americans seemed to fascinate Picasso. Once, in Paris, he invited the Murphys to his apartment, on the Rue de la Boëtie, for an apéritif, and, after showing them through the place, in every room of which were pictures in various stages of completion, he led Gerald rather ceremoniously to an alcove that contained a tall cardboard box. “It was full of illustrations, photographs, engravings, and reproductions clipped from newspapers. All of them dealt with a single person—Abraham Lincoln. ‘I’ve been collecting them since I was a child,’ Picasso said, ‘I have thousands, thousands!’ He held up one of Brady’s photographs of Lincoln, and said with great feeling, ‘There is the real American elegance!’ ”
—Calvin Tomkins, Living Well Is the Best Revenge


We are all pebbles dropped in the sea of history, where the splash strikes one way and the big tides run another, and though what we feel is the splash, the splash takes place only within those tides. In almost every case, the incoming current drowns the splash; once in a while the drop of the pebble changes the way the ocean runs. On February 12, 1809, two baby boys were born within a few hours of each other on either side of the Atlantic. One entered life in a comfortable family home, nicely called the Mount, that still stands in the leafy English countryside of Shrewsbury, Shropshire; the other opened his eyes for the first time in a nameless long- lost log cabin in the Kentucky woods. Charles Darwin was the fifth of six children, born into comfort but to a family that was far from “safe,” with a long history of freethinking and radical beliefs. He came into a world of learning and money—one grandfather, Josiah Wedgwood, had made a fortune in ceramic plates. Abraham Lincoln was the second of three, born to a dirt- poor farmer, Thomas Lincoln, who, when he wrote his name at all, wrote it (his son recalled) “bunglingly.”

Their narrow circles of immediate experience were held inside that bigger ocean of outlying beliefs and assumptions. In any era, there are truths that people take as obvious, stories that they think are weird or wrong, and dreams that they believe are distant or doomed. (We like stories about time travel and living robots, and even have some speculative thoughts about how they might be made to happen. But on the whole we believe that the time we’re living in, and the way we live in it, is just the natural way things are. We like strange stories but believe only a few.) The obvious truths of 1809, the kind that were taught in school, involved what could be called a “vertical” organization of life, one in which we imagine a hierarchy of species organized on earth, descending from man on down toward animals, and a judge appraising us up above in heaven. Man was stuck in the middle, looking warily up and loftily down. People mostly believed that the kinds of organisms they saw on earth had always been here and always would be, that life had been fixed in place since the beginning of a terrestrial time, which was thought to go back a few thousand years at most. The eighteenth-century Enlightenment had, of course, already deepened a faith in Reason among the elite, but it was not a popular movement. It had altered many ideas without changing most minds. ( John Stuart Mill could say, as late as the 1850s, that he was still almost the only Englishman he knew who had not been brought up as a believer.) The Enlightenment ideal of Reason was in any case bound by taxonomies and hierarchies, absolute and extended right through earth and time. That the long history of life might be one driven by shifting coalitions of contingency, with chance having at least one hand on the reins, was still a mostly unthinkable idea. The forms of life were set, and had never varied. “Species have a real existence in nature, and a transition from one to another does not exist” was the way one magus put it, decisively.

People also believed, using what they called examples ancient and modern—and the example of the Terror in France, which had only very recently congealed into Napoleon’s empire, was a strong case—that societies without inherited order were intrinsically weak, unstable, and inclined to dissolve into anarchy or tyranny. Democracy in the sense we mean it now was a fringe ideal of a handful of radicals. Even in America the future of democracy was unclear, in part because of the persistence of slavery, which was still a feature of Western life. Democracy was hard to tell from mob rule and the tyranny of mob rule. Democracy existed, and was armed, but didn’t feel entirely liberal; the difference between reformist parliamentary government and true democracy seemed disturbingly large even to well- intentioned people. In the 1830s, Tocqueville, sympathetic to American democracy, was still skeptical about its chances, writing that “until men have changed their nature and been completely transformed, I shall refuse to believe in the duration of a government which is called upon to hold together forty different nations covering an area half that of Europe, to avoid all rivalry, ambition, and struggles between them, and to unite all their independent wills in the accomplishment of common designs.” Throughout Europe and America many thoughtful, truth- seeking people also believed in divine judgment and an afterlife in more or less literal terms.

The thought of no time is monolithic, and the people of 1809 in England and America did not believe these things absolutely. The new science of geology was pressing back the history of the earth; old bones would start turning up that threatened old stories; the new textual studies of the Bible were pressing against an easy acceptance of their truth, too. And there were many Utopian radical democrats in both countries. We can find plenty of astonishing ideas in that day, just as we will find traces of the astonishing ideas of the next century somewhere on the fringes of our own time. But on the whole these ideas belonged to the world of what would have been called “fancy,” not fact.

By the time Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin were dead—the American murdered by a pro- slavery terrorist in 1865, the Englishman after a long illness in 1882—the shape of history had changed, and the lives they had led and the things they had said had done a lot to change it. Two small splashes had helped to move the tide of time. Very different beliefs, ones that we now treat as natural and recognize as just part of the background hum of our time, were in place: the world was understood to be very, very old, and the animals and plants in it were known to have changed dramatically over the aeons—and though just how they had changed was still debated, the best guesses, then as now, involved slow alteration through a competition for resources over a very long time. People were convinced, on the whole, that democratic government, arrived at by reform or revolution, was a plausible and strong way to organize a modern nation—that republican regimes were fighters and survivors. (A giant statue, one of the largest since antiquity, of a goddess of Liberty was under construction in once- again republican France for a vindicated republican America, just to commemorate this belief.) Slavery in the Western world was, for the first time in thousands of years, finished (although racism wasn’t). Liberal republicanism and universalist democracy had begun the steady merger that persists to this day, so that most of us no longer see the governing systems of Canada and the United States as decisively, rather than locally, different.

Most of all, people thought that, in one way or another, by some hand or another, the world had changed and would continue to change, that the hierarchies of nature and race and class that had governed the world, where power fell in a fixed chain on down, were false. Fixity was not reality. Life changed, and ways of living changed, too. Life was increasingly lived on what we can think of as a horizontal, with man looking behind only to see what had happened before, and forward to see what he could make next. On that horizontal plane, we are invested in our future as much as in our afterlife, and in our children more than in our ancestors. These beliefs, which we hold still, are part of what we call the modern condition—along with the reactive desire to erase the instability that change brings with it, to get us thinking up and down again, instead of merely back and forth.

The two boys born on the same day to such different lives had become, as they remain, improbable public figures of that alteration
of minds—they had become what are now called in cliché “icons,” secular saints. They hadn’t made the change, but they had helped to midwife the birth. With the usual compression of popular history their reputations have been reduced to single words, mottoes to put beneath a profile on a commemorative coin or medal—“Evolution!” for one and “Emancipation!” for the other. With the usual irony of history, the mottoes betray the men. Lincoln came late—in the eyes of Frederick Douglass, maddeningly late—and reluctantly to emancipation, while perhaps the least original thing in Darwin’s amazingly original work was the idea of evolution. (He figured out how it ran; he took a poetic figure familiar to his grandfathers and put an engine and a fan belt in it.) We’re not wrong to work these beautiful words onto their coins, though: the two were the engineers of the alterations. They found a way to make those words live.

Darwin and Lincoln did not make the modern world. But they helped to make our moral modernity. The two little stories at the head of this chapter suggest just how widely their images and ideas had already spread within a half century of their deaths: in the first decade of the last century the concept of evolution troubled and fascinated and intrigued even a middleweight boxer, whose indignation at not actually seeing it happen anticipates that of many just- as- two- fisted skeptics today, while Lincoln’s face would haunt the imagination of an artist remaking art. For more than a century they’ve been part of the climate of modern life, systems in the weather of the modern world.

The shared date of their birth is, obviously,“merely” a coincidence, what historians like to call an“intriguing coincidence.”But coincidence is the vernacular of history, the slang of memory— the first strong pattern where we begin to search for more subtle
ones. Like the simultaneous deaths of Thomas Jefferson and John Adams on July 4, 1826, the accidental patterns of birth and death
point to other patterns of coincidence in bigger things. ( Jefferson and Adams, born at about the same time, were likely to die at about the same time; that they willed themselves to live long enough to see in the holiday says something about the urgency of the new rituals of the Republic.)

As long ago as the early twentieth century, the shared birthday of Darwin and Lincoln seemed central enough to an idea of liberal democratic civilization to have inspired a proposal for a binational, transatlantic holiday: the birthday of the two, “Lincoln, the embodiment of Anglo- Saxon devotion to Justice, and Darwin, the incarnation of Anglo- Saxon devotion to Truth,” should be declared an international holiday, a Massachusetts writer named William Thayer insisted in 1908, making the rational and good point that Lincoln was exceptional in being without malice, Darwin, in welcoming criticism and argument—though Thayer rather weakens his point, to our minds, by all those “Anglo- Saxon” attitudes. (Useful reminders, really, that similar assumptions, which will seem just as onerous or absurd to our great- grandchildren, linger in the corners of our minds, too.)

My own head has been filled with images and ideas of the two men since I was small. My father introduced me first to Lincoln, pressing on me a picture book called Meet Mr. Lincoln, a handsome oversize thing connected to a television special of 1959, filled with black- and- white Brady photographs—and the gravity, the melancholy, the destiny of that face touched me as it has touched so many others. (Readers will recall that Alexander Portnoy, too, was turned on to a lifetime of commitment to human rights, among other human activities, simply by the soulfulness of the statue of Lincoln in downtown Newark, outside the Essex County Court House.) Darwin was my mother’s hero, though it would be years before, one summer on a beach, I actually read On the Origin of Species. Then I discovered, as have generations of readers since that fateful day in 1859 when the entire first print run sold out in a day, that it is not just a Great Book but a great book, an absorbing, wonderful adventure in argument, a beach read in which your view of the world is changed by the end even if your view of the world was agreeable to it at the beginning. It’s a Victorian hallucinogen, where the whole world suddenly comes alive and begins moving, so that the likeness between seagulls and sandpipers on the beach where you are reading suddenly becomes spookily animated, part of a single restless whole, with the birds’ giant lizard ancestors looming like ghosts above them. What looks like the fixed, unchanging solitude of the beach and ocean suddenly becomes alive to, vulnerable to, an endless chain of change and movement. It’s a book that makes the whole world vibrate.


From the Hardcover edition.
Adam Gopnik|Author Q&A

About Adam Gopnik

Adam Gopnik - Angels and Ages

Photo © Brigitte Lacombe

Author of the beloved best seller Paris to the Moon, Adam Gopnik has been writing for The New Yorker since 1986. He is a three-time winner of the National Magazine Award for Essays and for Reviews and Criticism and of the George Polk Award for Magazine Reporting. He lives in New York City with his wife and their two children.

Author Q&A

Q: How did you fifirst discover that Lincoln and Darwin share a birthday—February 12th, 1809? What made you decide to write about their lives?

A: I wrote first about Darwin as a “natural novelist,“ a born writer and stylist, then about Lincoln’s language and its legacy, both for The New Yorker, and though I had some general intimation that those two essays had a shared topic—the emergence, let’s say, of an eloquence of explanation, rather than inspiration—I didn’t know yet about the strange and serendipitous accident of their birth. Curiously, I can’t call to mind when I did learn of it; a nice example of the amnesia of inspiration. But when I fell on it, and realized that we were arriving at a double bicentennial, my sense that there was a real subject here became stronger—understanding that this subject wasn’t any exact parallel between their lives but the beginnings of a part of our lives, the beginnings of new ways of thinking and, particularly, speaking and writing, that are part of what it means to be modern.

Q: What kinds of research did you conduct for the book?

A: The literature on both men is so immense that no one can claim to master it all—but I did my best, reading much as I could of the Darwin commentaries and as many as possible of the Lincoln biographies, one book leading on to the next, by the trail of footnotes. My own investigation of one small log in the Lincoln edifice—what were Stanton’s words at Lincoln’s deathbed, did he say “Now he belongs to the Ages” or ”Now he belongs to the Angels”?—is I think original; I certainly followed the trail of footnotes and sources as close to the truth as I think anyone can hope to arrive. With Darwin, I turned again and again to his original words. To his finished books, of course—his final book, on earthworms, was a revelation to me—but also, and particularly to his letters, and above all to his notebooks of 1838, which are the bedrock of evolutionary thought, and a lot of fun to read besides.

Q: In the course of learning about Lincoln and Darwin, what surprised you most about
either figure?

A: I suppose it must have been the ferocity of Darwin’s political liberalism. A certain amount of malicious energy has been poured, in America particularly, into pretending that Darwin was the “father of eugenics”, or that he believed in a war of races. It’s true that he played footsie, briefly and hesitantly, with ideas about advanced and backwards races. But from the very beginning of his work, he was as passionate an abolitionist as any man alive, and his belief in the equality of man was nearly absolute. His central idea about the origins and operation of human altruism was original and powerful—that the capacity for sympathy with others has evolved for a reason, to encourage the narrow in-group solidarity necessary for the social life of the higher primates—but that once it exists, it can be turned and applied however we want, and just as broadly as we wish. We can broaden out circles of compassion just as we choose. No one has gotten, or needs to get, much farther than that.

Q: The book is very conversational—the reader comes away from it feeling as if they’ve
just sat down for a long chat with you. Did you set out to write it in this style, or did it
happen on its own?

A: Like every writer, I write with difficulty, pain and a desire to be anywhere but at my desk. But about halfway through this book, I found myself humming in places, rather than stalling, and a tone of grab-the-reader-by-his-lapel, or anyway sit him down at the kitchen table and tell tales, overcame me. Perhaps it’s simply that articulating your own experience, or those of your near relations, as I’ve done in Through the Children’s Gate, or telling a long and elaborate narrative, as in The King in the Window, demands a continual element of invention— you’re always trying to make a joke or a point. But in a book of this sort the principle of selection and explanation rules—which facts matters most, and what do they mean? Writing a book like this is more like distilling whiskey for a living and less like inventing the wheel for the rest of your life. And you get to sip it, too. And then, I come from an academic family, and though I ran as fast as my feet could take me away from academe, being I think the only one of my six siblings without a Ph.D., some buried teacher, or anyway graduate assistant, in me still struggles to get out, and make yellow highlight markings in a textbook.

Q: So, who would you rather take out to lunch: Charles or Abe?

A: Oh, Charles, definitely, to get him caught up on everything that has happened to his great idea in the years since his death—but then Abe, too, to have him opine on everything that’s happened to us. I suspect that Darwin would be more “English” than his American admirers would like—more hesitant in generalization and less visibly brilliant. And that Abe would be more nineteenth century than twenty-first century admirers would like, more a shrewd man of his time and less a wise man for all time.

Q: There’s a lot of discussion today about Barack Obama as a Lincoln-like leader. Do you think that’s a fair comparison? What kinds of things will be in store for our President-elect in that respect?

A: Poor Obama! This is a lot to hang on a man; obviously, any comparison is not merely premature but slightly deranged—and also misses the fundamental Lincolnian fact that he was not a conciliatory figure, or one who bridged bipartisan divides. Not remotely. He ended the long-running attempt at conciliation on the slave and secession question—fire on Fort Sumter, and we make war.But in another way, Obama is a Lincoln-legatee—not as some reincarnation, but as one more inheritor of the common legacy that Lincoln (and Darwin) helped to invent. Obama is impressive for his eloquence of inspiration—the “Yes, We Can” speeches, the musical side of his oratory—but he is most impressive for his eloquence of explanation, of observation and argument. That key speech of his at Philadelphia on racism—a “teaching moment” as he described it—was a complicated argument, far from obvious in its points, and complexly intertwined to make a clear but complex case: that one can renounce African-American racism and still understand it. Lincoln’s speeches, as his best analysts have explained, are usually very complex arguments, too—about, say, why the legal principle of union is related to the moral principle of emancipation—that still ring like bells. This side of Lincoln’s legacy Obama shares with the rest of us.

Q.You share a lot of information with the reader about Lincoln and Darwin’s personal lives—not just the things that happened to them (family, love, loss) but how they felt about them; their emotions, passion and grief among them, were not so different then. Did you find yourself relating to either man on a personal or professional level?

A: A wise friend of mine teases me that I am drawn to people of the past who I unconsciously paint as a replica of, alley-oop, myself—i.e. family men with scruples and anxieties. Lincoln’s inner life, I should say, his melancholy and decisiveness both, his strength and his sadness, is alien to me, and I see it from an admiring distance. But I won’t pretend not to have been stirred and moved by the discovery, unalloyed by wishful thinking, that Darwin was one of the founders of modern parenting, the first scientist to study “the natural history of babies” as he called it, whose pleasure in his children (and wife) was the first pleasure of his life. And Lincoln too, let it be said, was an schande to the neighbors for his indulgence of his kids.

Q: Lastly, do you think your readers will be able to make a decision on whether Stanton’s famous epitaph was “angels” or “ages” after all?

A: I hope so; my own choice, cunningly ambiguous, need not be the readers’. Often, the idea that history is undecidable seems to be mistaken for the notion that all history is invented; I hope that reading this essay in history will help readers to recall that history is just as “relative” or “indeterminate” as all the rest of life. It isn’t that we don’t know what happened in the past, but that we don’t know what’s happening now—the forces of narrative and desire and wishful thinking weigh on all of us all the time. The job is not to pretend that all guesses are equal, but to make the best guesses we can with an eye to making a better guess tomorrow That’s what the society of the “Ages,” of liberal civilization—a science-based society, if you like—is, modestly but potently, all about.


From the Hardcover edition.

Praise

Praise

A New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and San Francisco Chronicle Bestseller

“A succinct, convincing, and moving account of how two men ripped mankind out of its past unreason and thrust it into a more enlightened age.”
Time

“Gopnik is a vivid and charming writer. . . . He moves from the personal to the political with ease, and his writing hums with authenticity. I cannot think of a better introduction to either of its protagonists, for it makes clear the scale of their achievements, and their historical significance.”
—Peter Aspden, Financial Times

“An elegant, intelligent meditation on skepticism and the making of the liberal mind.”
The New York Observer
 
“A scintillating synthesis of history, biography and cultural commentary. . . . Gopnik is a writer of dazzling skill and daunting accomplishment.”
Chicago Tribune
 
“This is the essay every essayist would like to have written. . . . “Gopnik has taken a coincidence and turned it into a theory of everything, or at least of everything important—death, progress, belief and language.”
The Daily Telegraph (London)

“[An] elegant and engrossing bicentennial twin portrait. . . . By advancing political and scientific liberalism, Lincoln and Darwin left as legacies an American century and a Darwinian world. Their principles, Gopnik maintains, still ‘shine light on the kind of place we’ve made, and the way we can make it better.’”
The Boston Globe
 
“Gopnik draws vividly characterized personal and intellectual portraits of each man. . . . Throughout, he seeks to entertain even as he provokes and, sometimes, moves. . . . [His] writing is pungent, inventive and rich.”
Los Angeles Times Book Review
 
“Ambitious. . . . Gopnik casts fresh and honest light on two figures distorted by years of excessive comment, quotation, and ideological appropriation.”
The Christian Science Monitor
 
“Gopnik revels in the revolutionary ideas that helped create our ‘moral modernity’ as he reveals the complex characters who unearthed startling truths about nature, human and otherwise.”
O, The Oprah Magazine
 
“Profound. . . . An amazing work of scholarship and philosophical thought. . . . Gopnik’s examination of these two men leads to nothing less than the exploration of what it means to live a meaningful life.”
Rocky Mountain News
 
“Exquisite. . . . Powerful. . . . Angels and Ages makes a persuasive case that our liberal, bourgeois lives, resting on reason, law, and the primacy of science, rest also on Darwin and Lincoln.”
The Philadelphia Inquirer
 
“Gopnik makes his points with a grace and intelligence that remind us, 200 years on, how much the two men continue to shape our thinking and our discourse.”
Richmond Times-Dispatch
 
“First Gopnik makes this odd couple look even odder. Then he brings them hauntingly near us.”
—Garry Wills, author of Lincoln at Gettysburg
 
“Gopnik's commentary, when it focuses on the fine points of Darwin's rhetorical style, or the significance of Lincoln's earliest speech, feels both effortless and edifying.”
The Oregonian
 
“Wide-ranging and thought-provoking reading. . . . Gopnik’s intelligence, fluid style and elegant observations pour forth.”
The Wichita Eagle
 
“Astonishing. . . . This is a book of no small learning, research and derring-do. . . . Gopnik has, quite brilliantly triangulated all of us, with the two men born on Feb. 12, 1809.”
The Buffalo News

“Two giants come humanly to life in these pages, and the deeds that made them giants are wisely appreciated. But, most of all, Angels and Ages is a hymn to liberal thinking—to its modesty, its openness, its occasional courage, its honesty about our transience, its loyalty to the pleasures and virtues of the everyday. And, like everything that Adam Gopnik writes, this book has a heart.”
—Louis Menand, author of The Metaphysical Club

“Illuminating. . . . [An] extremely elegant work.”
The Guardian (London)

“Places Lincoln and Darwin in their rightful places as giants of intellectual history.”
The Courier-Journal (Louisville, Kentucky)

“Darwin and Lincoln shared far more than a birthday. With succulent prose and incisive reasoning, Adam Gopnik shows that both men were wordsmiths of the highest order, emancipating minds with rhetorical skills that were wedded to moral and scientific truths. Always worth reading, Gopnik has produced a engaging and novel celebration of the Darwin/Lincoln bicentennial.”
—Jerry Coyne, Professor of Ecology and Evolution, The University of Chicago, and author of Why Evolution is True

“Ambitious. . . . Gopnik brings to his narrative not only passionate faith in the importance of the how . . . of Darwin's theory of evolution and Lincoln's politics of emancipation, but also an intellectual rigour and deftness, along with a kind of discursive bravado. . . . Angels and Ages certainly walks the walk of the glorious talk and prose it explores.”
The Globe and Mail (Toronto)

“One could spend a couple of years just dipping into some of the hundreds of books about Charles Darwin and Abraham Lincoln, and Adam Gopnik has. He distills all that knowledge with his usual verve and insight in Angels and Ages. . . . Convincing.” —St. Petersburg Times

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