Same birthday, competing legacies

DarwinDNALincolnTen score and several years ago today, Abraham Lincoln was born. On that same February 12, 1809 Charles Darwin also was born. The ideas championed by these men and their competing legacies twist through history like the spiraling parallel sides of DNA.

Lincoln: equality

IMG_0785It has been said that more books have been written about Lincoln second only to Jesus Christ. So, scholarship abounds with different perspectives on Lincoln. But, for most, and indeed what has been etched into monuments to him, it is Lincoln’s words and actions on the equality of man that are his legacy.

Leading up to the Civil War, Lincoln engaged in a series of debates with Stephen Douglas as the two campaigned in 1858 to be a senator from Illinois. In the first round of public remarks, Lincoln defended his position that slavery made America a “house divided” and quoting scripture, “that a house divided against itself cannot stand.” Douglas responded,

I am free to say to you that in my opinion this government of ours is founded on the white basis. It was made by the white man, for the benefit of the white man, to be administered by white men, in such manner as they should determine.

The next night, Lincoln addressed the same crowd, responding to Douglas:

Quote etched in marble at Lincoln Memorial exhibit

Quote etched in marble at Lincoln Memorial exhibit

My friends, I have detained you about as long as I desired to do, and I have only to say, let us discard all this quibbling about this man and the other man—this race and that race and the other race being inferior, and therefore they must be placed in an inferior position—discarding our standard that we have left us. Let us discard all these things, and unite as one people throughout this land, until we shall once more stand up declaring that all men are created equal.

Lincoln would lose to Douglas in the election for the Senate, but would go on to be the Republican nominee for President, winning the election of 1860. Through his leadership, the Civil War would be won by the Union and he would back his words about the equality of all men with deeds in the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th Amendment, ending the institution of slavery in America.

Darwin: survival of the fittest

At the time Lincoln was debating Stephen Douglas, Darwin published his seminal work, The Origin of the Species.  Only, Darwin was not able to be there for its first public presentation.

Most are familiar with Darwin’s theory. While his name is synonymous with evolution, that idea predated his book. What Darwin contributed was his theory of “natural selection,” later characterized as “survival of the fittest”: the idea that nature selects the strongest to survive. This idea led to one of history’s darkest chapters, with America providing the prologue.

Darwin’s cousin, Francis Galton, theorized that humans purposefully could select their strongest to survive. To better the human race, those with “desirable” traits should be encouraged to procreate, while the births of “undesirables” would be reduced. Galton called his idea “eugenics”.

At the turn of the last century, America led the way with eugenic-based public policies. Lincoln’s second home state, Indiana, was the first to pass compulsory sterilization laws for the “feeble-minded.” In Buck v. Bell, the Supreme Court upheld a similar law from Virginia. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. wrote in upholding the sterilization of Carrie Buck: “three generations of imbeciles are enough.”

Deadly Medicine exhibit at University of Louisville. The third row shows images of infant victims, including Gertrude.

Deadly Medicine exhibit at University of Louisville. The third row shows images of infant victims, including Gertrude.

These policies spread to Europe.  Taking eugenics theory to its logical end, the Third Reich instituted Action T4, the precursor to the Final Solution. The U. S. Holocaust Memorial Museum has a traveling exhibit called Deadly Medicine. It details how Nazi doctors euthanized thousands of children with disabilities.

Darwin and Down syndrome

Darwin died in Downe, England, at Down House and possibly shared another coincidence with that word.

In 1856, Darwin’s wife gave birth to their tenth, and last, child, Charles Waring Darwin. Mrs. Darwin, at age 48, had a one-in-twenty-seven chance of giving birth to a child with an extra 21st chromosome, the typical cause of Down syndrome. It appears that she may have.

Darwin observed that his youngest child displayed characteristics associated with the “retrogression” identified by Dr. Down. But Dr. Down’s classification was not made until a decade after Charles Waring’s birth, and eight years after he died from a scarlet fever outbreak. Darwin missed that first public presentation of The Origin of the Species because he was attending his son’s funeral.

Competing legacies

What impact Charles Waring may have had on his father and cousin Francis Galton had he lived we will never know. But, history has shown one legacy of Darwin’s theory of the “survival of the fittest” in the form of eugenics and the killing of the “unfit,” the disabled. And, history can always be repeated, unless we heed the competing legacy of Lincoln.

As Lincoln reminded us in commemorating the battle of Gettysburg:


The Gettysburg Address etched on the wall of the Lincoln Memorial

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

This is our creed. It is history’s lesson for ensuring we really meant “never again” after the horrors of the Holocaust: that a person is not valued based on whether he or she has traits others consider “desirable”, but that we are each created equal, endowed with the same inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

The competing legacies of these two men who share today as their birthday continues to spiral on through the ages: who are the “fittest” to survive versus valuing all human life as equal.


  1. very interesting..indeed.


  1. […] root words that roughly mean “well born.” In the aftermath of Darwin’s theory of survival of the fittest, progressives thought why leave the sorting of the fittest to the randomness of nature. Instead, […]

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