Two birthdays with competing legacies

DarwinDNALincolnTen score and four years ago today, Abraham Lincoln was born. That same day 204 years ago also was the birthday of Charles Darwin. The competing legacies of these two men twist through history like the spiraling parallel sides of the DNA molecule.

Like Lincoln, Charles Darwin was born on February 12, 1809. Years later, 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.”

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.

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.

Those victims included children then referred to as “mongoloids.” The exhibit displayed at the University of Louisville featured a photograph of an infant girl named Gertrude with the genetic condition. Dr. John Langdon Down coined the term in 1866 based on Darwin’s theory. Dr. Down noticed that some of his patients shared physical characteristics and behaviors. He labeled these patients “Mongolian Idiots,” considering them a “retrogression,” a reversal in the evolution of man. This condition is now called “Down syndrome” in his honor.

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

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 displayed characteristics associated with the “retrogression” identified by Dr. Down. But Dr. Down’s classification was not made until a decade after Charles Waring Darwin’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.

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.” And, history can always be repeated, unless we heed the competing legacy of Lincoln, whose birth we also celebrate today. As Lincoln reminded us in commemorating the battle of Gettysburg:

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.

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