12 February 2009

The Birth Of Progress

Two hundred years ago today, both Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin were born. Both men dragged the world reluctantly into modernity.

Lincoln is remembered most for ending slavery in the U.S. in connection with the U.S. Civil War. It took a hundred years and the Civil Rights movement to fully realize his accomplishments on the law books. The divide between the South and the rest of the country remains one of the deepest in American politics and the economic legacies of slavery continue to endure. Ironically, the Republican party of which Lincoln was a pivotal founding figure is now largely a regional party of the South (with Mormon enclaves thrown in for good measure), while the Democratic party which was long dominant in the South precisely because of ill feelings over the Civil War and subsequent military occupation of the South, is now weakest in that region especially among the white voters who were once its mainstay.

Darwin's theory of evolution has survived with remarkably modest modification, although we now know much more about its mechanism. No industrialized country in the world has more evolution deniers than the United States, although some developing countries (like Turkey) and undeveloped countries, surpass it.

Both the legacy of slavery and discrimination which Lincoln battled, and the evolution denial that persists in spite of Darwin's discoveries, are larely a result of America's evangelical Christian tradition, which is absent from most of the rest of the developed world. Lincoln's own religious feelings are a study in ambiguity, he made some vague religious statements which are well remembered, but was certainly nowhere near our nation's most devout President.

Both men are likeable figures whom it isn't clear would have gotten very far in today's world. Darwin, by the standards of modern science, was more an avid amateur and travel journalist, than a professional scientist. Lincoln had nothing close to the education required to be a lawyer today, and lived in an era that long predated the invention of large law firms.


Michael Malak said...

It is the Democratic Party that has changed. Once the Party of Jefferson and liberty, as a result of the Progressive Era (to which Darwin's legacy was a big influence), the Democratic Party recast itself as the Party of Communism (and then later, in the 1970's, as the Party of Abortion -- cf Ted Kennedy's change in position).

The Republican Party, however, has always been the Party of Fascism from its beginning. While the rest of the world ended slavery in the nineteenth century through peaceful compensated emancipation, only Lincoln waged war at the cost of hundreds of thousands of lives to end it, and to centralize power in Washington, DC, elevating the "union" over the "separate states".

Darwin elucidated a basic concept that was then lacking in scientific thought, but the holes in his theory, which as you mentioned we're still trying to understand, exemplify like no other "a little knowledge is a dangerous thing". For it is Darwin who was the inspiration for eugenics in general, and Hitler and Planned Parenthood in particular. The unintended consequences of Darwin's Theory of Evolution and Einstein's Theory of Relativity were a broad scale change in philosophy of the populace from absolute truth to "nothing is fixed", from absolute morals to relative (i.e. no) morals.

While nothing is evil with these theories in and of themselves, they act like technology, and people have a poor track record with technology -- tending to use it for evil (especially unnecessary wars) rather than for good. Nothing is wrong with steel, but its first use was for swords, not hypodermic needles.

Andrew Oh-Willeke said...

Both parties have changed, indeed, have reversed positions. The Democrats have gone from being the party of segregation and slavery to the party of civil rights.

Indeed, one can look at electoral maps 100 years apart (say 1896 to 1996) and see a Democrat to Republican flip, or the reverse as the case may be, in almost every single county in the nation. Indeed, the geographical divide on foreign policy issues like the war with the Barbary pirates, funding for the nation's first frigates, and the War of 1812 closely track attitudes towards Defense spending and the Iraq War today. Geographic political tendencies are much more stable than the parties themselves.

Blaming Darwin for "Social Darwinism" or fascism is over the top -- Adam Smith and Queen Victoria deserve more blame than Darwin.

Eugenics was one of many parts of the raft of ideas that made up turn of century progressivism and does have some connections to Darwinian theory. But, the best historical analog to the abortion debate (which scientific limitations made irrelevant for much of history), which was the long running infanticide debate, was a hot button issue in the Roman Empire, and the general idea (long implemented in a crude way by pre-modern animal breeders) motivated the pogroms, the capital punishment debate, Byzantine politics by assassination, and the Inquisition, long before Darwin arrived on the scene.