Thursday, February 12, 2009

A double birthday

Today marks the 200th anniversary of the births of two of the greatest men of my era. I refer on the one hand to the American president Mr Abraham Lincoln and on the second hand to the chronicler of animal life, Mr Charles Darwin.

In extending my sincere and profuse congratulations to both gentlemen, I must proffer a confession that to some extent I erred in judgement of both at the time of their greatest achievement.

This morning I chanced upon a discussion as to which of these two gentlemen was the greater in their impact upon humanity. It should be stated that both have most obviously had a lasting impact upon humanity, perhaps to an extent that could not be claimed for my own limited achievements.

It is nevertheless my opinion, expressed without hesitation, that President Lincoln was the greater. The course of action that he pursued was not determined solely by the hand of fate; indeed I resisted it at the time. It is a marvellous and terrible thing that a democracy should have to resort to brutal force to assert the will of the majority; it is equally terrible that such slaughter should be required in the interests of justice.

President Lincoln created a great nation out of a lawless confederation. He created a sense of justice linked to power that twice during the 20th century appears to have willingly undertaken missions to preserve the world from tyranny. This is a hard thing, even for a powerful nation, and has most obviously led his most recent successors to make mistakes, to err on the side of force rather than of justice. And yet his legacy continues, most obviously in the election of a president of African descent, a symbol of hope to disenfranchised millions around the Globe.

As for Mr Darwin, I have discussed his heritage previously. I bow to the greatness of his intellect and believe he was a gentleman of personal virtue and would have been greatly disturbed at the horrors unleashed by those who claimed to be his philosophical heirs. And yet he used the words "survival of the fittest" and appears to have had little doubt that humanity was a part of this process. I have heard that he was motivated to prove the commonality of mankind with a view to demonstrate the error of slavery. Indeed Mr Darwin alone was not responsible for philosophies that sought to set man against man and may have wished to counter them. One is reminded somewhat of Mr Marx, who worked in the British Library and, I understand, was venerated through much of the world for much of the 20th century whilst unspeakable horrors were visited upon nations in his name. It is also stated, I believe, that much of modern medicine would not exist without Mr Darwin. This seems not to be the case as he was not unique in developing his ideas, even though, it would appear, he was unusually correct about matters which were not to be confirmed until many decades later.

I do not wish to denigrate Mr Darwin's genius nor to understate the impact of his theories. It may be they have fundamentally changed man's view of himself; it is also possible that they have left humanity adrift and confused about his purpose and place in this world. Mr Darwin spoke the truth as he found it; his genius did not extend to providing guidance to Man about how to cope with such self-knowledge.


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