Charles Darwin and Abraham Lincoln: Appreciations on Their Birthday

February 12, 2014: If Darwin and Lincoln were among the quick, they’d celebrate their 205th birthday today. I have a special love for both men and share these appreciations. This post is long, so you might need to consume it in two sittings. Hope it’s worth your time.

Happy Birthday, Charles Darwin, My Brother in Complaints and Conflict!

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Charles Darwin’s grave: a little less grand than I would have thought (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

David Quammen’s excellent biography, The Reluctant Mr. Darwin, notes that when the father of natural selection died, “the world . . . swooped in and claimed his body for history and posterity and the glory of British culture.” And the world “decreed that Charles Darwin be buried in Westminster Abbey,” which was ironic, since he was an atheist.

Biblical literalists would like to exhume Darwin and hose down his bones with holy water, but I consider him a planetary brother. Quammen describes the parallel development of Darwin’s transmutation of species and the onset of his health issues:

Darwin’s work on the transmutation notebooks coincided with his early complaints about what became chronic bad health. The symptoms were mysterious—jumpy heart, nausea, vomiting, headaches, nervous excitement, inordinate flatulence—but real enough to make him miserable and to slow his work. Was he a hypochondriac? A neurasthenic? Had he been bitten and infected by some nasty disease-bearing bug during a Beagle [the ship Darwin sailed on from 1831-36] stopover in Argentina? Many guesses have been made but nobody knows, to this day, what ailed him.

Inordinate flatulence–bummer. Fabienne Smith immediately and dryly states her theory about Darwin’s deal in her article “Charles Darwin’s Health Problems: the Allergy Hypothesis”: “The purpose of this paper is to buttress the evidence given in ‘Charles Darwin’s Ill Health’ [a previous article by the same author] for the theory that Darwin suffered from multiple allergy arising from a dysfunctioning immune system.” Sounds plausible, but I’m not about the read the whole thing. History.com presents its own list of guesses along with a few attempted remedies:

During Darwin’s lifetime, England’s most prominent physicians failed to decode the ailing naturalist’s jumble of symptoms. Their diagnoses ran the gamut from gout to appendicitis to hepatitis to mental exhaustion to schizophrenia, while the remedies they prescribed—lemons, Indian ale, hydrotherapy, arsenic, strychnine and codeine, among countless others—provided little relief.

An admirably researched Wikipedia article, “Charles Darwin’s Health,” lists “many hypotheses” for the man’s agony, including Crohn’s disease, panic disorder, Chagas’ disease, Meniere’s disease, lactose intolerance, lupus erythematosus, arsenic poisoning, hypochondria, migraine, cyclic vomiting syndrome, and chronic fatigue syndrome. That Darwin might have been cursed with even a couple of these conditions is frightening to imagine.

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Editorial cartoon of Darwin, 1871 (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

The winner of my Scary Darwin Scholarship Award goes to Jerry Bergman, Ph.D., for his article “Was Charles Darwin Psychotic? A Study of His Mental Health,” which appears on the Institute for Creation Research website (icr.org). Bergman’s thesis is that mental health issues not only ruined the scientist’s body, but also led him to develop wacky theories. The article is part legitimate catalog of Darwin’s complaints and part smear job ala Lee Atwater and Karl Rowe. “Some speculate,” the author writes, “that part of Darwin’s mental problems were due to his nagging, gnawing fear that he had devoted his ‘life to a fantasy’—and a ‘dangerous one’ at that (Desmond and Moore, 1991, p. 477). This fear was that his theory was false and there was, in fact, a divine Creator.” (No, I’m not going to read the cited work, Darwin: the Life of a Tormented Evolutionist by Adrian Desmond and James Moore, but I did check the Publishers Weekly and Library Journal review excerpts on Amazon.com, and both sing that biography’s praises. I might be wrong, but I bet Desmond and Moore wouldn’t appreciate the use Bergman makes of their words.)

Bergman also hits below the belt when he implies that Darwin’s scientific conclusions are flawed because he passionately loved shooting birds as a kid, which points to a “sadistic streak” that “may have, in part, motivated his ruthless ‘survival of the fittest’ tooth and claw theory of natural selection”; because he referred to committing suicide when writing to fellow scientist Robert Hooker about his upset over the writing quality of one of his books; because author Clifford Picover wrote that Darwin treated his wife and adult daughters like children; because “Darwin exhibited the obsessional’s trait of having everything ‘just so’; he kept meticulous records of his health and symptoms like many obsessional hypochondriacs. Everything had to be in its place; he even had a special drawer for the sponge which he used in bathing.”

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Darwin’s wife wrote him a letter in 1839 expressing her fear that they wouldn’t spend eternity together. After his death, the following addition was found at the bottom of her letter–a loving atheist’s attempt at comfort? “When I am dead, know that many times, I have kissed & cryed over this. C. D.” (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

The article’s final sentence nails down what the author has been getting at all along: “To understand Darwin as a person and his motivations, one must consider his mental condition and how it affected his work and conclusions.” Bergman’s claim that Darwin’s scientific conclusions are flawed because he had mental and physical issues is like saying that a singer has an unappealing voice because he sleeps around: non sequitur. What singers do with their junk has nothing to do with their vocal cords and breath control; and the fact that a scientist needs therapy and meds doesn’t mean he’ll do biased research. If anything, in Darwin’s case I’m betting Bergman has the situation backwards. Darwin’s troubled constitution and psyche didn’t skew his scholarly work; rather, his health went into the chamber pot in part because his thinking was so contrary to the assumptions of his day, not to mention deeply troubling to his wife, a devout Christian; Quammen’s speculations, in fact, head in this direction without coming across like a conspiracy theory.    

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Charles Darwin at 45 years old. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

In the end, as Quammen writes, “nobody knows . . . what ailed him.” I’m looking at a photograph of Darwin at around age forty-five, seven years my junior, and feeling a connection. If only he could have picked up Atenolol, Prilosec, Zoloft, Xanax, Beano, and other modern medications at the apothecary, his suffering might have been manageable.

And if only Darwin could have enjoyed a daily siesta rather than taking to his bed for months at a time. Illness leeched years of work off of what was already an amazingly productive life. What’s worse, more profound discomfort still resided in a place microscopes can’t get at. Employing quotations from Darwin’s letters, Quammen playfully describes the scientist’s fragility—and mine:

[Darwin’s] doctors had advised him to quit work and get a country vacation, he added, and he was taking their advice. ‘I feel I must have a little rest, else I shall break down.’  After a few weeks home in Shrewsbury, with his father and sisters [in the fall of 1837], he reported again . . . that ‘anything which flurries me completely knocks me up afterwards and brings on a bad palpitation of the heart.’ Social gatherings flurried him. Intense conversations flurried him. Conflict, or the very idea of it, was highly flurrisome.

The last part makes Darwin my kin: the slightest prospect of conflict is nearly incapacitating, flurrisome—spot-on for both of us. Flurrisome Charles had the brains. Flurisome John has the meds and the afternoon nap.

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The Darwin we all know and love. (Credit: Wikipedia)

The part of Darwin’s story I love best takes place when he was near death. As he suffered through the final stages of heart disease, he continued to work as his body permitted. Quammen explained that a colleague who knew of Darwin’s interest in the migration of plants and animals discovered a clam attached to a beetle and wondered if this oddity might indicate that a sea creature could migrate by attaching itself to a bird. The colleague mailed the beetle/clam to Darwin so that he could look for himself. By the time he received the box, the clam and beetle had separated, and the former was dead, the latter languishing. As Darwin wrote the sender, he placed the dying beetle in a jar with torn up laurel leaves, which exuded a chemical that would help the poor thing relax and die in peace. Darwin himself followed the beetle into eternity about two weeks later. So even as one of the most brilliant minds in history was dying, he took time to ease the suffering of a beetle. Darwin considered himself an atheist. So be it. I call him “brother.”

Happy Birthday, Abraham Lincoln, My Weary, Burdened Brother!

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Abraham Lincoln about two months before his assassination–such tired eyes. (Credit: Wikipedia)

A couple years ago on this day’s A Writer’s Almanac, Garrison Keillor told me a couple facts I didn’t know about Abraham Lincoln—facts that make me doubly grateful for his stay in the White House.

The first has to do with Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address,” which is one of the most beautiful pieces of prose in the English language. Since it’s short—only 272 words—I’ll include it here:

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. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate—we can not consecrate—we can not hallow—this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

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Abraham Lincoln’s “life mask” from 1860–better than a death mask. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

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Lincoln at Gettysburg just after delivering his address. (Credit: Wikipedia)

I already knew that Lincoln wrote this address on an envelope during his train ride to Gettysburg. What I didn’t realize was that the dedication of the cemetery, situated on the ground where hundreds of soldiers were buried quickly in shallow graves after the battle, was a grand, carefully planned affair with fifteen thousand people attending. Edward Everett, who was famous for his speeches about battlefields, went on for over two hours cataloging the battle’s endless instances of bravery and valor. When he finished, Lincoln read his slender 272 words. By the time the event’s photographer got set, his subject had already sat back down; he managed one blurry shot.

So restrained was the audience’s applause that Lincoln assumed his speech was a failure. Little did he know a century later school kids would be required to memorize his address, and English and history teachers would regard Lincoln, a politician, as one of the most gifted writers of his generation. Everett, however, knew a great speech when he heard one. The next day he told Lincoln, “I wish that I could flatter myself that I had come as near to the central idea of the occasion in two hours as you did in two minutes.” Of course, maybe Everett was mainly stroking the President’s ego.

The second Abraham Lincoln story Garrison Keillor told had to do with a letter the President is thought to have written to Mrs. Lydia Bixby, a widow who supposedly lost five sons in the Civil War:

Dear Madam,–

I have been shown in the files of the War Department a statement of the Adjutant General of Massachusetts that you are the mother of five sons who have died gloriously on the field of battle.

I feel how weak and fruitless must be any word of mine which should attempt to beguile you from the grief of a loss so overwhelming. But I cannot refrain from tendering you the consolation that may be found in the thanks of the Republic they died to save.

I pray that our Heavenly Father may assuage the anguish of your bereavement, and leave you only the cherished memory of the loved and lost, and the solemn pride that must be yours to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of freedom.

Yours, very sincerely and respectfully,

A. Lincoln

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Retouched post-mortem photograph. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Oddly, Mrs. Bixby didn’t lose five sons. She lost two in battle; one deserted, one was honorably discharged, and another either deserted or died as a prisoner of war. Don’t misunderstand! This poor mother deserved every condolence she received, but the facts differ from those that inspired the President—if he wrote the letter at all. Some historians now believe that Lincoln’s famous letter to Mrs. Lydia Bixby was actually written by one of his White House secretaries, John Hay. Whatever: if Lincoln had such a gifted writer on his staff, I’m willing to call that moving letter co-authored.

Do any of these historical facts matter? They do to me. And I bet Lincoln would have cared on November 19, 1863, as he sat down after giving his 272-word address, to know that his speech was much better than he first thought and that history would judge him a courageous President, a wise man, and an elegant writer. But how could he have known, that man in the grainy photograph with the weight of millions of Americans on his tired shoulders?

I pray today that in repose he hears me call him brother.

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