Mendelssohn, Lincoln, and Darwin

Shaping the Modern World

Two hundred years ago, three boys were born a few days apart in Germany, England, and the United States. All of them would become renowned and affect the lives of not only their contemporaries but of generations to come.

One would produce great works of art and revive interest in long-forgotten artistic treasures. One would lead his nation to a "new birth of freedom" and pay with his life. The third would be responsible for an idea that, intentionally or not, would rationalize the worst cruelty and oppression the world has ever seen.

Whose birthday is getting the most attention? Of course, the third one.

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The three boys were the composer Felix Mendelssohn, born February 3, 1809, Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin, both born on February 12, 1809.

In his time, Mendelssohn was regarded as a kind of second Mozart: a child prodigy who, in an equally-short life, single-handedly revived interest in the music of Johann Sebastian Bach.

Hopefully, you don't need me to tell you about the importance of Abraham Lincoln. Still, judging by the way the 200th anniversary of their births is being covered, maybe you do.

For instance, the cover story of this month's Smithsonian magazine purports to tell readers "How Lincoln and Darwin Shaped the Modern World." According to the article, Lincoln and Darwin had "midwifed" a new world where "the hierarchies of nature and race and class that had governed the world" had been, if not overthrown, brought into question. In this account "evolution" and "emancipation" are co-laborers in this transformation.

Tell that to the tens or hundreds of millions of people murdered in the name of ideologies that cited Darwin's On the Origin of Species as justification for their acts. The perpetrators of the gulags and the death camps didn't hum "The Reformation Symphony" or recite the Gettysburg Address as they went about their grim tasks. But they did see themselves as acting in concert with the laws of nature: specifically, nature according to Darwin and his acolytes.

Likewise, "Social Darwinism," far from weakening the "hierarchies of . . . class that governed the world" was employed to justify those hierarchies.

These social consequences are portrayed as after-the-fact corruptions of Darwin's thoughts. Darwin's ideas, we are told, is "humanism in flight" and "roomy enough for ordinary love to breathe in."

But, as writer Peter Quinn has documented, that's nonsense. Darwin's own notebooks make it plain that he anticipated his ideas' influencing "competition, free trade, imperialism, racial extermination, and sexual inequality." He endorsed his cousin Francis Galton's ideas about eugenics.

Yet, while we still debate whether Lincoln himself was a racist, little mention is made of the pernicious social consequences of Darwinism and even less about his complicity in these consequences.

Intelligent, secular, scholars argue about whether Darwin was right regarding the origin of species. What they can't reasonably disagree with, however, is the destructive impact those ideas have had one particular species: man himself.

So for me, I'll celebrate Lincoln today.

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