Sunday, February 12, 2006

Charles Darwin and Abraham Lincoln

In the obituaries for Coretta Scott King, I discovered a fact I hadn't been aware of before. There are only two people whose birthday's are federal holidays, George Washington and Martin Luther King, Jr. I somehow figured that Lincoln was officially recognized but rolled into a common holiday out of convenience, but some states still don't celebrate the birthday of the Great Emancipator. Anyone who doubts that race is a settled issue in America need look no further than than fact to correct their error. The civil war still rages.

Abraham Lincoln was a liberal in his own day, and would be a liberal in ours. Here is his justification for opposing the Mexican-American War:

Allow the President to invade a neighboring nation whenever he shall deem it necessary to repel an invasion, and you allow him to do so whenever he may choose to say he deems it necessary for such purpose, and you allow him to make war at pleasure. Study to see if you can fix any limit to his power in this respect, after having given him so much as you propose. If to-day he should choose to say he thinks it necessary to invade Canada to prevent the British from invading us, how could you stop him? You may say to him, — "I see no probability of the British invading us"; but he will say to you, "Be silent: I see it, if you don't."

The provision of the Constitution giving the war making power to Congress was dictated, as I understand it, by the following reasons: Kings had always been involving and impoverishing their people in wars, pretending generally, if not always, that the good of the people was the object. This our convention understood to be the most oppressive of all kingly oppressions, and they resolved to so frame the Constitution that no one man should hold the power of bringing this oppression upon us. But your view destroys the whole matter, and places our President where kings have always stood.
A defense against a monarchal president through a system of checks and balances, rather than mere Presidential say-so. This sounds oddly familiar and yet controversial even in this day and age.

But the quote I want to ponder (both are available from Wikiquote):
Let us discard all this quibbling about this man and the other man, this race and that race and the other race being inferior and therefore they must be placed in an inferior position. Let us discard all these things, and unite as one people throughout this land, until we shall once more stand up declaring that all men are created equal.
Go it Charlie!
That, from an 1858 lecture in Chicago, neatly dovetails with the radical egalitarianism of evolution (long ago discussed right here), the concept declared to the world 9 days earlier in a joint paper by Charles Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace.

I realize I never wrote up my review of the Darwin exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History, and today is as auspicious a day as any for this brief review. A selection of (surreptitious) photographs is available at Fotki.

The exhibit was a fairly chronological treatment of Darwin's life, beginning with his early love of insect collecting. A few of the insects he collected are on display, as well as the cartoons shown here, memorializing his willingness to wrangle particularly truculent specimens by sheer force.

His youthful waywardness is adequately reviewed, along with a brief mention of his grandfather Erasmus, whose verses describing a system of descent with modification are often seen as foreshadowing the younger Darwin's life work. I hadn't realized he was related to the Wedgwood clan (of pottery fame), but I don't know that that information changes my view of the man.

His first phylogenetic tree
The fun begins when his pleas secure his father's support for him to travel around the world as a naturalist aboard the HMS Beagle. The Bible he carried on board, as well as his gun were on display.

For someone versed in the work he did, much of this was old hat, and the tendency for hagiography has to be carefully kept at bay. Like anyone, he had flaws, but his was a singular mind, and seeing some of the fossils or specimens he saw can only take us so far. In terms of appreciating the mind that set biology in its modern course, what was most exciting was the copies of his notebooks.

The first phylogenetic tree he drew was on display, illustrating a concept that my students struggled with in their labs last week. The idea of presenting evolutionary history as a tree is natural to us today, but one wonders how long it took for him to recognize the potential for that presentation, and appreciates the challenge of recognizing the different data that could be derived from such a tree, including the order in which different species branched off and the relative similarities of different species based on line lengths.

Darwin's genius was his ability to integrate scattered facts into a compelling generalization. In a panel about his early enthusiasm for geology, he's quoted describing an 1831 geology trip with Adam Sedgwick. "Nothing before," he explained "had ever made me thoroughly realize … that science consists in grouping facts so that general laws or conclusions may be drawn from them." That experience served him well in
On the Origin of Species by means of Natural Selection
, which was meant to be only the abstract to the impending Big Species Book, but also in his comprehensive systematic studies of corals and barnacles, or his later work on human emotion. His work was not just descriptive, but carefully tested with often ingenious experiments. Some mementos of these experiments were preserved in the reconstruction of Darwin's study in the exhibit.

Elsewhere, a moment of history is captured in a line from his collection notes. In between measurements of wrens, he wrote:

First inklings of immutability of species
If there is the slightest foundation for these remarks, the zoology of archipelagoes will be well worth examining; for such facts would undermine the stability of Species.
And with such a small remark, a revolution was born.

The remainder of the exhibit describes the current state of research which has advanced beyond the footprints Darwin laid down on his garden path.

In addition, the show briefly discussed the controversies surrounding evolution, including Darwin's own opposition to anything resembling "social Darwinism," and his opposition to slavery. And so we return to the Great Emancipator, who set our nation on a better path several decades after Darwin wrote that "It makes one’s blood boil, yet heart tremble, to think that we Englishmen and our American descendants, with their boastful cry of liberty, have been and are so guilty" in the crime of slavery.

We look backward because if our footprints line up with those of the wise people who showed us the way, we can feel confident that we are going the right way. Those bright lights in our past are guideposts. Some of what Darwin wrote is based on an untenable model of inheritance, and many intersections between the insights of modern biology and what he anticipated in his work may well be accidental. We know we're on the right track because, like Darwin, we gather data, analyze it carefully and cautiously, and present our conclusions with confidence. And like Lincoln, we act with the wind of freedom at our back, constantly pushing us toward that "more perfect Union" he died defending.

Happy birthday to two great equalizers.

The Questionable Authority is rounding up other Darwin memorials.