2009 was the bicentennial of the births of both Charles Darwin and Abraham Lincoln. Both were born on February 12, 1809. Both played leading roles in the struggles for human equality, Lincoln directly, Darwin in establishing that all human beings are members of one species, with common ancestry.
Starting in the bicentennial year, a network of natural and social scientists have organized a public commemoratation of the birthdays yearly. The initial event was held in Cambridge City Council Chambers hosted by Mayor E. Denise Simmons. Thanks to the New England Biolabs Foundation, Paul Funk, and the MIT Dean for Undergraduates for their past support. The Institute for People's Engagement continues this tradition.
Though Lincoln and Darwin never met or corresponded directly, Darwin came from one of the foremost abolitionist families in Great Britain. Both his maternal grandfather Erasmus Darwin and paternal grandfather Josiah Wedgwood were leaders in the British Society for the Suppression of the Slave Trade. Wedgwood produced the widely circulated anti-slavery medallion “Am I not a Man and a Brother”, followed later by a women’s knitted version “Am I not a Woman and a Sister” - whose sales helped finance the British abolitionist movement. Darwin followed the course of the civil war, and in letters to Harvard botanist Asa Gray, expressed his wish for union victory and the abolition of slavery "Great God how I sh d like to see that greatest curse on Earth Slavery abolished" (letter to Asa Gray, 5 June ).
Just as Lincoln’s political and military leadership resulted in the abolition of direct slavery, Darwin’s publication of the Descent of Man provided the scientific basis establishing that all humans are members of one species, Homo sapiens, and are descended from common ancestors. This was key to undermining the various pseudo-scientific theories, promoted by the pro-slavery forces, that Negros, Mongols, Jews, Native Americans and other non-Caucasians, represented separate species. That view, that different human groups were created separately, was a keystone in early colonial policies justifying differential treatment of Indians, Africans, Maoris, and other colonized peoples.
Darwin was sharply aware of the differences among human groups. Chapter 7 of “The Descent of Man devotes more than 35 pages to “On the Races of Man”. His key theme, a sharp departure from the accepted views of the day, was that the differences we identify between members of different groups are quite minor. “It may be doubted whether any character can be named which is distinctive of a race and is constant”. Darwin develops this case both for physical attributes and cultural ones. He didn’t deny that different groups differ in skin color, body hair, or other surface features, but attributed these not to important affects of natural selection, but to sexual selection, the competition of males for females, which emphasizes different superficial variations among different sub-populations.
Darwin’s detailed arguments that all modern humans were members of one species struck a powerful blow against those who argued that various enslaved or oppressed peoples were not members of the human family, and could be treated differently. Unfortunately Darwin has been tarred by views that carry his name, but were not part of his empirical work or belief structure, most notably social Darwinism, advanced by Herbert Spencer. Darwin believed that moral and sympathetic behavior toward other humans was favored by natural selection; he rejected Spencer’s formulation of Social Darwinism
The pseudo-scientific arguments that human “races” are separately evolved continues to rear its head, despite both fossil and genetic evidence establishing that all modern humans had their origin in Africa, before migrating and dispersing through Europe, Asian and the Pacific Islands. Modern genomics reveals clearly that all human groups share a common gene pool. Natural selection certainly continues to operate in human populations, but the invention of language has meant that many of the key features selected for in human populations are transmitted through culture and not through genes. Certainly this is true for the leaps that led to the expansion of humans across the Earth – domestication of plants and animals, irrigation, tool and weapons development, food storage and processing, textiles and clothing, sanitation, long range transportation and communication technologies. But biological determinism still lives, promoting pseudo-scientific claims that the variations that exist in the genomes and physiology of humans, represents profound differences between groups, rather than the normal range of variation found in large populations.
Darwin and Lincoln shared a deep belief in how profoundly the conditions of life influenced human development. Thus though strongly critical and dismissive of the naked and primitive Fuegians aborigines he encountered in Tierra del Fuego, Darwin was equally clear on how similar he felt toward the three Feugians who had been to England and exposed to European education. “….yet I was incessantly struck, whilst living with the Fuegians on board the ‘Beagle, with the many little traits of character, showing how similar their minds were to ours..” . His recognition of the powerful effects of culture – which he called “civilization” - was one of the factors allowing him to recognize the superficial nature of the morphological variations among human groups
Darwin was of course raised as a British gentleman and reflects his times. His attitude toward women was marked by paternalism, and he inherited Victorian attitudes toward “civilized” with respect to savage peoples. These limitations should not blur his extraordinary contribution to the advancement of human equality and society.
With the election of Barack Obama, we entered into a period of US history where the conditions exist for eliminating the inequities still remnant from the time of plantation slavery. This will require vigilance and effort, but should create conditions not only for minimizing the inequality between those with dark skin and those with light skin, but for unambiguously establishing that all human beings are members of the same species and that we were indeed created with equal rights to realize our full human potential. Unfortunately the election of Donald Trump as President has put this progress at increased risk.
In this still fractured family of nations, the President would do well to follow Darwin’s lead: “As man advances in civilization, and small tribes are united into larger communities, the simplest reason would tell each individual that he ought to extend his social instincts and sympathies to all members of the same nation, though personally unknown to him. This point being once reached, there is only an artificial barrier to prevent his sympathies extending to the men of all nations and races” Chapter 4, Descent of Man.
by Jonathan King