The middleweight champion [of the early twentieth century, Stanley Ketchel] was stunned by [Wilson] Mizner’s recitation of the Langdon Smith classic that starts “When you were a tadpole and I was a fish, In the Palaeozoic time” and follows the romance of two lovers from one geological age to another, until they wind up in Delmonico’s. Ketchel had a thousand questions about the tadpole and the fish, and Mizner, a pedagogue at heart,took immense pleasure in wedging the whole theory of evolution into the fighter’s untutored head. Ketchel became silent and thoughtful. He declined an invitation to see the town that night with Mizner and [Willus] Britt. When they rolled in at 5 a.m., Ketchel was sitting up with his eyes glued on a bowl of goldfish. “That evolution is all the bunk!”he shouted angrily,“I’ve beenwatching those fish nine hours and they haven’t changed a bit.”Mizner had to talk fast; one thing Ketchel couldn’t bear was to have anybody cross him.
—Alva Johnston, The Legendary Mizners
Americans seemed to fascinate Picasso. Once, in Paris, he invited the Murphys to his apartment, on the Rue de la Boëtie, for an apéritif, and, after showing them through the place, in every room of which were pictures in various stages of completion, he led Gerald rather ceremoniously to an alcove that contained a tall cardboard box. “It was full of illustrations, photographs, engravings, and reproductions clipped from newspapers. All of them dealt with a single person—Abraham Lincoln. ‘I’ve been collecting them since I was a child,’ Picasso said, ‘I have thousands, thousands!’ He held up one of Brady’s photographs of Lincoln, and said with great feeling, ‘There is the real American elegance!’ ”
—Calvin Tomkins, Living Well Is the Best Revenge
We are all pebbles dropped in the sea of history, where the splash strikes one way and the big tides run another, and though what we feel is the splash, the splash takes place only within those tides. In almost every case, the incoming current drowns the splash; once in a while the drop of the pebble changes the way the ocean runs. On February 12, 1809, two baby boys were born within a few hours of each other on either side of the Atlantic. One entered life in a comfortable family home, nicely called the Mount, that still stands in the leafy English countryside of Shrewsbury, Shropshire; the other opened his eyes for the first time in a nameless long- lost log cabin in the Kentucky woods. Charles Darwin was the fifth of six children, born into comfort but to a family that was far from “safe,” with a long history of freethinking and radical beliefs. He came into a world of learning and money—one grandfather, Josiah Wedgwood, had made a fortune in ceramic plates. Abraham Lincoln was the second of three, born to a dirt- poor farmer, Thomas Lincoln, who, when he wrote his name at all, wrote it (his son recalled) “bunglingly.”
Their narrow circles of immediate experience were held inside that bigger ocean of outlying beliefs and assumptions. In any era, there are truths that people take as obvious, stories that they think are weird or wrong, and dreams that they believe are distant or doomed. (We like stories about time travel and living robots, and even have some speculative thoughts about how they might be made to happen. But on the whole we believe that the time we’re living in, and the way we live in it, is just the natural way things are. We like strange stories but believe only a few.) The obvious truths of 1809, the kind that were taught in school, involved what could be called a “vertical” organization of life, one in which we imagine a hierarchy of species organized on earth, descending from man on down toward animals, and a judge appraising us up above in heaven. Man was stuck in the middle, looking warily up and loftily down. People mostly believed that the kinds of organisms they saw on earth had always been here and always would be, that life had been fixed in place since the beginning of a terrestrial time, which was thought to go back a few thousand years at most. The eighteenth-century Enlightenment had, of course, already deepened a faith in Reason among the elite, but it was not a popular movement. It had altered many ideas without changing most minds. ( John Stuart Mill could say, as late as the 1850s, that he was still almost the only Englishman he knew who had not been brought up as a believer.) The Enlightenment ideal of Reason was in any case bound by taxonomies and hierarchies, absolute and extended right through earth and time. That the long history of life might be one driven by shifting coalitions of contingency, with chance having at least one hand on the reins, was still a mostly unthinkable idea. The forms of life were set, and had never varied. “Species have a real existence in nature, and a transition from one to another does not exist” was the way one magus put it, decisively.
People also believed, using what they called examples ancient and modern—and the example of the Terror in France, which had only very recently congealed into Napoleon’s empire, was a strong case—that societies without inherited order were intrinsically weak, unstable, and inclined to dissolve into anarchy or tyranny. Democracy in the sense we mean it now was a fringe ideal of a handful of radicals. Even in America the future of democracy was unclear, in part because of the persistence of slavery, which was still a feature of Western life. Democracy was hard to tell from mob rule and the tyranny of mob rule. Democracy existed, and was armed, but didn’t feel entirely liberal; the difference between reformist parliamentary government and true democracy seemed disturbingly large even to well- intentioned people. In the 1830s, Tocqueville, sympathetic to American democracy, was still skeptical about its chances, writing that “until men have changed their nature and been completely transformed, I shall refuse to believe in the duration of a government which is called upon to hold together forty different nations covering an area half that of Europe, to avoid all rivalry, ambition, and struggles between them, and to unite all their independent wills in the accomplishment of common designs.” Throughout Europe and America many thoughtful, truth- seeking people also believed in divine judgment and an afterlife in more or less literal terms.
The thought of no time is monolithic, and the people of 1809 in England and America did not believe these things absolutely. The new science of geology was pressing back the history of the earth; old bones would start turning up that threatened old stories; the new textual studies of the Bible were pressing against an easy acceptance of their truth, too. And there were many Utopian radical democrats in both countries. We can find plenty of astonishing ideas in that day, just as we will find traces of the astonishing ideas of the next century somewhere on the fringes of our own time. But on the whole these ideas belonged to the world of what would have been called “fancy,” not fact.
By the time Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin were dead—the American murdered by a pro- slavery terrorist in 1865, the Englishman after a long illness in 1882—the shape of history had changed, and the lives they had led and the things they had said had done a lot to change it. Two small splashes had helped to move the tide of time. Very different beliefs, ones that we now treat as natural and recognize as just part of the background hum of our time, were in place: the world was understood to be very, very old, and the animals and plants in it were known to have changed dramatically over the aeons—and though just how they had changed was still debated, the best guesses, then as now, involved slow alteration through a competition for resources over a very long time. People were convinced, on the whole, that democratic government, arrived at by reform or revolution, was a plausible and strong way to organize a modern nation—that republican regimes were fighters and survivors. (A giant statue, one of the largest since antiquity, of a goddess of Liberty was under construction in once- again republican France for a vindicated republican America, just to commemorate this belief.) Slavery in the Western world was, for the first time in thousands of years, finished (although racism wasn’t). Liberal republicanism and universalist democracy had begun the steady merger that persists to this day, so that most of us no longer see the governing systems of Canada and the United States as decisively, rather than locally, different.
Most of all, people thought that, in one way or another, by some hand or another, the world had changed and would continue to change, that the hierarchies of nature and race and class that had governed the world, where power fell in a fixed chain on down, were false. Fixity was not reality. Life changed, and ways of living changed, too. Life was increasingly lived on what we can think of as a horizontal, with man looking behind only to see what had happened before, and forward to see what he could make next. On that horizontal plane, we are invested in our future as much as in our afterlife, and in our children more than in our ancestors. These beliefs, which we hold still, are part of what we call the modern condition—along with the reactive desire to erase the instability that change brings with it, to get us thinking up and down again, instead of merely back and forth.
The two boys born on the same day to such different lives had become, as they remain, improbable public figures of that alteration of minds—they had become what are now called in cliché “icons,” secular saints. They hadn’t made the change, but they had helped to midwife the birth. With the usual compression of popular history their reputations have been reduced to single words, mottoes to put beneath a profile on a commemorative coin or medal—“Evolution!” for one and “Emancipation!” for the other. With the usual irony of history, the mottoes betray the men. Lincoln came late—in the eyes of Frederick Douglass, maddeningly late—and reluctantly to emancipation, while perhaps the least original thing in Darwin’s amazingly original work was the idea of evolution. (He figured out how it ran; he took a poetic figure familiar to his grandfathers and put an engine and a fan belt in it.) We’re not wrong to work these beautiful words onto their coins, though: the two were the engineers of the alterations. They found a way to make those words live.
Darwin and Lincoln did not make the modern world. But they helped to make our moral modernity. The two little stories at the head of this chapter suggest just how widely their images and ideas had already spread within a half century of their deaths: in the first decade of the last century the concept of evolution troubled and fascinated and intrigued even a middleweight boxer, whose indignation at not actually seeing it happen anticipates that of many just- as- two- fisted skeptics today, while Lincoln’s face would haunt the imagination of an artist remaking art. For more than a century they’ve been part of the climate of modern life, systems in the weather of the modern world.
The shared date of their birth is, obviously,“merely” a coincidence, what historians like to call an“intriguing coincidence.”But coincidence is the vernacular of history, the slang of memory— the first strong pattern where we begin to search for more subtle ones. Like the simultaneous deaths of Thomas Jefferson and John Adams on July 4, 1826, the accidental patterns of birth and death point to other patterns of coincidence in bigger things. ( Jefferson and Adams, born at about the same time, were likely to die at about the same time; that they willed themselves to live long enough to see in the holiday says something about the urgency of the new rituals of the Republic.)
As long ago as the early twentieth century, the shared birthday of Darwin and Lincoln seemed central enough to an idea of liberal democratic civilization to have inspired a proposal for a binational, transatlantic holiday: the birthday of the two, “Lincoln, the embodiment of Anglo- Saxon devotion to Justice, and Darwin, the incarnation of Anglo- Saxon devotion to Truth,” should be declared an international holiday, a Massachusetts writer named William Thayer insisted in 1908, making the rational and good point that Lincoln was exceptional in being without malice, Darwin, in welcoming criticism and argument—though Thayer rather weakens his point, to our minds, by all those “Anglo- Saxon” attitudes. (Useful reminders, really, that similar assumptions, which will seem just as onerous or absurd to our great- grandchildren, linger in the corners of our minds, too.)
My own head has been filled with images and ideas of the two men since I was small. My father introduced me first to Lincoln, pressing on me a picture book called Meet Mr. Lincoln, a handsome oversize thing connected to a television special of 1959, filled with black- and- white Brady photographs—and the gravity, the melancholy, the destiny of that face touched me as it has touched so many others. (Readers will recall that Alexander Portnoy, too, was turned on to a lifetime of commitment to human rights, among other human activities, simply by the soulfulness of the statue of Lincoln in downtown Newark, outside the Essex County Court House.) Darwin was my mother’s hero, though it would be years before, one summer on a beach, I actually read On the Origin of Species. Then I discovered, as have generations of readers since that fateful day in 1859 when the entire first print run sold out in a day, that it is not just a Great Book but a great book, an absorbing, wonderful adventure in argument, a beach read in which your view of the world is changed by the end even if your view of the world was agreeable to it at the beginning. It’s a Victorian hallucinogen, where the whole world suddenly comes alive and begins moving, so that the likeness between seagulls and sandpipers on the beach where you are reading suddenly becomes spookily animated, part of a single restless whole, with the birds’ giant lizard ancestors looming like ghosts above them. What looks like the fixed, unchanging solitude of the beach and ocean suddenly becomes alive to, vulnerable to, an endless chain of change and movement. It’s a book that makes the whole world vibrate.