Believing in Change: Darwin, Lincoln, Obama
of Edinburgh public
lecture, 13 November 2009.
We have known this was coming for a long time. The coincidence of the births of Darwin and Lincoln was noted 100 years ago, when their joint first centenaries were commemorated. But we’ve only known for one year, with the election of Barack Obama last November, that the day of the joint bicentennial last February would be bathed in the afterglow of the inauguration of the first African-American president of the United States.
This new historic coincidence naturally heightened the sense of occasion. At a moment when one person changes the world, previous transformations are illuminated. And in this particular moment, Obama’s achievement cast the transformations brought about by Lincoln and Darwin in a new light. They would have found it difficult to believe in the change he represents. He would not have been able to win the highest office if he had believed in some of the changes they anticipated. Some of the connections between Lincoln and Darwin that Obama highlights are not the ones that show them in their best light today. And yet the three figures affirm the best in each other.
When an American writer named William Roscoe Thayer anticipated the Lincoln-Darwin centennial a hundred years ago, the first thing that came to his mind was race. He declared that the occasion should bring the United States and Britain together in ‘a sort of Pan-Anglo-Saxon reunion, in which the scattered members of a great race should come together to reaffirm their racial principles, to feel the thrill of common hopes and common emotions, and to realize in the most convincing way that blood is thicker than water.’ Thayer’s vision displays the fundamental role that race played in contemporary understandings of history and human relationships. In the previous century the British statesman Benjamin Disraeli had expressed the same belief more crisply and dramatically through the words of a character in his novel Tancred: ‘All is race; there is no other truth.’
Thayer’s priorities also display another notable tendency of the time: the preoccupation of white participants in discussions about race with what they saw as their own race, and their corresponding indifference to the fates of what they saw as other races. Frederick Douglass, the former slave who became a leading anti-slavery campaigner and a major American political figure, judged that Lincoln’s arguments against the extension of slavery ‘had their motive and mainspring in his patriotic devotion to the interests of his own race.’ Even in the Darwin described by Adrian Desmond and Jim Moore we can see a similar trajectory, from a passionate moral opposition to slavery - his ‘sacred cause’ - to a passive acceptance that the expansion of some peoples and the extinction of others is a natural part of human progress.
Barack Obama has set himself and his nation the challenge of moving beyond race without denying its significance in American life. When it fell to him, as Lincoln’s latest and newly-inaugurated successor in office, to lead the bicentennial celebrations, Obama gave a speech in which he affirmed a vision consonant with the fundamental preoccupation that drove Lincoln as a politician and as President. Not freedom, still less race – in his measured way, Obama has noted that he is ‘fully aware’ of Lincoln’s ‘limited views’ on that subject. Lincoln’s political raison d’etre was unity, a cause to which he was bound by his terrible awareness that ‘a house divided against itself cannot stand’.
His famous metaphor underlines that his concern was with structures, the carefully arranged architecture of the Union between the states, which was threatened by the differing stances taken by different states on the question of slavery. During the Civil War, he set out his position in a precise legal arrangement of ifs and ors: “My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that.” He considered that slavery was wrong, but he had always been clear that morality was subordinate to the United States constitution and whatever the law determined about the Union’s powers over the states.
In his commemoration speech, Obama found in Lincoln a somewhat different understanding of unity: one which embraced the people as well as upholding the structures. Obama presented Lincoln as a man who understood the proper balance between government and people; who understood both the fundamental importance and the limits of individual self-reliance, responsibility and hard work: who recognised that ‘in the end, there are certain things we cannot do on our own. There are certain things we can only do together. There are certain things only a union can do.’ Obama articulated an idea of government as a means to pursue the common good, a structure that enables society to achieve what cannot be achieved by individual effort, an expression of society’s will rather than an imposition upon it. In passing he noted that it was also Darwin’s bicentennial, a point he linked to the role of science in national progress.
Obama fought his campaign in the first person plural, upon the watchword ‘change’: ‘Yes We Can’, ‘Change We Can Believe In.’ A benign satirical poster renders the likeness of the bearded Charles Darwin in the stylized blues and reds of that widely-reproduced image of Obama which for once deserves the term ‘iconic’: the slogan is ‘Very Gradual Change We Can Believe In’. And Obama has made it clear that evolution is one kind of change that he believes in.
Towards the end of his campaign, the British science weekly Nature, which is both a scholarly journal and a magazine, published his responses to its questions about his views on science. ‘Do you believe that evolution by means of natural selection is a sufficient explanation for the variety and complexity of life on Earth?’ it asked. ‘Should intelligent design, or some derivative thereof, be taught in science class in public schools?’
Doubtless Obama the lawyer appreciated the nicety of the phrasing in the second question – ‘or some derivative thereof’ – and perhaps the lawyer Abraham Lincoln would have too. The wording of the first question was also careful. It reads as though it is intended to flush out those who insist on a role for God in the shaping of life, by claiming that natural selection cannot explain certain complex features of living things, or by suggesting that God sometimes steps in to lend natural evolutionary processes a divine hand. About a third of Americans believe that God guided human evolution.
Obama replied: ‘I believe in evolution, and I support the strong consensus of the scientific community that evolution is scientifically validated. I do not believe it is helpful to our students to cloud discussions of science with non-scientific theories like intelligent design that are not subject to experimental scrutiny.’ In its leading article Nature commended the clarity of the pronouncement on the teaching of intelligent design. Many scientists doubtless warmed to, and took comfort from, Obama’s affirmation of scientific criteria of knowledge. Characteristically pithy and plain, his response offered them assurance that he shared their values – and that if he had actually answered the question asked, about whether he believes natural selection is a sufficient explanation for the variety of life on earth, the answer would have been ‘yes, I do’.
Obama’s style has a powerful appeal not just to scientists but to scholarly communities in general. Here at last is a professor-president who is not afraid to articulate complex ideas in those gracefully simple phrases of his. Here is an American president who manages to combine a common touch with a certain aloofness that seems to smack of the cerebral – who is cool in more than one sense of the word. He even has some teaching on his resume, having served as a professor at the University of Chicago’s law school.
With his equable public persona and his inclination towards dialogue, Obama conducts his politics in a style that honours academic ideals more faithfully than many academics do. In foreign policy, his professed readiness to re-set relations with other countries on a basis of dialogue and inclusion is the academic principle of collegiality applied on a global stage. Indeed it sometimes seems as though President Obama has invited the world to participate in a giant seminar on the better ordering of international affairs.
That is the kind of change that Lincoln and Darwin would struggle to believe in. The world they knew was one of empires, subjugated peoples, and aggressive campaigns to bring the remaining unsubjugated regions of the world under the control of states whose peoples derived largely from Europe. The success of these drives encouraged the belief that they were inevitable products of racial superiority. In The Descent of Man, Darwin predicted that "the civilised races of man will almost certainly exterminate, and replace, the savage races throughout the world".
Darwin and Lincoln both had some experience of these struggles, or of their results. Lincoln served in a military campaign against native Americans who were trying to recover their lands in Illinois. Darwin’s voyage on the Beagle took him to lands where slaves were kept, and brought him into contact with indigenous peoples reeling under the impact of encounters with Europeans. He was appalled by the brutality of the punishments meted out to slaves, and the callous inhumanity of a slave owner who could contemplate selling off his male slaves without their wives and families. But the incident that struck him at the time ‘more forcibly than any story of cruelty’ was one in which he made a gesture which a man took to be a blow aimed at his face, yet did not attempt to block. ‘This man had been trained to a degradation lower than the slavery of the most helpless animal,’ Darwin reflected. The moral sentiments that such experiences triggered were his family’s values: his grandfather Josiah Wedgwood, the pottery manufacturer, had mass-produced china cameos depicting a chained black slave asking the rhetorical question ‘Am I not a man and a brother?’
This was a question about kinship and also about affinity. It asked for recognition of the slave’s humanity, and with it, the human sympathy that kinship engenders. The attitudes towards slavery and race held by Darwin, Lincoln and their contemporaries had three major dimensions: morality, sympathy and nature. These dimensions could assume different proportions in different minds. It was possible for somebody to believe that slavery was immoral, but to lack any sympathy for slaves. It was possible to believe that people of African descent were naturally inferior to Europeans in intellect, yet to insist that Europeans must not buy or sell them or hold them as property. It was possible to answer ‘yes’ to the question ‘Am I not a man and a brother?’ without feeling any sensation of brotherhood.
It was also possible to deny the relevance of brotherhood, as the British biologist Thomas Henry Huxley did. ‘We do not prosecute the drover or the cabman because we believe the poor maltreated ox or horse to be our brother,’ he observed. His Essay on Emancipation, written in 1865, drily opens by noting that the man-and-brother question seems to have been finally answered by the recent Union victory in the American Civil War. Huxley, the leading public scientific intellectual of the Victorian era, suggested that the victors’ hopes would, however, be disappointed. ‘It may be quite true that some negroes are better than some white men,’ he wrote, ‘but no rational man … believes that the average negro is the equal, still less the superior, of the average white man.’ From his lofty station in the intellectual aristocracy and the British Establishment, Huxley poured scorn on the possibility that ‘our prognathous (projecting-jawed) relative’ would ‘be able to compete successfully with his bigger-brained and smaller-jawed rival, in a contest which is to be carried on by thoughts and not by bites.’
Huxley looked forward to the day when the artificial constraint of slavery was replaced by equality of opportunity, for then, ‘whatever the position of stable equilibrium into which the laws of social gravitation may bring the negro, all responsibility for the result will henceforward lie between nature and him. The white man may wash his hands of it, and the Caucasian conscience be void of reproach for evermore. And this, if we look to the bottom of the matter, is the real justification for the abolition policy.’ Slavery should be ended not for the sake of the slaves, he considered, but because it degrades the slavers. ‘The master,’ he concluded with satisfaction, ‘will benefit by freedom more than the freed-man.’
Huxley’s views about the intellectual potential of black people are quite typical of the opinions held, and commonly expressed, by his peers. They do, however, serve as a contrasting reminder of how little of this kind of thing there is in Darwin’s writings. On occasion Darwin remarked positively about the intellects of black people he encountered. As a young man on his travels, he remarked at one point that he ‘never saw anything more intelligent than the Negros, especially the Negro or Mulatto children’ who ‘examine every thing with the liveliest attention’. In his old age, he remarked that as a young man in Edinburgh, he had been taught to stuff birds by a ‘negro’ (which was considered a respectful term until the 1960s). ‘I often used to sit with him, for he was a very pleasant and intelligent man’.
Neither his unforced sympathy with black people nor his condemnation of slavery – ‘that greatest curse on Earth’, he called it during the Civil War – were undermined by his experiences of places where slavery was maintained. Colonial types had assured him that he would change his views about slavery once he had seen how things were in slave countries, but ‘the only alteration I am aware of is forming a much higher estimate of the Negros character. – it is impossible to see a negro and not feel kindly towards him.’
Of all the many qualities that enable us to warm to Charles Darwin, the most warming are the sympathy and conviviality that made his relations with his family so rich and so tender. His remarks about people of African descent show that his sympathies extended to the greater human family.
Across the span of his long life, Darwin’s comments affirm the moral and sympathetic dimensions of his views on race, while striking some positive notes about intellectual capacities along the dimension of nature. Yet although Darwin’s moral revulsion against slavery never dimmed, and he remained in touch with the instinctive sympathies he experienced when he encountered black people, his personal observations of their intelligence did not prevent him from accepting a conventional view of racial hierarchy. In The Descent of Man he followed his prediction that the ‘civilised races’ would exterminate and replace the ‘savage races’ with the thought that humans would also drive the great apes to extinction. The upshot, he concluded, would be that the gap between humans and apes would be greater than ever. Not only would the remaining apes be of a lower grade, perhaps baboon level, but the surviving humans would have evolved to ‘a more civilised state, as we may hope, even than the Caucasian’ – whereas now the gap was ‘between the negro or Australian and the gorilla.’ He assumed a rank order for humankind in which negroes and Australians were lower races, closer to the apes. Darwin may have been kinder and gentler than Huxley, but when it came to predictions about the outcome of competition between Europeans and Africans, the two men were of like mind.
As Adrian Desmond and Jim Moore show in painstaking detail, Darwin had laboured hard to demonstrate that humankind is a single species, refuting a current of opinion that had cut loose from the Biblical story of Genesis to argue that the races had separate origins. (One of the books in the Beagle’s well-stocked library on Darwin’s voyage was the Dictionnaire classique d'histoire naturelle, which identified no less than 15 human species.) Yet while he insisted that the African slave was a man and a brother, his view of racial competition accepted that being a man and a brother was not enough.
Lincoln was no scientist, but there was no doubt in his mind about the inherent inferiority of Africans, and his convictions on that score determined his views about black citizenship in the United States. In a debate held in 1858 he assured his audience that ‘I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races, that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality.’
He was not given to public expressions of sympathy that might have cast his limited views of black people’s natural capacities in a softer light. For Frederick Douglass, the unbending primacy he accorded the Union and the law made him a racial partisan: ‘He was preeminently the white man’s President, entirely devoted to the welfare of white men.’ Douglass judged that Lincoln’s arguments against the extension of slavery ‘had their motive and mainspring in his patriotic devotion to the interests of his own race.’ These were white people’s economic interests, which were threatened by competition from enterprises that owned their workers instead of hiring them. White Americans, declared Douglass, were ‘the children of Abraham Lincoln. We are at best only his step-children; children by adoption, children by forces of circumstances and necessity.’
Yet Lincoln did proclaim the emancipation of the slaves in the rebel states; and he appeared to modify his views on black civic inclusion in his very last speech, heard by an audience of several hundred gathered on the White House lawn on April 11, 1865. He noted that some people thought that ‘the colored man’ should be given the vote: ‘I would myself prefer that it were now conferred on the very intelligent, and on those who serve our cause as soldiers.’ The scholar Henry Louis Gates suggests that Lincoln saw these as the ‘natural aristocrats’ of the race. While Lincoln may have regarded votes for soldiers as rights due to men who were prepared to die for the Union, his preference for the ‘very intelligent’ expresses an understanding of racial difference similar to Huxley’s. Although the average intelligence of black people was inferior to that of whites, in this view, black people at the upper end of the range were sufficiently intelligent to play a part in civic life.
Even this concession was, it is said, too much for one man standing in the crowd. On hearing Lincoln’s words, the actor John Wilkes Booth was reported to have exclaimed that this meant black citizenship (though black was not the word he used). He had been conspiring to kidnap Lincoln in pursuit of the Confederate cause, but this raised the stakes. ‘Now, by God, I will put him through,’ he declared. ‘That will be the last speech he will ever make.’ Three days later Booth carried out the death sentence he had pronounced, shooting Lincoln dead as the president watched a theatrical performance.
This account implies that Booth could not stomach the idea of any black people becoming citizens through merit, whether innate or earned. All was race, and all the black race must be excluded from civic life, which must remain a white preserve. If it is indeed true that Booth’s plot escalated from abduction to assassination because of Lincoln’s public musing on votes for blacks, the President was a martyr to the segregationist cause that endured until the civil rights reforms of the 1960s.
By that time, science had largely discarded or downgraded race as a tool for understanding the human species. The process had begun in the 1940s, partly because scientists were beginning to feel that the idea of race was no longer very useful in their research, but more importantly because the Nazis had shown that racial science was infinitely worse than useless when applied to society. Leading scientists agreed that science did not support the idea that there were significant mental differences between human populations. As time went on, this assurance became the basis for a widespread belief that science had decisively rejected the possibility of such differences.
Nevertheless, the idea persisted, nurtured in the branch of psychology devoted to measuring intelligence and its variation. It rests upon three propositions: that IQ tests provide reliable measurements of intelligence, that genetic factors are responsible for much of the variation in intelligence between individuals, and that the genetic influence on intelligence is so great that it must explain at least part of the gap between the average scores of black and white Americans. It emerged into public controversy at the end of the 1960s, and re-emerged in 1994 with the publication of Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray’s The Bell Curve. Herrnstein and Murray argued that the bell-shaped distribution of intelligence, in which most individuals cluster in the middle of the range and small numbers occupy the outer edges, implied that very few black people would be part of the ‘cognitive elite’ of professionals and leaders. They were thinking along the same lines as Lincoln: that only ‘very intelligent’ blacks were capable of helping to shape the nation, and these were few in number.
By then, responses to such arguments had assumed a familiar form. They noted how science had distanced itself from race, pointed out that environmental factors could influence test scores, and detected political motives behind the claims. A typical example, arguing that Murray was pushing an agenda that sought welfare cuts and an end to affirmative action, aired on National Public Radio in 1994. The speaker was Barack Obama, billed as a ‘civil rights lawyer and writer’.
Obama returned to the subject in 2008, in a speech that took its cue from the opening words of the US Constitution: ‘We the people, in order to form a more perfect union …’ The need now, he argued, was to create a more perfect union by building on common hopes and solving problems together. He pointed to inferior schools as a reason for the continuing gap in achievement between black and white students, and argued that the income gap between black and white people was due in part to a legacy of discrimination that had prevented black families from accumulating wealth that they could pass on to future generations. In an oratorical tour de force, Obama related the complexities of economic disadvantage to the feelings of shame that disadvantage engendered, and its corrosive effects upon family ties. He reflected upon material circumstances and what it is like to live in those circumstances. Even one prominent conservative thought the speech was ‘just plain flat out brilliant’. ‘But you know me,’ Charles Murray added. ‘Starry-eyed Obama groupie.’
The stars have since fallen from his eyes and normal relations have been restored: Murray recently compared Obama to the president of North Korea. When Obama says ‘union’, Murray’s fellow conservatives hear ‘socialism’. The house is divided and Obama’s project may not stand.
The change that Barack Obama urged Americans to believe in was based upon the proposition that all Americans are capable of contributing to the collective good, and that the changes that are necessary require the collective effort of all Americans. This is fundamentally different from the pessimistic belief that a significant fraction of the population is simply incapable of effective civic participation. Obama insists that if a constructive relationship is developed between the government and the poor, in future almost all citizens will be able to contribute to the collective effort.
His vision does not explicitly deny the existence of significant innate variation in capacities between individuals, but it does rest upon the default assumption that changing the environment will be sufficient. That assumption in turn rests upon the perception that science has little use for race and affirms human unity. There is no room for the possibility, implied in Lincoln’s preference for the ‘very intelligent’ and Murray’s bell curves, that only a minority of a particular ethnic group is capable of contributing to civic life.
The change that Obama offered as his campaign vision appears to be a a process of wide-ranging adjustment, in which fixing flaws and filling gaps, such as those in the provision of health insurance across the population as a whole, will bring about a more perfect union. It affirms that what needs to be fixed can be fixed, and assumes that the different ethnic groups that comprise the union offer no innate obstacles to progress. Both of these beliefs depend upon the understanding of the relationship between biology and society that arose from the defeat of Nazism. In this view of human life, society’s problems are problems of economics or politics or culture, not biology: they can be addressed through economics or politics or culture, and biology has nothing to say about them. Racial inequalities are understood to be entirely social inequalities, and dire suspicions envelop any claim that they have natural dimensions, other than the outward appearances by which races are identified.
Obama’s vision of change depends on the strength and conviction of these beliefs, which is revealed in the outrage that is provoked by suggestions that one race might be innately inferior to another. That outrage is often accompanied by overtones of perplexity – ‘didn’t science throw race into the dustbin of history long ago?’
The assumption of biological equality between human groups has certainly been dominant in the West for a long time. Yet Obama’s mobilization of ideas about social change, based upon these presumptions of natural group equality, throws the racial assumptions shared by Darwin and Lincoln into a new historical relief. The passage of history is illuminated more brightly than before. We should remind ourselves, though, that assumptions of racial inequality were not seriously challenged until the middle of the 20th century. Change was a very long time coming, and it came in the wake of genocide.
Change means very different things in the visions of Darwin, Lincoln and Obama. Lincoln opposed changes to the institution of slavery that he feared might weaken or break the union of states. But when the union was broken and he was leading the fight to save it from destruction, he made the Emancipation Proclamation that began the abolition of slavery, and supported the 13th Amendment which completed the process. That was his legacy. For that searingly critical eulogist Frederick Douglass, when all else was said and done, he was ‘our friend and liberator.’
Yet although Lincoln believed that whites should not own blacks, he recoiled from the prospect of equality – ‘My own feelings will not admit of this,’ he protested. When he received a delegation of black leaders at the White House, in 1862, he reiterated his belief that blacks and whites were too different to live together. ‘We have between us a broader difference than exists between almost any other two races,’ he told them. ‘Whether it is right or wrong I need not discuss, but this physical difference is a great disadvantage to us both, as I think your race suffer very greatly, many of them by living among us, while ours suffer from your presence.’
This scene certainly looks different in the light of the events that have installed in the White House an African American president, born of a mixed marriage. (Lincoln vowed to uphold the law forbidding inter-racial marriages. We can be confident about what his position on the equivalent modern issue, same-sex marriage, would be.) The idea that physical differences between races required their physical separation certainly looks archaic. But the idea that ethnic groups may be too different to live together is only too contemporary. The differences at issue now are cultural – religion, values, mores - but they are seen to be just as insurmountable as physical ones. Obama’s vision of a more perfect union defies this modern drift to segregation. To those who claim that one group cannot live with another, Obama’s retort is ‘Yes we can.’
For Charles Darwin, of course, change was the source of life’s variety. Living forms were not fixed designs but evolving responses to the conditions in which organisms found themselves. Darwin did not introduce the idea of evolution to the scientifically conscious classes, but he gave them an overwhelming reason to believe in evolutionary change: the mechanism of natural selection, which explained how such changes could take place.
Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection shines with its own light and Obama’s inaugural glow made no difference to it. But the place of Darwinian evolution in contemporary cultural life does look different in the light of Presidential endorsement. At this juncture, with evolution at the centre of struggles between religious and scientific accounts of nature, it matters that America elected an evolutionist president – not least because if the vote had gone the other way, the United States would now have a vice-president who has advocated teaching creationism in schools.
President Obama is the most powerful person in a world whose political development would have surprised Darwin and Lincoln. Darwin’s assumption of white superiority in the struggle for existence would probably not have led him to expect that the European empires would collapse and their former colonies in Africa and Asia would govern themselves. Although the parlous condition of Africa and the marginalised position of Australian aborigines would doubtless confirm his prejudices, the relations between races have proved more complicated, and much richer, than he could have imagined. Certainly neither he nor Lincoln would have imagined that the president of a United States at the height of its power would be the son of an African man.
Race is the obvious, insistent, nagging theme that connects the three figures. The other overwhelming theme is change, the breathtaking kind of change that makes the world seem a different place. But I think there is something else that encourages us to see these three refracted through each other. Obama is the professor-president and a lawyer-president. His calm, reflective and analytical engagement with the problems facing him echoes the methods of Lincoln and Darwin, and upholds the traditions in which they stood. The three men converge not in their beliefs about change, but their shared belief in reason.