12 February 2014

The Origins Of Emancipation

Today I learned something interesting. 

If you live in the USA, you know that it’s Lincoln’s birthday.  Some argue he was this country’s greatest President:  He led the nation in the Civil War after several southern states seceded from the Union, and issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which outlawed (but did not end) slavery.

Until I was in high school, the anniversary of his birth was a national holiday.  Schools, banks and other institutions were closed.  The same thing happened on the 22nd, George Washington’s birthday.  In the 1970’s, the two holidays were folded into one Monday observance known as President’s Day.  However, Lincoln’s Birthday is still observed in New York State.

But I digress.  Today I learned that someone else who changed the world at least as much as Lincoln did was born on this date.  What’s more, he was born in the same year.

The 12th of February in 1809 witnessed the birth of Lincoln—and Charles Darwin.  As far as I know, the two men never met.  Darwin may have been aware of what Lincoln was doing in office, but I suspect that Lincoln was not aware of Darwin’s work.  Somehow I imagine that had “Abe” read The Origins of the Species, he would have understood its worth and necessity.

In my own uninformed opinion, Lincoln would not have been a “social Darwinist.”  The funny thing is that Darwin himself wasn’t one.  In his writings, he actually said that species, including humans, have to cooperate and even act altruistically in order to adapt and survive.  That leads me to believe that most of those who talk about “survival of the fittest” (a phrase Darwin himself never used until Herbert Spencer coined it) have never read Darwin’s classic work:  They probably learned nothing more than the comic-book summary most kids learn when they’re in junior high school. (At least, that’s when we learned it in my day.)  In my own admittedly amateur reading of Origin, it is a specie’s ability to adapt and reproduce, not its ruthlessness, that determines its survival.

Now you might wonder where this leaves LGBT people.  From my own unbiased ;-) observation, we can adapt to conditions, whether through confrontation or cooperation.  Plus, I think that we have at least our share of altruism:  We are represented disproportionately in the “helping” professions and among paid workers and volunteers for organizations and causes that promote social and economic justice.
So, I think it’s appropriate for us to celebrate this day, the anniversary of the birth of two people who made the world in which we live—and the means we have to improve our lot—possible.