Sunday, February 12, 2012

Happy Darwin Day!

Charles Darwin was born 203 years ago today. This video clip is from three years ago, on the 200th anniversary of  his birth, but I thought I'd post it now. Well, I like Rachel Maddow.

And here's Jerry A. Coyne, author of Why Evolution Is True:
203 years ago today, Charles Darwin was born in a manger in Shrewsbury, England, the son of a wealthy doctor and an heiress from the Wedgewood china firm. Although he’s most famous for On the Origin of Species—and let’s recall the full title, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life—Darwin wrote about a dozen other books, covering subjects as diverse as earthworms, orchids, climbing plants, sexual selection, and, of course, the evolution of humans and our emotions.

The man was a polymath, and did all this despite a debilitating illness whose nature is still unidentified. It didn’t hurt, though, that he was independently wealthy, for his wife Emma was also a Wedgewood heiress (she was his first cousin, a union that was and is legal in the UK but is considered incest in some American states.) ...
Darwin at 51, the year after he published The Origin
Of course Darwin wasn’t always correct (he got the mechanism of inheritance wrong, for instance): he was a man, not a god. And evolutionary theory has moved on far beyond Darwin. But he got it right where it counted, and what I see as the five parts of Darwin’s evolutionary theory, all appearing in The Origin, remain parts of modern evolutionary biology, sometimes called “neo-Darwinism”:
  • The idea of evolution itself: the transformation of populations
  • The idea that evolution was gradual rather than instantaneous, involving the replacement of types in populations through differential reproduction rather than through change of the individuals themselves
  • The idea that all species have common ancestors, however dissimilar they are
  • The idea of a branching tree of life, whereby one original species gave rise to all of life’s diversity today (this is simply the flip side of common ancestry)
  • The idea that adaptive evolution is the result of a blind, and mindless process: natural selection, which accounts for the appearance of “design” that was previously imputed to the wisdom of God.
And since this website is about atheism and science, let’s remember that natural selection was the greatest God-killing idea of all time. As Richard Dawkins has said, and rightly so, Darwin (and especially natural selection) made it intellectually respectable to be an atheist.

Of course, there was a great American who was also born on the very same day. And considering that I live in Lincoln, Nebraska - the capital of our state, named after the president (although this was apparently an attempt to sabotage the move of our capital away from Omaha) - I really shouldn't neglect him.

So how about this from the Freedom From Religion Foundation:
On this date in 1809, the 16th U.S. president, Abraham Lincoln, was born in Hardin County, Kentucky. Largely self-educated, he worked on farms, splitting those famous rails, and clerking at a store. Lincoln spent eight years in the Illinois legislature and also rode the circuit of courts for many years. He married Mary Todd; only one of their four sons lived to adulthood. While seeking the nomination for Congress, Lincoln ruefully wrote Martin M. Morris, of Petersburg, Illinois, that "There was the strangest combination of church influence against me . . . everywhere contended that no Christian ought to vote for me because I belonged to no Church, [and] was suspected of being a Deist." (March 26, 1843, Complete Works of Abraham Lincoln, Nicolay & Hay edition.) Lincoln ran against Stephen A. Douglass for U.S. Senator in 1858, losing the election--but winning a national reputation, and the Republican nomination for President, in 1860. Lincoln guided the nation during the Civil War, issuing the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, which freed slaves within the Confederacy. He won reelection in 1864. His wise plans for peace ("With malice toward none; with charity for all") were foiled by an assassin's bullet on April 14, 1865, at Ford's Theatre in Washington, D.C. Among the words inscribed at the Lincoln Memorial are Lincoln's Second Inaugural address, which, though full of conventional references to the "Almighty," astutely observes of the North and the South: "Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God's assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged."

While Lincoln punctuated his eloquent speeches with deistic references to "Divine Providence," in which he firmly believed, he was strongly rationalist and was not Christian. Among the friends who testified to that was Ward Hill Lamon in Life of Abraham Lincoln (1872), as well as William H. Herndon, his law partner of 22 years, whose book, with Jesse Weik, Herndon's Lincoln: The True Story of a Great Life (3 vol., 1889), has been largely discredited but whom historians value for preserving many Lincoln materials. Col. Lamon had known Lincoln as a friend and colleague for years. Lincoln had appointed him Marshal of the District of Columbia, and Lamon was put in charge of Lincoln's funeral train. A religious man himself, Lamon wanted the historic record to be accurate. In addition to his own and Herndon's testimony about Lincoln's remarks on religion over the years, he cites Judge David Davis, Col. James H. Matheny, John T. Stuart, Dr. C.H. Ray, William H. Hannah, James W. Keyes, Jessie W. Fell, Col. John G. Nicolay and Mrs. Mary Todd Lincoln to corroborate Lincoln's lack of conventional religiosity. Lamon wrote that "Perhaps no phrase of his character has been more persistently misrepresented and variously misunderstood than this of his religious belief." Lamon related how Lincoln wrote a "little book," probably an extended essay, to prove "First, that the Bible is not God's revelation. Second, that Jesus was not the Son of God." He took the manuscript to Samuel Hill, a shopkeeper and unbeliever, whose son considered the work "infamous." Hill reportedly snatched the book from Lincoln and threw it into the fire to protect Lincoln's political career, a story other contemporaries corroborated had been told them. As Lincoln's political ambitions advanced, he became more cautious.

"But he never told anyone that he accepted Jesus as the Christ," Lamon noted (p. 498). Lincoln's first law partner, John T. Stuart, at one time also a member of Congress, went on record: "Lincoln went further against Christian beliefs and doctrines and principles than any man I ever heard: he shocked me." (p. 488) Col. James H. Matheny, a one-time political manager, said: "I knew Lincoln as early as 1834-7; knew he was an Infidel. He and W.D. Herndon used to talk Infidelity in the Clerk's office in this city, about the years 1837-40. Lincoln attacked the Bible and the New Testament on two grounds: first, from the inherent or apparent contradictions under its lids; second, from the grounds of reason. . . Sometimes Lincoln bordered on Atheism." Jesse W. Fell, Secretary of the Illinois Republican State Central Committee in the Lincoln-Douglas campaign, told Lamon: "He was utterly incapable of insincerity, . . . I have no hesitation whatever in saying that, whilst he held many opinions in common with the great mass of Christian believers, he did not believe in what are regarded as the orthodox or evangelical views of Christianity." Pres. Lincoln's private secretary, Col. John G. Nicolay, attested to Lamon: "Mr. Lincoln did not, to my knowledge, in any way, change his religious ideas, opinions or beliefs, from the time he left Springfield till the day of his death." David Davis, who knew Lincoln for 20 years and rode with him on the court circuit, was later a U.S. Senator and Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, told Lamon: "He [Lincoln] had no faith, in the Christian sense of the term." (p. 489) His widow testified: "Mr. Lincoln had no hope, and no faith, in the usual acceptation of those words." (p. 489). D. 1865.
“Mr. Lincoln was never a member of any Church, nor did he believe in the divinity of Christ, or the inspiration of the Scriptures in the sense understood by evangelical Christians.

When a boy, he showed no sign of that piety which his many biographers ascribe to his manhood. When he went to church at all, he went to mock, and came away to mimic.

When he came to New Salem, he consorted with Freethinkers, joined with them in deriding the gospel story of Jesus, read Volney and Paine, and then wrote a deliberate and labored essay, wherein he reached conclusions similar to theirs.”

— Colonel Ward H. Lamon (a religionist and Lincoln's longtime friend), Life of Abraham Lincoln, pp. 486, 487, 157 (1872), cited by Franklin Steiner in The Religious Beliefs of Our Presidents
Compiled by Annie Laurie Gaylor
© Freedom From Religion Foundation. All rights reserved.

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