On this date 200 years ago – February 12, 1809 - two men were born whose lives would greatly impact our world. Historian David R. Contosta’s book, “Rebel Giants,” examines the parallel events in the lives of these two men which led them to fulfill their “sense of destiny.”
My friend Andrew West Griffin, editor of the Oklahoma-based Red Dirt Report, has reviewed the book, and with his permission I reprint his review here:
RDR BOOK REVIEW: 'Rebel Giants: The Revolutionary Lives of Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin,' David R. Contosta, Prometheus Books, 2008.
By Andrew W. Griffin
Red Dirt Report, editor
OKLAHOMA CITY – This past December, while visiting the St. Louis area, I took time to drive over to Springfield, Illinois, the place our 16th president Abraham Lincoln once called home.
It was there, at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, where I observed a top-notch facility demonstrate what an amazing leader and human being he was, particularly during the 1850’s and up to his assassination in 1865, at the end of the War Between the States.
Afterward, poking around the museum gift shop, I came across a 330-page book by author and historian David R. Contosta titled Rebel Giants: The Revolutionary Lives of Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin.
First of all, I had no idea that these two thinkers – one in the field of politics and the other in the field of science – were born on the same day; February 12, 1809. And as we all know, their contributions to their particular fields and to society in general are immeasurable.
And to think: this week marks the 200th anniversary – bicentennial – of their birth.
Intrigued, I picked up the book and decided I was curious enough about these two men, born on opposite sides of the Atlantic and under different circumstances, to buy it and read it.
And read it I did. I devoured this book and am the better for it.
First of all, Contosta’s approach to these two men is to address how the two men compare in their desire to promote human freedom and the ways to achieve said freedom. Both helped usher in a global paradigm shift that challenged humanity which continues to this very day. Just note Darwin’s Origin of Species and Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and Second Inaugural Address. Both, Contosta notes, “continue to inspire and provoke.”
Comparing the lives of Lincoln and Darwin actually works well. Contosta demonstrates how alike these two “latter-day sons of the Enlightenment” were - from both coming from the Whig political tradition to having religious doubt to both having hated slavery. Interestingly, both had strained relations with their fathers but were doting fathers themselves. And while Darwin and his wife got along well, Lincoln and his wife, Mary Todd, struggled throughout their marriage.
As Darwin furthered his education in England, Lincoln was getting out of the trap of being a hardscrabble farmer and made the decision to work in Illinois.
“Both Lincoln and Darwin were powerfully attracted to a sense of order and design in the world, whatever its cause,” writes Contosta. “Although Darwin’s sense of order would not ultimately sustain his belief in God, Lincoln’s sense of order in the universe would strengthen his belief in an overarching Providence.”
It is clear, from Contosta’s book, that both Lincoln and Darwin seemed to sense their destiny.
Writes Contosta: “Perhaps most importantly, they each possessed an excellent sense of pacing that allowed them to wait until the time was ripe for their ideas and leadership.”
And these leadership qualities are evident throughout their adult lives. They were not men to allow themselves to be swept up in the forces of history.
Darwin’s trip aboard the HMS Beagle is discussed in detail while the up-and-coming lawyer in Springfield is learning his trade and working the circuit.
Interestingly, despite creationists attacking Darwin for promoting the theory of evolution, two terms never appeared in Origin of Species – evolution and survival of the fittest – rather, he used the term “descent through modification.”
And for Lincoln, the idea of emancipation for the slaves and the bloody Civil War weighed heavy on the man who suffered in silence, the author notes.
Darwin continued to write, including The Descent of Man, while suffering in a different way. He had all sorts of illnesses and observed that his conclusions about human evolution would be “highly distasteful” to folks who would not like the idea that more humble creatures shared their blood. And while he had serious doubts about God’s existence, he did write in Descent that belief in God was “ennobling.”
Additionally, there is nothing Darwin writes that says humans descended from monkeys. At the time, Darwin was criticized by cartoonists, portraying Darwin’s head on the body of a monkey.
Both men would be criticized after their deaths. After Lincoln’s assassination, some would make the Christ comparison with Lincoln, suggesting that Lincoln died “as atonement” for America’s sin of slavery, which had lasted for 250 years.
In summary, Contosta makes it clearly evident that Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin were both flawed men but driven men who followed their dreams, were intellectually honest about their struggles and convictions.
Contosta keeps the reader fascinated with these two "rebel giants." It's informative and conversational. Contosta knows these men well over the bridge of time.
Rebel Giants is a truly fascinating book, a fitting homage to Lincoln and Darwin and one worth picking up, whether you are a student of history or simply curious.
Oh, and happy 200th birthday, guys.
On the 200th anniversary of his birth, the Lincoln legacy includes an African-American president.
A USA Today/Gallup Poll (LINK) released on the eve of the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth shows that only 39 percent of Americans say they “believe in the theory of evolution,” while a quarter say they do not believe in the theory, and another 36 percent don’t have an opinion either way. In my humble opinion, I believe the majority of folks don't fully understand the theory.