Culture Darwinism

Wikipedia’s Darwinized Lincoln was historically impossible, it turns out

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Edward Hawkins Sisson's picture

Okay, vastly unlikely.  Read on.

Attorney Edward Sisson, who seems very well-informed about the American Civil War period, responds to Wikipedia editors’ false claim (just in time for Darwin Day?) that Abraham Lincoln read and approved Darwin’s Origin of Species.

As it happens, Lincoln had read and approved of a different evolution book (by Chambers, below) that took more of a design perspective. Wikipedia later attempted a clumsy edit, leaving out the main point, that Lincoln was attracted to design, not Darwin.

The Chambers book was published in 1844 and quickly became a best-seller. It is quite reasonable that it would have been known in America in the 1850s when Lincoln was practicing law with Herndon.

Darwin’s Origin was first published in late November 1859, and (according to wikipedia) all 1,170 copies available to the public were bought-up in Britain. 3,000 more copies were printed in January 1860.

The earliest, therefore, that a copy might have gotten to Springfield Illinois, would be March or April 1860. Lincoln was already deeply immersed in the Presidential campaign effort — the Republican Convention was in mid-May 1860. The idea that Lincoln took time off from the biggest ambition of his life — winning the Presidency, in the midst of the crisis of slavery and secession — to read a hot-off-the-presses copy of Origin of Species is, frankly, ridiculous. Nor is it credible that Herndon would have taken that moment to draw Lincoln’s attention to the book, if we presume that even Herndon had a copy by this time.

When we integrate the date on which the book first came available to individuals in America who might have had a connection with Lincoln and an interest in giving it to Lincoln, with the substance of what Lincoln and those friends of his were actually doing on and after that date, it is my judgment that it is unreasonable to think that Lincoln ever read Origin of Species, and unreasonable that any of his friends would have thought it appropriate even to suggest to him that he read it. Lincoln had far more important things on his mind at that time, and so too did all of his friends and acquaintances.

In short if Lincoln was the kind of guy who did things like that, well, he just wouldn’t have been Lincoln. Sisson adds,

The first American edition was published in New York in January 1860, and reviewed in the New York Times on March 28, 1860.  You can read the NYT review on-line, on 5 pdf pages, and on page 3, under heading III, continuing to pdf pages 4 and 5, the reviewer states:

Shall we frankly declare that, after the most deliberate consideration of Mr. DARWIN’s arguments, we remain unconvinced? The book is full of a most interesting and impressive series of minor verifications; but he fails to show the points of junction between these, and no where rises to complete logical statement. … The difficulties, of course, are enormous. … He thinks, however, they are more apparent than real. We fear they are very real. To us insurmountable. … The fundamental limitation of Mr. DARWIN’s theory springs from a fact in his own mental structure. He is but a Naturalist. Of that lofty series of speculations embracing the doctrine of Homologies, Embryology and Unity of Type, he seems ignorant in any profound sense. … But it would be to fail to extract the best uses of this book, to expect a finality. Its best suggestion is to show us how far we are from the possibility of any finality. … [W]e at the same time look upon the contribution of Mr. DARWIN as a most legitimate and successful attempt to extend the domain of science …. It is certainly more in accordance with our ideas of the philosophy of causation to believe that the entire hierarchy of animate organisms are the result of the continuity of one mode of operation throughout the whole period that has elapsed since life was first introduced into our planet. It harmonizes better with our highest ideas of divine foresight, to believe that the scheme of evolution was originally made so perfect as to require no subsequent interference.

Imagine that guy having a job at the New York Times today.

Note: An earlier version of this post read “the Republican campaign was in mid-May 1860.”

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5 Replies to “Wikipedia’s Darwinized Lincoln was historically impossible, it turns out

  1. 1
    Joe says:

    I am sure Lincoln was really impressed with Darwin’s “Descent of Man”. 🙂

  2. 2
    News says:

    As I said earlier, there was no point being Lincoln if he agreed with Darwin.

  3. 3
    Joe says:

    Who needs facts when we have wikipedia?

    Wikipedia, changing history with a few keystrokes…

  4. 4
    tjguy says:

    Wikipedia, changing history with a few keystrokes…

    LOL! So true!

  5. 5
    OldArmy94 says:

    Amazing how the bottom-line evaluation of Darwinian evolution remains the same after all these years.

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