Two hundred years ago today, something important happened. Two things, in fact. Probably neither seemed all that significant at the time, except of course to the families of the infants Abraham, an impoverished American, and Charles, a privileged Englishman.
Some 50 years later, after both men had grown through prolonged periods of loss, searching and a seeming aimlessness that later appeared to be more like a most careful stretch of preparation, each of them proceeded to change the world.
Abraham Lincoln was elected president of the United States, just as it appeared that there might not be a United States to be the president of. It was a task that might have seemed well beyond the abilities of a backwoods lawyer whose previous political experience had amounted to some service in the Illinois Legislature and a single term in the House of Representatives.
Yet through the force of Lincoln's will and the expression of his ideas, the Union not only held, it held as a nation in which the scourge of slavery was no longer allowed.
Charles Darwin published "On The Origin of Species," a striking book that sought to do no less than revolutionize the whole notion of man's place in the cosmos. It seemed a strange goal for an establishment man who, after making a splash with a memoir of his youthful expedition as a ship's naturalist many years before, had long led the life of a quiet country squire.
Yet through the clarity of Darwin's thought and the expression of his ideas, his work not only survived the initial shock and outrage of a stunned world, it went on to be the rock upon which much of modern science is based and has thrived.
In a great many ways these two men, whose paths never crossed, who did not communicate and who were never known to have considered the accomplishments of the other in any depth, worked to invent the modern world in their own separate ways -- Lincoln is timeless, Darwin evolved. Their words and their ideas still speak to us today. It is impossible to imagine the modern world without them.
Lincoln, especially, has drawn much notice as this milestone anniversary of his birth coincides with the inauguration of America's first black president. But his words have always struck a chord; in answer to a request by a longtime reader, we reprint above an editorial cartoon by the late Pulitzer Prize-winning News cartoonist Bruce Shanks that was widely redistributed 55 years ago; it remains a timeless tribute.
Books and articles brought out to mark their common bicentennial, a striking coincidence that begs to be analyzed, have noted the similarities of the two lives. Both lost their mothers while still small children and suffered the loss of a child once they became adults. Neither had a strong relationship with his father, a factor in the roundabout path each man took through a variety of careers and studies.
Both were known to carry thoughtfulness to the extremes of brooding and depression. Yet both finally lit on the ideas and principals they would stick to and risk all to defend.
While Lincoln's ideas were political and Darwin's scientific, both embodied a profound philosophy that helped to create the world as we know it: Humanity has the capacity to look around, take stock and, through reason and logic, decide for itself what is true. Taking old ideas on faith, whether about the inevitability of slavery or the immutability of species, is beneath us.
Today may be the birthday of another child, or many children, who will, decades from now, upset yet more self-evident truths. This bicentennial of the birth of world-shapers offers hope of that -- and reason to pause and reflect.