Lincoln and Darwin Were Both Born on This Date, 205 Years Ago

And they share a common linguistic gift.
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Lincoln and Darwin.

February 12 was a big day in 1809. Abraham Lincoln was born in a wild Kentucky; Charles Darwin was born in a refined Shrewsbury, Shropshire. One man held together the Union. The other developed a theory that resonates through the sciences and beyond to this day. While it's often difficult to unspool the impacts that individuals have on the world, it seems fair to say that these two minds did something consequential on this rock. 

And in a 2009 essay, writer Adam Gopnik tried to get at the shared method of their influence.

"The deepest common stuff the two men share, though," Gopnik says, "is in what they said and wrote—their mastery of a new kind of liberal language."

"Darwin's work remains probably the only book that changed science that an amateur can still sit down now and read right through," he continues. "It's so well written that we don't think of it as well written, just as Lincoln's speeches are so well made that they seem to us as obvious and natural as smooth stones on the beach."

What were their precise linguistic gifts? Gopnik again:

They particularized in everything, and their general vision rises from the details and the nuance, their big ideas from small sightings. They shared logic as a form of eloquence, argument as a style of virtue, close reasoning as a form of uplift. Each, using a kind of technical language—the fine, detailed language of naturalist science for Darwin; the tedious language of legal reasoning for the American—arrived at a new ideal of liberal speech. The way that Darwin uses insanely detailed technical arguments about the stamen of an orchid to pay off, many pages later, in a vast cosmic point about the nature of survival and change on a planetary time scale, and the way that Lincoln uses lawyerly arguments about who signed what and when among the Founders to make the case for war, if necessary, to end slavery—these things have in common their hope, their faith, in plain English, that people's minds and hearts can be altered by the slow crawl of fact as much as by the long reach of revelation. Their phrases still ring because they were struck on bells cast of solid bronze, not chimes set blowing in the breeze.

If we do celebrate February the 12th as something special, it should be for this hope: "People's minds and hearts can be altered by the slow crawl of fact as much as by the long reach of revelation."

All times have probably required some version of appealing to people's "better angels." Let this be ours. 

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer calls Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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