Darwin and Lincoln: Explorer & Commander

darwin Trachemys wiki.jpgWhat are the chances, really, of Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin--two of the most significant, paradigm-shifting, transformative figures of the 19th century--being born on exactly the same day? Astrologists might say "quite good." On the other hand, consider these other "birth twins": Margaret Thatcher and comedian Lenny Bruce. Or, even more entertaining: Newt Gingrich and Barry Manilow.

So we probably shouldn't draw too much significance from the fact that Lincoln and Darwin shared the same birthday, 201 years ago on Friday. On the other hand, that coincidence does provide an excuse to take another look at how these two influential men went about pursuing different but equally uncertain, audacious and important endeavors.

Both Darwin and Lincoln were breaking new ground, without much of a road map to tell them exactly how to get there. And I doubt either one of them foresaw, at the beginning, exactly where their paths were going to lead them. Or the ironic fact that Darwin's seemingly placid efforts would remain a heated point of conflict long after Lincoln's battles were settled.

Lincoln Tom wiki.jpgBut as Commander-in-Chief during a civil war, Lincoln had a very clear objective: keeping the country intact and re-establishing a stable and functioning Union. The challenge was figuring out what methods to use in order to accomplish that objective. Darwin, on the other hand, was a practitioner of well-proven scientific methods. The path to his discoveries wasn't the radical or challenging part of his journey. It was figuring out what all that data meant, and having the courage to break old and accepted boundaries and conventions in favor of a radically different view of the world.

Both were trailblazers. But Darwin was an explorer. Lincoln, while possessing perhaps an equally curious mind, chose the role of a commander. And those different roles impact more than just the challenges a person faces on an uncharted journey. They also impact the ways in which we gather and process information and navigate our way through unknown waters. Because explorers and commanders have very different goals.

The explorer doesn't have a set destination in mind. The goal, after all, is to explore; to understand what a new or unknown territory contains. That kind of navigation is an open-ended, expansive process of adding more and more data to the equation. No direction or step is necessarily wrong, because it can all reveal information that might be interesting or illuminating.

The commander, on the other hand, has a very definite goal or mission in mind. The territory that lies in between may be uncharted, but every piece of information, and every navigational decision, is weighed against how likely it is to achieve the end destination. A commander's job isn't to gather as much information as possible. It's to sort through the available information and make the best possible decision about where to go next, based on that limited data.

Imagine the process as a funnel. The explorer starts at the narrow end, collecting a widening amount of data as he or she goes along. The commander starts at the wide end, winnowing down the available data to reach a clear and narrow decision point. Which is not to say the commander has narrow vision. That quick process of winnowing available data may be repeated almost constantly as the commander moves along, processing ever-changing data and factors into continuous course corrections. Likewise, the explorer doesn't necessarily wander around aimlessly. The explorer may have a starting destination in mind--it's just not set in stone, or the prime goal of the journey.

Neither method of navigation is inherently superior. They just achieve different ends. The explorer's approach is more likely to lead to greater understanding of places, issues, people or the world. The commander's approach is more likely to accomplish a set goal or task. The two approaches don't always work well together on the same team, however. If one person in a discussion is coming at the data or conversation with a commander's approach, and someone else is looking at it through an explorer's curious lens, they're likely to frustrate each other by trying to move the conversation in opposite directions.

Clearly, there's a time and place for each kind of approach. But is one path harder than the other? In the case of Darwin and Lincoln, the easy answer would be, "Yes, of course. Lincoln's task was more difficult. He was struggling to win a war and hold a nation together while Darwin was sailing around watching birds on South Pacific islands." But consider. Lincoln had many advisors, a known goal against which to measure his progress, and numerous strategies to employ. All concrete tasks. Albeit with a heavy burden of lives, freedom, and a country's future at stake, which created an emotional burden that Darwin did not carry.

But Darwin faced a truly unmarked and solitary landscape. His task involved looking at what was clearly in front of him and seeing something nobody had ever seen in it before. And seeing the right new thing nobody had seen before. So in some ways, the creative imagination Darwin had to use, and the mind-tilting exhaustion of an elusive riddle whose solution meant challenging an entire accepted worldview, may have required an equal amount of inner courage and determination as Lincoln had to bring to his more publicly daunting and tumultuous task.

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