Culture & Ethics Icon Culture & Ethics
Evolution Icon Evolution
Faith & Science Icon Faith & Science

Born on the Same Day, What if Lincoln and Darwin Met?

Joshua Youngkin

Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin, two giants of history, were both born on February 12, 1809. To commemorate their shared 200th birthday, Professor Steve Fuller wrote the play Lincoln and Darwin — One Night Only! Performed on radio in Sydney and on stage in Liverpool and Oxford in 2009, the play unfolds as a talk show hosted by two moderns, Jack and Sheila, who steal Lincoln and Darwin away from the 19th century (suspend disbelief!) in order to pepper them before a studio audience (you) with questions about science, politics, race, rights, religion and social progress, and the relation of these subjects one to another. After learning how the world has changed, the time travelers weigh in on modernity, as each finally decides whether to stay in the present or go home.
The play works as a lighthearted approach to serious, controversial matters. Listen for yourself here.
As Professor Fuller explains more fully in the first part of his recent ID the Future podcast interview with David Boze, Darwin, like Peter Singer, would see little if any ontological difference between man and animal, who on a naturalistic view share a common history and thus nature. Man, for Darwin, could only be a momentary and unforeseen bump on an evolutionary road to nowhere in particular. Thus, Fuller’s Darwin would not today accord man special rights in the political realm compared with, say, nonhuman animals, such as great apes. Conversely, Fuller’s Lincoln is and always was enthusiastic about man as a being uniquely made in the image of God, specially dignified in the world, and thus entitled to privileged status within any system of rights.
The difference, of course, is natural selection, which stands against the idea that there is discoverable purpose in the world, in life generally, or in one’s own existence. If you experience having purpose in your life, it is made up, not found.
Fuller makes clear the moral poverty of this anemic view. For the individual who takes natural selection seriously, personal decision-making can’t amount to much more than the maximization of individual pleasure and minimization or avoidance of individual pain, or some other sort of hedonic calculus. For the body politic, policies that take natural selection seriously will increasingly restrain human life and freedom in the face of, e.g., competing animal and ecological interests, since even the “line” between subject (e.g., conscious agents) and objects (e.g., rocks, trees) is arbitrary if natural selection has produced all life. That is, if natural selection is in, then purpose is out, and the line between “us” and “them” will be naturally seen as endlessly malleable, if not dissolvable at will.
The slope is not merely theoretical. It is real and slippery enough to allow descent into the crazy world of plant rights. Fuller doesn’t take us all the way there in his play, but Stanley Fish has foreseen it, and it is at best a little spooky.