Just in time for the week of Abraham Lincoln and and Charles Darwin’s birthday, I have discovered that Wikipedia has been circulating a bogus story about Abraham Lincoln being “deeply impressed” by Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. ‘Tain’t so.
In its entry on Lincoln and religion, Wikipedia claims:
William Herndon, Lincoln’s law partner, stated that Lincoln… had read and knew of Charles Darwin before most. Herndon says Darwin’s book “interested him greatly, and he was deeply impressed with the notion of the so-called ‘universal law’ — evolution….and he became a warm advocate of the new doctrine.”
If the person(s) who posted this account to Wikipedia had bothered to read the sources they were citing, they would see that they had mangled the facts. Herndon does indicate that he was a voracious reader of Darwin, Spencer, and a number of other writers, but he says that he “had little success in inducing Lincoln to read them. Occasionally he would snatch one up and peruse it for a little while, but he soon threw it down with the suggestion that it was entirely too heavy for an ordinary mind to digest.” (Herndon’s Life of Lincoln, p. 353) So while it is theoretically possible that Lincoln may have read a little bit of Darwin, there is no evidence that he did, and he certainly wasn’t “deeply impressed” by Darwin’s book.
According to Herndon, Lincoln did read a book about evolution that “deeply impressed” him. But that book was Robert Chambers’s The Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, not Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. As I explained in more detail in an earlier post, there was a world of difference between the two books. Most importantly, Chambers offered a teleological version of evolution that was directed by intelligent design. He even gives a shout out to William Paley and his arguments for intelligent design.
So although Lincoln (on Herndon’s account) appears to have embraced evolution, it was evolution by intelligent design. Indeed, according to the person who originally loaned Chambers’s book to Lincoln, Lincoln believed that “in view of the Order and harmony of all nature which all beheld, it would have been More miraculouis to have Come about by chance, than to have been created and arranged by some great thinking power.”
It will be interesting to see if Wikipedia’s fanciful story about Lincoln and Darwin is corrected, and if it is, whether some of Wikipedia’s notoriously anti-intelligent design editors will allow the correction to stand. If they prefer fantasy to reality, it won’t be the first time.
Image source: Wikicommons.