Review: Rebel Giants
Work under Review
February 12, 2009, was the 200th birthday of two truly remarkable men: Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin. And we have already witnessed an onslaught of celebrations, conferences, articles, and books reflecting the latest scholarship on them. In this biography of the two men, David Contosta suggests that in spite of obvious differences in their lives, they share a lot more than just their birthdays, and that his comparative approach provides more insight into their character than studying each man separately. Contosta chronicles the lives of the two men from their childhood, through their rise to prominence, Darwin in the scientific sphere and Lincoln in the political. The last two chapters provide an overview of the legacies of the two men. In addition, Contosta discusses how views of the two men have changed as a result of different waves of scholarship.
Each chapter has a particular theme, and Contosta continually switches back and forth between the two men's lives, comparing and contrasting. For readers somewhat familiar with their lives, the book covers well-known ground. Contosta has made some use of the Darwin Correspondence Project as well as Darwin's autobiography, and he does a good job of describing Darwin's family life and interweaving it with the development of his scientific ideas. Both men are often portrayed as very humble, and much is made of Darwin's continual bouts of sickness and Lincoln's long periods of depression. Yet Contosta rightly points out how ambitious both these men were. While many comparisons are made, this reader did not find them particularly illuminating. For example, both experienced lulls in their careers: Lincoln only had limited success in being elected to public office and Darwin delayed publishing his theory. "In the long run these lulls turned out to be beneficial, since the time had not yet come for either of these men to launch their main efforts" (p 255).
Contosta emphasizes that both men were not religious, doing a better job of showing the factors that led to Darwin's loss of faith. Lincoln appears to have been influenced by enlightenment thinkers, particularly Thomas Paine. Both men were also deeply opposed to slavery, yet clearly thought that the Negro was inferior. Although Darwin believed his theory showed that all races belonged to the same human family, Contosta does not show how Darwin's racism influenced the development of his theory. Darwin thought that present-day primitive races provided a window into the past, exhibiting behavior that was undoubtedly quite similar to that of ancestral primitive races. This would suggest a chain of continuity from ape-like ancestors to primitive human ancestors to present-day humans. Did Lincoln share a similar view? Even many of the most militant abolitionists also thought the Negro were inferior. In the next hundred years, findings in biology from evolution to genetics were used to promote racism, and not just by uninformed people, but scientists themselves. How did such views shape the struggle for true equality? It is not accurate just to say that non-scientists have misconstrued scientific findings. Today, two hundred years later in the United States, religion masquerading as science in the form of "intelligent design" is threatening the teaching of evolution and racism is still rampant. Contosta claims that the two men's "rebellions were challenging others ... to join them with wide-ranging applications for human equality and human rights and the interconnectedness of all living things" (p 215). Since the supposed strength of this book is its comparative approach, a deeper exploration of these issues is warranted.
In a book of this length that is targeted for a general audience, it is somewhat surprising that Contosta devotes an entire chapter to essentially a review of the secondary literature. This is useful for someone who wants to do further reading. Although Contosta cites Janet Browne's major two-volume biography of Darwin, he does not appear to have made much use of it, instead relying on older material. He provides an overview of the developments in the twentieth century that finally vindicated natural selection but also points out the challenges evolution still faced from the religious community. He presents a good synopsis of the pertinent aspects of the Scopes trial, less so for the recent case in Dover, Pennsylvania (probably because it was still going on when the book was already in production). Contosta is a historian whose specialty is American history and may have not felt qualified to comment on the Darwin scholarship. However, I was hoping that he would render his professional opinion about the different treatments of Lincoln. He claims that the early work on Lincoln was hagiographic, but he does not answer the questions later scholarship raised. Was Lincoln really a racist and Southern sympathizer? Had he been a pawn of the radical Republicans and led the country into an unnecessary war or did he save the Union and at the same time emancipate the slaves? Instead Contosta closes the chapter with a rather noncommittal statement: "Debates over what they accomplished and what those accomplishments mean for each succeeding generation seem destined to go on for as long as anyone can imagine" (p 330).
For those who are well versed in the scholarship on Lincoln and/or Darwin, there is nothing that cannot be found in earlier works. However, for readers who do not know much about these men, this is a very readable account of their lives and the many important and struggles they faced, both professionally and personally. One comes away with a good basic understanding of the controversies surrounding evolution as well as the tension between Lincoln's desire to prevent a civil war and at the same time bring an end to slavery. It is definitely a worthwhile read in this regard.
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Sherrie Lyons has a PhD in the history of science and is the author of Thomas Henry Huxley: The Evolution of a Scientist (Amherst [NY]: Prometheus Books, 1999). She teaches at the Center for Distance Learning, Empire State College