Photo: Abraham Lincoln, by Alexander Gardner, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.
John G. West Political Scientist and Cultural Critic

Charles Darwin, Abraham Lincoln and Intelligent Design

Published at Evolution News

UPDATE: “Wikipedia Invents Mythical Account of Lincoln and Darwin.”

Abraham Lincoln shares a birthday with Charles Darwin — in fact, they were born on the same day, February 12, 1809. Of late, die-hard supporters of Darwin’s theory have been trying to supplant Lincoln with Darwin. This year, three U.S. Congressmen reintroduced legislation to officially recognize Lincoln’s birthday as “Darwin Day.” Given the partisan affiliations of the congressmen (they’re all Democrats), one may be forgiven for thinking that their motives, ahem, might not be solely to honor Darwin.

Perhaps they also want to demote the memory of the first Republican President. If that is the case, they should try to be a little more creative next year. Rather than simply reintroducing the same tired Darwin Day proposal, why not suggest blasting away Lincoln’s face on Mt. Rushmore and replacing it with the smiling visage of Saint Charles?

This is not to claim that all Darwinists are snubbing Lincoln for Darwin. Indeed, others seem to be trying hard to shoehorn him in. These more inclusive Darwinists include members of the Ethical Humanist Society of Green Bay, Wisconsin, who apparently were going to discuss both Darwin and Lincoln at their annual Darwin Day confab.

I don’t know what the humanists of Green Bay actually discussed, but I do think it is a stretch to use Lincoln as a prop for Darwin Day. That’s because Lincoln’s views on evolution weren’t in sync with standard Darwinism, certainly not the version peddled by today’s Darwinian atheists like Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett.

As far as I know, Lincoln never publicly discussed the topic of evolution. What we know about his views comes from secondary sources, chiefly Lincoln’s law partner William Herndon, an admittedly controversial figure in Lincoln studies. By his own account, Herndon avidly read books and articles by evolution proponents such as Darwin and Spencer, which he “devoured with great relish.” He also tried to interest Lincoln in their writings, without much success:

I endeavored, but 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 and Weik, Herndon’s Life of Lincoln, p. 353)

However, there was one book about evolution in which Lincoln seems to have taken a definite interest. According to Herndon (Ibid., pp. 353-354), James Keyes of Springfield, Illinois gave or loaned Lincoln a copy of Robert Chambers’s book The Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation. Chambers is typically regarded as a forerunner of Darwin, and for good reason. Chambers put forward a comprehensive, if wildly speculative, account of both cosmological and biological evolution as the result of simple physical laws. According to Herndon, Chambers’s book

interested [Lincoln]… so much that he read it through. The volume was published in Edinburgh, and undertook to demonstrate the doctrine of development or evolution. The treatise interested him greatly, and he was deeply impressed with the notion of the so-called “universal law” evolution; he did not extend greatly his researches, but by continued thinking in a single channel seemed to grow into a warm advocate of the new doctrine. (Ibid., p. 353)

If Herndon is to be believed, Lincoln embraced the idea of evolution. But it was the idea of evolution proposed by Robert Chambers, not Charles Darwin. And there was a world of difference between the two.

Chambers believed that the natural laws that produced nature were merely the means of implementing the overarching and pre-ordained plans of a designer. At one point in his book, he even drew a parallel between his view and the Platonic idea that there were pre-existing “archetypes” on which the things in the visible world were ultimately based. (Vestiges, first edition, p. 204) In another section, Chambers argued that because of the regularities of structure found throughout the biological world there must have been an “original Divine conception of all the forms of being which these natural laws were only instruments in working out and realizing…lo, the whole plan of being is as symmetrical as the plan of a house, or the laying out of an old-fashioned garden! This must needs have been devised and arranged for beforehand. And what a preconception or forethought have we here!” (Ibid., pp. 231-232)

Elsewhere in his book, Chambers even endorsed and paid homage to William Paley and other early proponents of intelligent design:

It has been one of the most agreeable tasks of modern science to trace the wonderfully exact adaptations of the organization of animals to the physical circumstances amidst which they are destined to live. From the mandibles of insects to the hand of man, all is seen to be in the most harmonious relation to the things of the outward world, thus clearly proving that design presided in the creation of the whole — design again implying a designer, another word for a CREATOR. It would be tiresome to present in this place even a selection of the proofs which have been adduced on this point. The Natural Theology of Paley, and the Bridgewater Treatises, place the subject in so clear a light, that the general postulate may be taken for granted. (Ibid., p. 324)

This was far different from the version of evolution propounded by Darwin. True, when pressed in private by friendly theists like biologist Asa Gray, Darwin sometimes conceded that evolution might be a product of natural laws that were themselves designed. But, generally speaking, Darwin did not push this view in public presentations of his theory, nor was he happy when colleagues like Alfred Russel Wallace ended up embracing a purpose-driven version of evolution. As for the arguments of Paley and others who saw design in the adaptations they observed in living beings, Darwin saw his theory of evolution by natural selection as refuting their claims. Indeed, he argued that “[t]he old argument of design in nature, as given by Paley, which formerly seemed to me so conclusive, fails, now that the law of natural selection has been discovered.” (Charles Darwin, “Recollections of My Mind and Character,” p. 65) Darwin’s attack on purposeful evolution has been amplified by his most ardent followers, including contemporary biologists like Richard Dawkins, who asserts: “The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.” (Dawkins, River Out of Eden, 1995, p. 133)

In contrast with Darwin and his acolytes, Chambers tried to articulate a theory of evolution that would be seen as compatible with intelligent design. Chambers’s understanding of evolution as the use of laws to implement the plans of the designer is somewhat similar to ideas expressed by Discovery Institute Senior Fellow Michael Denton in his book Nature’s Destiny: How the Laws of Biology Reveal Purpose in the Universe, which favorably discusses Chambers. For myself, I am doubtful that simple natural laws (designed or not) are capable of producing all of the finely tuned complexity we see throughout nature. I think Stephen Meyer provides a convincing critique of this kind of front-loaded evolution in his chapter in the book God and Evolution. Regardless, evolution based on designed laws is certainly an option for consideration within the broad tent of intelligent design.

It is entirely possible that Chambers’s support for intelligent design was only so much window-dressing added to make his largely materialistic views more palatable to his readers. The fact remains that his public argument was an argument for evolution by design, not for evolution as an undirected process with no higher ends in view. And it is Chambers’s public argument that Abraham Lincoln appears to have been persuaded by. Indeed, according to James Keyes, Lincoln believed that the “order and harmony of all nature” provided convincing evidence that nature had “been created and arranged by some great thinking power”:

In my intercours with Mr Lincoln I learned that he believed in a Creator of all things, who had neither beginning nor end, who possessing all power and wisdom, established a principal, in Obediance to which, Worlds move and are upheld, and animel and vegatable life came into existance.

A reason he gave for his belief was, 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 —

Given Lincoln’s acknowledgment of the clear evidence of design in nature, not only would he be banned from expressing his views on evolution in most public schools today, but he definitely would never be invited to most Darwin Day events.

Photo source: Wikipedia.

John G. West

Senior Fellow, Managing Director, and Vice President of Discovery Institute
Dr. John G. West is Vice President of the Seattle-based Discovery Institute and Managing Director of the Institute’s Center for Science and Culture. Formerly the Chair of the Department of Political Science and Geography at Seattle Pacific University, West is an award-winning author and documentary filmmaker who has written or edited 12 books, including Darwin Day in America: How Our Politics and Culture Have Been Dehumanized in the Name of Science, The Magician’s Twin: C. S. Lewis on Science, Scientism, and Society, and Walt Disney and Live Action: The Disney Studio’s Live-Action Features of the 1950s and 60s. His documentary films include Fire-Maker, Revolutionary, The War on Humans, and (most recently) Human Zoos. West holds a PhD in Government from Claremont Graduate University, and he has been interviewed by media outlets such as CNN, Fox News, Reuters, Time magazine, The New York Times, USA Today, and The Washington Post.
Discovery Institute