Angels and Ages

Most readers of Angels and Ages will recognize Charles Darwin and Abraham Lincoln as two of the great men of the nineteenth century, a century that produced many great men. Darwin posited a theory of evolution. Lincoln, his contemporary, served as president of the United States during the Civil War and in 1862 issued the Emancipation Proclamation. Few readers, however, would have thought to compare these two men. Adam Gopnik does, however, with significant results. The comparison begins with the fact that both were born on the same day, February 12, 1809. This observation might have seemed to be a gimmick if made by another writer, but it does not in Gopnik’s hands.

Darwin grew up in the beautiful county of Shropshire in western England. He was a conventional-appearing man from a well-to-do and intellectually prominent family; his grandfathers were the biologist and poet Erasmus Darwin and the potter and liberal advocate Josiah Wedgewood. Gopnik stresses that, besides becoming well-read in biology, geology, and poetry, Darwin’s peculiar strength was to look at thingsespecially living thingswith great intensity and sensitivity. He compares Darwin’s powers of close observation to those of John Ruskin in The Stones of Venice (1851-1853).

In addition to Darwin’s powers of observation, Gopnik argues, the biologist had an ability that many good observers lack: He was able to think productively about what he saw. He concluded that the old view, that God created everything at once, was false, and he replaced it with a theory by which elementary life-forms developed over time by adapting to new circumstances. Those forms that did not adapt perished. Those that did adapt lived on. This portion of his theory Darwin called “natural selection.” Darwin’s evolutionary theory pointed to no moral or spiritual force or plan driving life’s development. God was not mentioned.

After his trip to the Galapagos to study various species, Darwin was silent for many years, perhaps thinking that the world was not ready for his revelations. Perhaps he did not want to offend his very religious wife Emma. (In the end, Emma read what he wrote and made helpful comments.) In these years and later, Darwin was not idle. He theorized that adaptation was made possible by living organs changing their functions, as when the bladders of fish become the lungs of mammals. He continued his scientific research.

Darwin performed this research, not in the Pacific, but in his own backyard, at his house just southeast of London, where he studied worms. In The Formation of Vegetable Mould, Through the Action of Worms, with Observations on Their Habits (1881), Darwin wrote: Worms have played a more important part in the history of the world than most persons would at first suppose.When we behold a wide, turf-covered expanse, we should remember that its smoothnessis mainly due to all the inequalities having been slowly leveled by worms.It may be doubted whether there are many other animals that have played so important a part in the history of the world as have these lowly organized creatures.

Darwin knew there would be great resistance to his idea. As Gopnik puts it, “There isn’t a special providence in the fall of a sparrow, but try telling that to the sparrows.”

Darwin was so great a scientist that he knew his theory was not final. It did not yet account adequately for intermediate species, as he had found no evidence of slow mutations between primitive and advanced organisms. In his writing, he tried to give conflicting theories their due by summarizing them as sympathetically as he could and by inviting discussion. He was also limited by the fact that deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) had not yet been discovered; he could not figure out how traits were inherited.

An important aspect of Gopnik’s thesis concerns prose style. Darwin and Lincoln both instinctively departed from the rather formal language of those who wrote earlier in the century, to write in less...

(The entire section is 1651 words.)