Thursday, 12 February 2009

The Birthday Boys Abe and Chas: Men and Ideas That Made a Difference

What comment would you like to make on the occasion of Charles Darwin’s birthday? Le Devoir’s Hélène Buzetti asked many members of Parliament that question over the last few days and the results are very interesting. They range from “Happy Birthday, Charles!” from Stockwell Day, currently minister of international trade but an avowed to Creationist, to some who see no contradiction between Creationism and Evolution (Finance mimnister Jim Flaherty) and others who celebrate Darwin’s great contribution to scientific thought and method (Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff and Conservative Whip Gordon O’Connor.)

The most amusing response Buzetti cites comes from my own favourite MP, Thomas Mulcair. Darwin was one of the greatest thinkers of the last 200 years, Mulcair is quoted as saying. But, he adds that faced with Conservative back-benchers every day in the House, he wonders if some humans have evolved from apes more quickly than others. (My free translation.)

No one asked Canadian parliamentarians what they think about today’s other birthday boy, Abraham Lincoln, but we know very well what the current administration in Washington thinks. To be sure, Lincoln made some retrograde remarks about race in his time, but the fact remains that he was commander in chief during the Civil War and he freed the slaves. He also appealed successfully to the better side of human nature. Let us hope that Barack Obama succeeds in doing this as well.

Here are two reading suggestions for today, by the way.

The Voyage of the Beagle by Darwin, the journals of the young botanist (and fervent abolitionist) written during the around-the-world voyage that formed his ideas. A delightful look at the evolution (yes, that word!) if a man’s thinking, great for reading when one is travelling and discovering too.

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. The story of four girls growing up in Boston during the Civil War. Much moral talk, but characters that are convincing. It was the first chapter book I read, and I think it marked me more than any other reading.

And finally, a non-scientific note: how strange that these two great men were born the same day in the same year! I’m sure astrologers have had a field day with that coincidence, but perhaps a convincing explanation for it can be found in the luck of being in the right place at the right time that Malcolm Gladwell writes about in The Outliers. More about that book later.


lagatta à montréal said...

For those tolerant of the moral language found in such works of the day as Little Women and Uncle Tom's Cabin, and in the retellings of Slave Narratives, a book that is well worth a read is by a Canadian woman: Sarah Emma Edmonds from New Brunswick who took on many disguises behind Confederate lines.

I read Nurse and Spy in the Union Army years ago in the august Osler Library at the McGill Faculty of Medicine; indeed, some of the language about Black people (whom she was risking her life to free) and Irish immigrants would not be acceptable today, but must be seen in its historical context.

Books over 100 years old and other rare books could not be taken out of the Osler, but it was a thrill to read them there. Now it is also available via internet archive: and in reprint.

Happy 200th, Charles and Abe!

Mary Soderstrom said...

Darwin's writings are also all on the net. The upside of our current age.

But taking a paperback of The Voyage of the Beagle on a road trip is still the best way to read it, I think.