What did Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin have in common besides their February 12, 1809 birthday? Both men transcended the self-centered thinking so characteristic of our kind, allowing them to see the unity of life in a new way. By self-centered, I don’t mean selfish. I mean our incredible tendency to perceive ourselves as the measure of all that is: My tribe, my religion, my nation-state, my gender, my "race", my species–all else is here to serve us.
This bias is totally built in. During my graduate student days, I worked with an industrial organizational psychologist seeking to improve personnel interviews. One problem with interviews is what psychologists call a "similar to me" bias. Someone who is similar to me on completely irrelevant characteristics–same home town, same hair style, same musical tastes, same ethnic heritage–is seen as more competent as a result. Since interviews seek genuine competence, this is a problem, and interviewers are trained to resist it. Unfortunately, the similar-to-me bias shows up in ordinary life, where we often have no idea how powerfully it is shaping who we care about or whose ideas we take seriously.
At a time when many of his compatriots saw dark skinned peoples as less than human, Darwin methodically mapped universal human emotions: surprise, disgust, anger, fear, and happiness. He defined us within a broader web of life that brought into sharp focus our human similarities in a way that old dogmas had not. Why? Because he brought a scientist’s mind to the task – a painstaking process of gathering data, obsessing over small details, brooding over what he had found, and following the data where they lead. Lincoln, the politician, looked at those universal human emotions and thought about individuals and society. He brooded, not over details of bone and sinew, but over tensions and ethics: What does our basic humanity imply about how we should live in community with each other?
The scientific mind and the mind of the ethicist/politician are a great pair. We grow best and flourish best with the two informing each other.
The work of Darwin and the work of Lincoln is ever unfinished–each represented a point of consciousness in a broader human endeavor. Even in their own day, they were not alone. Wallace independently discovered the process of natural selection. Wilberforce fought to end slavery in the British Empire. Today, scientists have established that at a genetic level "race" is a falsehood, an artifact of the human mind’s tendency to take shades of gray–or in this case brown–and break them into oversimplified categories.
And yet, even today, with a brown man in the White House, the front page of my local paper today was dominated by a story of racial violence. My generation is plagued by a self-centered tendency to spend more than we earn–to borrow against future generations who have no voice or vote. Our religions continue to be plagued with self-centered claims of exclusive salvation. The American nation state is plagued by a self-centered mission to rescue our oil from under their sand. Our citizens are plagued by a self- centered habit of asking what our country can do for us.The work of Darwin and Lincoln is yours and mine to continue. Only with a thousand points of insight and a thousand bodies living for change, will we get to the point that we can use our knowledge and power for the good of all.