Lincoln and Darwin: live for one night only

Tuesday 10 March 2009

What links the 'father of evolution' with the man who is arguably one of the greatest Presidents of the United States of America? And how would these two giants of history - Charles Darwin and Abraham Lincoln - view society today?

Both men were born on the same day, 12 February 1809; both were outspoken opponents of slavery, both left a lasting legacy that influenced not just their own countries but a whole world. Religion also played an important role for both Lincoln and Darwin. Both spoke of God as First Cause, and both appealed to the Bible as a source of moral teaching. To Darwin, natural selection produced the good of adaptation but removed the need for design, but Darwin still believed that God was the ultimate lawgiver.

Lincoln and Darwin never met, of course, but sociologist Professor Steve Fuller, of the University of Warwick, draws parallels between these two giants of history to highlight such contemporary issues as religion, conflict, politics and science.

To demonstrate how these two hugely influential figures left a lasting legacy, and address issues that are still equally important in today's society, Professor Fuller has written, directed and stars in a play, which brings Lincoln and Darwin back to life to take part in a present-day talk show.

In the play, which forms part of the Economic and Social Research Council's Festival of Social Science week, Lincoln and Darwin are told about modern scientific advances, particularly in the field of genetics, and how we can now manufacture and observe evolution taking place in the lab, and can create complex organisms from scratch. How would they react to discovering that scientists have the ability to create and alter living things? What would Darwin think about his theory being used for the basis of eugenics? The play offers a unique interpretation of the views of these two protagonists as they are offered the opportunity to stay in the present-day or return to their time to rethink their original theories.

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Notes to Editors:

  1. 'Lincoln and Darwin: Live for One Night Only' is being shown at Science Oxford Live on 10 March as part of the ESRC Festival of Social Science. For more information please contact Science Oxford Live.
  2. Abraham Lincoln finished first in a ranking of the 42 former Presidents of the United States in the CNN Presidents Poll undertaken over Presidents Day weekend in February 2009. The poll was ranked by historians and Lincoln has been rated first consistently for 9 years.
  3. Abraham Lincoln was the 16th President of the United States. He successfully led the country through the American Civil War, and introduced measures that resulted in the abolition of slavery. Charles Darwin was an English naturalist who realised and demonstrated that all species of life have evolved over time from common ancestors through the process of natural selection. Despite their very different areas of work, their views and theories that came about over 100 years ago are still topical today, and they both have an important part to play in many current issues. In the play, Lincoln and Darwin discuss how their views bear (or not) on contemporary issues surrounding the nature of humanity, race, religion, conflict and other topics with which they struggled at a political and scientific level.
  4. Lincoln was an outspoken opponent against slavery in the US, and issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. Darwin was also strongly against slavery. During his voyage on The Beagle, Darwin was horrified by the brutal treatment of slaves in South America. Whilst some scientists thought that the human races were actually separate species, Darwin could view Homo Sapiens as descending from a common ancestor, and that differences in skin colour just reflected different environmental challenges. During the play, Lincoln and Darwin discuss how they view ethnicity, and the different ways of judging how people are defined by their race. 
  5. The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) is the UK's largest funding agency for research, data resources and postgraduate training relating to social and economic issues. It supports independent, high quality research which impacts on business, the public sector and the third sector. The ESRC's planned total expenditure in 2008/09 is £203 million. At any one time the ESRC supports over 4,000 researchers and postgraduate students in academic institutions and research policy institutes.
  6. The Festival of Social Science is organised by the Economic and Social Research Council, and runs from March 5 to 15, alongside National Science and Engineering Week. It celebrates some of the very best British social science research, as well as highlighting the ways in which social science makes a difference to everyday lives.