It's a curiosity of history: Two men whose deeds and words greatly influenced the course of social thought were born hours apart on Feb. 12, 1809 - 200 years ago today. Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species, published in 1859, challenged millennia-old assumptions about the nature of humanity and the role of religion; a year later and a continent away, Abraham Lincoln's election triggered events that tested our young nation's survival and led to the end of slavery.
The 16th president never goes out of style; a search of "Abraham Lincoln" on Amazon.com's book listings returns more than 68,000 hits. But he has gotten even more attention than usual lately, in part because of the recent election of another tall, thin, serious fellow from Illinois who became our nation's leader at a time of grave crisis. President Barack Obama, an avid student of Lincoln's life and words, has not discouraged this comparison. Time will tell whether it is deserved, but the odds of equaling Lincoln's place in history are long indeed.
Meanwhile, people around the nation will take part in festivities today honoring the man many consider our greatest president. In Washington, dozens of events and exhibits offer windows into Lincoln's life and legacy (as well as a chance to glimpse the five-dollar Confederate note that was in his pocket the night he was assassinated).
Darwin's enthusiasts are also holding scattered celebrations throughout the world, but in this country, at least, his bicentennial is causing much less of a stir. Indeed, some believe Darwin's contribution has been somewhat overhyped; many more continue to dismiss evolution itself, the bedrock of biology, as a mere untested "theory," instead promoting a creationist view of humanity's origins.
If they were here today, which man would be more surprised at how he is regarded: Lincoln, that the fascination with him is such that he is probably the subject of more books than anyone but Jesus? Or Darwin, that 150 years after the publication of his seminal work, its essential theory - that life evolves over time through natural selection - is almost as controversial now as it was in his own time? It's as impossible to say as it is entertaining to wonder.