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Celebrating a pair of revolutionary minds

Charles Darwin

Charles Darwin

A retired physician with a knack for independent inquiry will be emceeing a birthday party in Concord for two 19th-century luminaries who shared more in common than just a birthday: Feb. 12, 1809.

Both Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin — the focus of the Concord Area Humanists’ birthday celebration on Wednesday — changed the world with their controversial ideas about freedom, slavery, and evolution, according to Dr. Henry Vaillant.

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“That these two great men share a birthday is quite remarkable. Each was a true revolutionary. Trying to tie these two men together is quite a challenge, but it is a fun challenge,” said Vaillant, the former president of medical staff at Emerson Hospital, who has been fascinated with Darwin’s observations on common ancestry among species since high school.

Darwin and Lincoln also represent a study in contrasts for Vaillant.

Darwin was a Cambridge-educated man of privilege who took to sea aboard the HMS Beagle as much to escape responsibility and a domineering father as for a bit of adventure. Over the next five years, he turned himself into a scientist and formulated the theory of the natural selection of species.

Lincoln, however, was born in poverty. Despite his lack of education, he made his way through law school, honed his skills — and contacts — as a circuit lawyer in Illinois, and eventually became the 16th president of the United States at the outset of the Civil War. Lincoln’s presidency ended with his assassination at the war’s close but he left an enduring legacy in the form of the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed American slaves.

“Biology was never the same after Darwin’s theory of evolution, and American politics were never the same after Lincoln, although we are still dealing with residual racism today. The fact that we have an African-American president is remarkable, given we still had slavery in just 1865,” Vaillant said.

Vaillant, a lifelong American history buff, retraced Darwin’s steps in the Galapagos Islands a few years ago with his wife, Janet. The experience was profound, he said.

“The sea there is just proteinaceous: rich with fish and everything up the food chain,” Vaillant, 77, said.

“When you see certain aspects of that sea and fish and birds and the seals all feeding away and having a fine time, it’s an indication of how rich an earth we inhabit, if we will take care of it.”

Jose Martinez can be reached at
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