Monday, February 12, 2007

Happy Birthday, Darwin and Lincoln!

Happy birthday to you,
Happy birthday to you,
Happy birthday, Abe and Charlie,
Happy birthday to you!

Today is the birthday of both Charles Darwin and Abraham Lincoln. Both were born on the same day of the same year: Feb. 12, 1809. Quite a coincidence, ranking up there with Thomas Jefferson and John Adams both dying on July 4, 1826. (Actually that's a neater coincidence, being the 50th anniversary of the approval of the Declaration of Independence.)

Has anyone done a Lincoln/Darwin parallel thing, like what we used to see for Lincoln and Kennedy? You know: Abraham Lincoln was elected to Congress in 1846; John F. Kennedy in 1946. Lincoln was elected President in 1860; Kennedy in 1960. The names Lincoln and Kennedy each contain seven letters. Both were particularly concerned with civil rights. Both wives lost a child while living in the White House. Both Presidents were shot on a Friday, and both were shot in the head. Both assassins, John Wilkes Booth and Lee Harvey Oswald, were known by their three names. Both names are composed of fifteen letters. Both Presidents were assassinated by Southerners. Both were succeeded by Southerners named Johnson. And so on. (And on and on.... Some of these lists have dozens of “parallels.”)

Students sometimes ask me about that. Pretty spooky, huh? Well, No. John Allen Paulos, author of A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper, wrote that these lists of parallels are really meaningless coincidences. Paulos told how John Leavy, a computer programmer, constructed a similar list for two other assassinated presidents, William McKinley and James Garfield. “Both of these presidents were Republicans who were born and bred in Ohio. They were both Civil War veterans, and both served in the House of Representatives. Both were ardent supporters of protective tariffs and the gold standard, and both of their last names contained eight letters. After their assassinations they were replaced with their vice presidents, Theodore Roosevelt and Chester Alan Arthur, who were both from New York City, who both sported mustaches, and who both had names containing seven letters. Both presidents were slain during the first September of their respective terms by assassins, Charles Guiteau and Leon Czolgosz, who had foreign-sounding names.”

Such lists invite parody. Someone came up with the parallels between Elvis and Jesus. Jesus said “Love thy neighbor”; Elvis said “Don’t be cruel.” Jesus is the Lord’s shepherd; Elvis dated Cybill Shepherd. Jesus was part of the Trinity; Elvis’s first band was a trio. Jesus walked on water; Elvis surfed. Both were Capricorns (December 25 and January 8). Jesus was called “King of Israel”; Elvis was called “King of Rock ’n’ Roll.” Both had five letters in their names. (For some reason, these people put a lot of stock in how many letters are in a name.) Jesus lived in a state of grace in a near-eastern land; Elvis lived in Graceland in a nearly eastern state. In good taste or not, these sorts of connections (coincidences) abound.

Well, if someone can do Elvis and Jesus, why can't we do Lincoln and Darwin? You know, Darwin sailed on the Beagle, Lincoln had a beagle, that sort of thing. It's too late for this year, but let me know if you think of anything; I’ll save them and post them on Feb. 12, 2008. That will help us all get ready for the big double bicentennial the following year!