Happy Birthday, Abe and Charlie - A Glance at Brilliance and Depression

Patient Expert

This day in 1809 witnessed the birth of both Lincoln and Darwin.

"The sight of a feather in a  peacock's  tail, whenever I gaze at it,  makes me sick" Darwin wrote.

What was going on in Darwin's mind was this: Natural selection should have favored birds unburdened by excessive ornamentation. But these showy fellows were sitting ducks (close enough) for predators. What was the adaptive advantage to that?

Then came his aha! moment. These tails were chick magnets. The trade-off for the opportunity to mate was a shorter life.

Richard Dawkins, author of "The Selfish Gene," put it this way: "The chicken is only an egg's way of making another egg."

The concept of evolutionary trade-offs has worked its way into mainstream medicine and psychiatry, and helps explain why disabling medical conditions get passed on from generation to generation.

Ronald Nesse of the University of Michigan notes, for instance, that panic and anxiety is rooted in our ancient fight-or-flight response. Better to be too anxious than dead.

The catch, though, is that what worked fine for stone age conditions may not be optimal for life in the modern world. Then again, we have our sixteenth President to consider "

"I am now the most miserable man living," the 31-year-old Lincoln confessed. "Whether I shall ever be better I can not tell; I awfully forebode I shall not; To remain as I am is impossible; I must die or be better."

According to Joshua Shenk in his 2005 "Lincoln's Melancholy," depression made both the man and the President. Shenk makes a compelling case that a lifetime of unremitting depression simultaneously turned Lincoln into a hard-headed realist and allowed him to think like a visionary. It also imbued him with a higher wisdom and deeper humanity.

"With malice toward none, with charity for all," read the words chiseled into his memorial.

Six or seven years ago, I visited the Lincoln Memorial at night. A school kid behind me commented, "He looks so sad."

Further reading:

Happy Birthday, Charles Darwin

President's Day Bipolar Special