13 April 2021

Lincoln and Darwin Were Born the Same Day - And Also Shared a Sense of How Transformative Small, Incremental Changes Over Time Could Be

Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin were born 12 February 1809.

Lincoln is still the only president to hold a patent, which is a delightfully appropriate thing for the president who understood the importance of capital and the innovation and progress it could fund.

Anyone not properly impressed with the effect of compound interest over time either hasn’t learned how to use a spreadsheet or is really hard to impress. Invest $5,000 at 5%. Every year add another $5,000. In 40 years (when you might retire), you will have $640,000. Keep this up for 60 years (when you might die) and you will have $1.8 million. Time turns a small amount into a large amount.

A lot of time turns a small amount into a huge amount. After 250 years the $5,000 to which you added $5,000 and 5% each year turns into $21 billion. 250 years is not relevant to a life but is relevant to a country.

Lincoln and the capitalists who were excitedly investing in big capital projects like the Erie Canal, railroads and factories realized the power of compound interest as key to creating wealth. They had the vision to see the importance of investing now to transform the future.

Darwin took this vision of compound interest to the next level.

Selection was popular among farmers raising crops and animals. I remember looking through a catalog for bull semen at my uncle’s. He used artificial insemination (AI) to turn a herd of Hereford (I think it was) into the Charolais cattle that he preferred. The catalog for the bulls whose semen he was buying had a variety of information. I locked in on two: birth weight and weight after a year. The ideal was low birth weight (fewer complications in birth) coupled with high weight at a year. AI was just the latest technique for doing what farmers had been doing for centuries: intentionally selecting for qualities in breeding.

Darwin presented the idea that nature - like a farmer - also selects. The length and width of a finch’s beak could be naturally selected based on the island they lived on. Darwin studied this difference in the Galapagos Islands and from this drew the conclusion that with enough time, small differences could account for the differences between gorillas and orangutans, or humans and bonobos. Indeed, all of life.

Today’s world is very much shaped by the realization of how much difference compound difference can make. Darwin’s insights give us insight into the rapid evolution of viruses and the intentional reengineering of genes with CRISPR. Lincoln’s notions that big shared investments lift prosperity more generally have been repeatedly proven and we enjoy longer, more prosperous lives because of them.

Cumulative, incremental change transforms reality – whether in the form of the compound interest that creates wealth or the natural selection that creates new species. The further into the future, the bigger the transformation possible. As we gain more mastery of the technology of genetic engineering that Darwin’s ideas pointed us towards, we - or perhaps our grandchildren - may even be the ones who personally experience the transformation that incremental progress over a period of 250 years can bring.

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