When the HMS Beagle sailed into Falmouth, England on 2 October 1836, after a five-year voyage around the world, she carried a new scientific celebrity. The ship’s naturalist Charles Darwin had left Britain a virtual unknown – but the quality and quantity of specimens he had shipped back to London meant he returned with a considerable reputation.
But Darwin was not content to be a mere collector – he was determined to solve the problem of how evolution took place. For the next 20 years he devoted himself to studying the specimens he had brought back and working out his theory of evolution.
In my last article I looked at Darwin’s early career, based on what I learned at the Darwin Big Idea exhibition. Although Edward de Bono and others have attributed Darwin’s success to his powers of lateral thinking and his lack of subject knowledge, there wasn’t much evidence of this at the exhibition. Instead, there was an awful lot of evidence of hard work, dedication, study and direct experience.
Now, in the final article in this series, I’ll look at Darwin’s later career, still focused on the question with which I began this series: How Did Darwin Get His Big Idea?
Moving in Elite Circles
Darwin’s collections gave him access to the elite scientific circles of the day, of which he took full advantage. Hobnobbing with leading scientists meant he could draw on their expertise and contacts. It also gave him privileged access to information and specimens for study. For example, membership of the Zoological Society meant he was allowed to visit London Zoo, which was closed to the public until 1847. When the time came to publish his findings, Darwin’s influential connections helped ensure the book’s success.
Takeaway: Find out who the movers and shakers are in your industry. Your career will be a lot smoother if you make friends with them.
De Bono and other advocates of lateral thinking contrast Darwin’s open-mindedness with the ‘blinkered’ mindsets of scientific specialists. Yet Darwin clearly held these specialists in high regard and made full use of their expertise, inviting them to help him analyse and classify the specimens in his collections. Far from discarding their professional knowledge, he made full use of it in formulating his great theory.
Takeaway: Don’t try to do it all yourself. Find people who are smarter and more knowledgeable than you, and persuade them to help you.
Talking to All and Sundry
Darwin didn’t just talk to the academic experts. He visited working men’s pigeon clubs and asked the top pigeon breeders about the effects of selective breeding. He also consulted dog and horse breeders, including his hairdresser who turned out to be a keen amateur enthusiast. This was part of a lifelong habit of treating others with respect and affection, no matter what their social station. For instance, while studying at Edinburgh he was happy to learn taxidermy from John Edmonstone, a freed black slave – unlike many of his contemporaries, Darwin did not view other races as inferior, and often spent time in the company of this ‘very pleasant and intelligent man’.
Darwin’s open-mindedness and willingness to listen to others meant there wasn’t really any need for to him to ‘think outside the box’ or ‘break down his associative barriers’ – by simply talking to people with different backgrounds, knowledge and social status, he accumulated a rich variety of different perspectives on his problem.
Takeaway: Everyone you meet can teach you something, provided you keep your eyes and ears open.
Darwin wrote ‘my life goes on like clockwork and I am fixed on the spot where I shall end it’. He wasn’t joking. This was his typical day, spent studying at home:
Rising early – A walk in the garden before breakfast.
After breakfast – Work in his study.
9:30 am – Retiring to the drawing room to listen to letters being read to him. Note the importance of starting on his own work first, rather than being distracted by others’ demands in the form of letters.
10:30 am – More work in his study.
Midday – Another walk in the garden, ‘rain or shine’.
Afternoon – Reading and maintaining his vast correspondence.
Evening – Relaxing with a game of billiards, which ‘drove the horrid species out of my head’
Darwin’s routine was clearly devised to minimise interruptions and maximise his productivity. These working habits meant he got through an immense amount of work – he wrote 16 books and innumerable papers, not to mention countless letters. He was so wedded to the routine that if he was interrupted or somehow distracted from his work, he experienced spells of dizziness and vomiting.
For some reason, my wife seemed to find this part of the Darwin exhibition very funny. ‘He was just like you!’ she said. ‘He got up early and did his own writing before he answered his e-mail!’. A few minutes later, watching me scribbling in the notebook about the notes in Darwin’s notebooks, she laughed and said ‘Now I understand why you British are so good at discovery and invention – you don’t mind being boring!’.
Takeaway: Arrange your day around your creative priorities and rhythms. Find a tolerant partner.
Exercising Mind and Body
Looking at Darwin’s routine, it carefully alternates physical and mental activity. His walks were so important to him that he had a special path laid out in the grounds of his house. They helped break up the monotony of seated study, and had obvious health benefits. But they were also part of his working process – he called the route through his garden his ‘Thinking Path’ because, like many creators, he found that walking stimulated his thoughts.
Takeaway: Creativity is a full body sport. Keep your body fit and healthy or your imagination will go stale.
An Optimised Office
Darwin’s home office was fascinating – everything in it was arranged, in his own words, ‘for comfort and efficiency’. A large table in the centre of the room provided a focal workspace, with books and specimens within easy reach. His armchair was on wheels, so that he could scoot around the room collecting books and equipment without having to get up.
Takeaway: Design your office setup around your work. If you’re going to be sitting for long time, get the best chair you can afford.
Darwin’s notebooks were some of the most memorable exhibits in the exhibition for me. Not only did they provide the thrill of seeing the first tentative expressions of a momentous theory – such as the sketch of an evolutionary tree next to the words ‘I think’ – but when I looked at them I really felt in the presence of Darwin the man.
The notes written in fountain pen looked antiquated, Victorian, distant. But some of them were written in pencil, on what looked like A4 paper. They looked as though they’d been written last week. Like the kind of notes I scribble down myself when I’m thinking something through.
Evidently Darwin used notebooks in the same way as most other creators – to capture thoughts and work them out. As a thinking space and later on a reference library. Looking at them, I could see he wasn’t superhuman. Somehow, the notebooks seemed to bring extraordinary achievements within the grasp of the rest of us.
Takeaway: Don’t put great creators on a pedestal. Study their methods and see what you can learn from them. And always have a notebook to hand.
In a famous passage from his Autobiography, Darwin writes about the effect on his thinking of reading the political economist Thomas Malthus:
In October 1838, that is, 15 months after I had begun my systematic enquiry, I happened to read for amusement Malthus on Population, and being well-prepared to appreciate the struggle for existence which everywhere goes on from long and continued observation of the habits of animals and plants, it at once struck me that under these circumstances favourable variations would be tend to be preserved and unfavourable ones to be destroyed. The result of this would be a new species. Here, then I had at last got a theory by which to work.
This is a clear case of insight via analogy, comparing the ‘struggle for existence’ in the human population and in different plant and animal species. Edward de Bono claims analogy as a technique of lateral thinking, so this looks like the clearest evidence for lateral thinking in the Darwin story.
Now, as a poet I’m sold on the value of analogy in creativity, and I’m prepared to admit this was a significant step in Darwin’s journey – but it was just one step. Darwin himself tells us that he was ‘well-prepared’ to receive the analogy, given his habitual focus on the problem of evolution. In other words, the analogy wouldn’t have had much effect if he hadn’t spent so long engaged in’routine learning’. Robert Weisberg argues that ‘Darwin’s reading of Malthus, rather than producing a great leap of insight, was simply the final step in a long process’.
Takeaway: Focus on your goals, but take time off to read books and watch movies that have nothing to do with your work. You may make some surprising discoveries.
A Flash of Insight
You knew this was coming didn’t you? Darwin gave a famous description of the moment he solved the problem of evolution:
I can remember the very spot in the road, whilst in my carriage, when to my joy the solution occurred to me; and this was long after I had come to Down. The solution, as I believe, is that the modified offspring of all dominant and increasing forms tend to become adapted to many and highly diversified places in the economy of nature.
So does this mean that de Bono is right, that the key to creativity lies in the flash of insight rather than dogged hard work? Not if you ask me. I’ve written before that inspiration tends to strike after intensive work, not before. It must have been a wonderful moment for Darwin when the solution came to him as if from nowhere – but it was probably more satisfying because he knew that it didn’t come from nowhere. It was the final piece of the jigsaw, the culmination of years of work on the problem.
Takeaway: ‘In the fields of observation, chance favors the prepared mind’ – Louis Pasteur.
One of the problems with the concept of Darwin as a towering genius is the fact that he wasn’t the only person to formulate a theory of evolution by natural selection. In 1858 he received an essay from Alfred Russel Wallace, which outlined a practically identical theory of evolution to Darwin’s own.
Darwin had delayed publication of his theory, partly because he was still working out the details, and partly because he was worried about the reaction from Victorian society to a theory that challenged received ideas about faith and progress. Announcing his theory, he said, would be like confessing to murder. But when he saw one of these essay, he realised he could delay no longer, or risk being pipped at the post by Wallace.
At this point Darwin’s contacts and standing within the scientific community came to his aid. In what the exhibition describes as ‘a burst of energetic networking’, Joseph Hooker and Charles Lyell negotiated a compromise, resulting in both Darwin and Wallace presenting papers to the Linnean Society in London, before Darwin went on to publish his book On the Origin of Species.
Darwin later wrote to Wallace:
I hope it is a satisfaction to you to reflect – and very few things in my life have been more satisfactory to me – that we have never felt any jealousy towards each other, though in one sense rivals.
Takeaway: Build your network before you need it. Don’t be ashamed of your ambition – but don’t walk over other people to achieve it.
So Darwin wasn’t the only person to devise a theory of evolution through natural selection. He wasn’t even the first:
in a little-known book published in 1831, Patrick Matthew, a Scottish botanical writer, presented a theory of evolution by natural selection that was the same as Darwin’s and Wallace’s, so much so that Darwin acknowledged in a letter to Wallace that ‘he gives most clearly but very briefly … our view of natural selection. It is the most complete case of anticipation.’ Matthew’s work went unnoticed partly because of his obscure position and partly because it appeared at the end of a book on trees.
(Robert Weisberg, Creativity: Beyond the Myth of Genius)
Darwin didn’t make this mistake. His book announced his discovery with a killer headline:
On the Origin of Species By Means of Natural Selection
And Darwin’s position was anything but obscure. Through his eminent scientific contacts, he made sure that leading thinkers in the field were aware of the book and primed to promote and defend it. Thomas Huxley famously acted as ‘Darwin’s bulldog’, arguing for Darwin’s theory and defending it against all challengers.
The result? Unlike Patrick Matthew’s book, The Origin of Species sold out on its first day of publication, caused a sensation in Victorian society and sent out intellectual shockwaves that have yet to subside to this day.
Takeaway: Marketing is crucial to creative success – whether you like it or not.
I began this series by looking at a popular view of Charles Darwin as an outstanding lateral thinker – someone who looked at the same evidence as other scientists, but drew different conclusions. According to Edward de Bono, he was able to do this because his education was limited, meaning he wasn’t blinkered by assumptions from received knowledge.
De Bono describes Darwin as a ‘gifted mind’ with a ‘lack of interest in routine learning’. The world of lateral thinking is full of leaps of insight and flashes of inspiration – so it’s easy to see how this has become a popular view, not just of Darwin but of creativity in general.
But the evidence of the Darwin Big Idea Exhibition contradicts this image. Far from neglecting ‘routine learning’, Darwin had an enormous capacity for it – first in his painstaking field work, collecting specimens from across the globe, then later over 20 years of sustained study on his return to England. He saw knowledge as essential to creativity, not its enemy.
Apart from the great adventure of the voyage of the Beagle, Darwin lived a pretty boring life, governed by a ‘clockwork’ routine of daily study. He did experience a moment of insight, but this was the tip of an enormous iceberg of knowledge and hard work.
Some people might be disillusioned by the story I’ve just told, but I actually find it more inspiring than the original version. Here’s why:
Darwin wasn’t a cleverdick who sauntered into the room and effortlessly pointed out what others were too stupid to see. He was passionate about the natural world and scientific discovery. His passion led him to travel the world in search of evidence, and to toil away for years on his return. When inspiration struck on that carriage ride, it wasn’t a bolt from the blue – it was the reward for a lifetime’s dedication.
Darwin didn’t get his big idea because he was cleverer than anyone else or because he used special techniques of creative thinking. He got his big idea – and got it noticed – because he cared more about it than anyone else.
What Do You Make of Darwin’s Story?
What do you make of Darwin’s work habits?
Do you think being boring gives you a creative advantage?
Which version of Darwin do you prefer – the creative thinker of genius, or the dedicated worker?
The images in this article are all from the Darwin press pack from The National History Museum, London
About the Author: Mark McGuinness is a poet and creative coach.