If you had an idea that was going to outrage society, would you keep it to yourself?
This question is at the heart of the Natural History Museum’s Darwin Big Idea Exhibition, currently running in London to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth. It’s a superb exhibition, well worth a visit for the sheer interest of the momentous discovery it describes, as well as the human story of Darwin’s quest for understanding.
And for the student of creativity, this exhibition is a treasure trove. When I visited it a few weeks ago, I was hoping that, in amongst the explanations of the actual theory, there might be a few clues as to how Darwin arrived at his big idea. I was wrong. Because of the way the exhibition is arranged, and the incredible array of exhibits, including Darwin’s original specimens, notebooks and even the furniture from his study, it displays his entire creative process in mesmerising detail.
This is the first of three articles in which I’ll share with you what I learned about how Darwin got his big idea. But first, I’ll consider a view of Darwin’s discovery that is popular in the literature on creativity.
The Lateral Thinking Explanation
The facts needed for the formulation of this theory had been available for some time. What eluded investigators was a way of combining these facts into a coherent theory of evolution.
(Janet Davidson and Robert Sternberg, ‘What is insght?’, Educational Horizons, Summer 1986)
Janet Davidson and Robert Sternberg lay out the problem of evolution like a giant jigsaw puzzle, over which scientists of the day pored, struggling to fit the pieces together into a meaningful pattern. Like all jigsaw puzzles, it started out as a bewildering mess – but once fully assembled, it was hard to see how it could have been put together in any other way. At least, that was the response of Thomas Huxley, Darwin’s friend and colleague, on being shown Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection:
How extremely stupid not to have thought of that.
Of course, we know that Huxley was not stupid. He was a highly educated and intelligent man, one of the leading scientists of the day. So how come Darwin managed to ‘think of that’ when Huxley could not?
For Edward de Bono, the answer to this kind of question is the type of thinking we use:
Why do some people always seem to be having new ideas while others of equal intelligence never do?
Since Aristotle, logical thinking has been exalted as the one effective way in which to use the mind. Yet the very elusiveness of new ideas indicates that they do not necessarily come about as a result of logical thought processes. Some people are aware of another sort of thinking which is most easily recognized when it leads to those simple ideas that are obvious only after they have been thought of… For the sake of convenience, the term ‘lateral thinking’ has been coined to describe this other sort of thinking; ‘vertical thinking’ is used to denote the conventional logical process.
(Edward de Bono, New Think )
According to this view, Darwin was essentially a genius, who looked at the same facts as others but because of his prodigious powers of creative thinking, he was able to ‘break the set’ of previous assumptions and combine the data into a new and coherent pattern. The fact that Darwin failed to distinguish himself at university was a distinct advantage, since it meant he was free to ‘think outside the box’ of received knowledge:
To accept the old holes and then ignore them and start again is not as easy as being unaware of them and hence free to start anywhere. Many great discoverers like Faraday had no formal education at all, and others, like Darwin or Clerk Maxwell, had insufficient to curb their originality. It is tempting to suppose that a capable mind that is unaware of the old approach has a good chance of evolving a new one.
So for de Bono, Darwin’s lack of qualifications was one of his chief qualifications as a creative thinker:
Darwin failed to get into medical school at Cambridge, and there are many other instances where a gifted mind has shown a similar lack of interest in routine learning.
De Bono’s disdain for ‘routine learning’ leads him almost to deplore Darwin’s ‘years of hard work’ on his theory:
Unfortunately new ideas are not the prerogative of those who spend a long time seeking and developing them. Charles Darwin spent more than twenty years working on his theory of evolution, and then one day he was asked to read over a paper by a young biologist called Alfred Russell Wallace. Ironically the paper contained a clear exposition of the theory of evolution by survival of the fittest. It seems that Wallace had worked out the theory in one week of delirium in the East Indies. The full development of an idea may well take years of hard work but the idea itself may arrive in a flash of insight.
In de Bono’s universe, the hare wins the race. Darwin was in danger of becoming like one of his beloved Galapagos tortoises – charming but plodding and easily overtaken. The ‘flash of insight’ trumps hard work every time.
De Bono’s ideas on lateral thinking have been hugely influential on the field of creativity. These quotations from his work are from the 1960s, but similar ideas can be traced in many more recent accounts of Darwin’s creative process.
For example, Frans Johansson describes the episode when Darwin returned to England after travelling the world on the HMS Beagle, and sent a collection of 13 birds to the eminent zoologist John Gould for analysis. Gould was perplexed by the collection – the birds were all finches, yet each was slightly different from the rest. Like most people at the time, Gould assumed that God had created a fixed number of unchanging species when He made the world, so he found it hard to decide whether they were the same species or not.
Before consulting Gould, Darwin was apparently so ignorant that he hadn’t even realised that they were finches. But Gould’s response prompted the realisation that here were 13 finches, from 13 different Galapagos Islands, all very similar but with slight differences. Could it be, Darwin wondered, that they had originally been one species and were now evolving in response to the different environments on their separate islands…?
What is remarkable … is not the insight and success that Darwin ultimately garnered, but that John Gould was unable to achieve it. He had the expertise, he was a leader in his field, and he had all the pieces of information available to him. But Gould associated everything he observed according to the rules of taxonomy, and he therefore attempted to fit what he saw in Darwin’s book collection into those rules. His insight was good and helps increase our understanding about the number of beaches in the world. Darwin’s insight, on the other hand, explained why the field of taxonomy exists in the first place. He had this flash of insight because he was able to break down his associative barriers.
(Frans Johansson, The Medici Effect)
Now I should point out that I’m a big fan of Johansson’s work. I’ve previously enthused about The Medici Effect on Lateral Action, and I’m in complete agreement with its central thesis – that multiple perspectives provide fertile ground for creative insights. But in this instance, I’m not sure I can go along with his interpretation of how Darwin arrived at his insight. Before I offer an alternative, I want to summarise the popular view, described by de Bono and Johansson, and which can be found in many other accounts:
- All the information needed to solve the problem of evolution was readily available to the scientists of Darwin’s time.
- Darwin’s relative lack of formal education was an advantage because it meant he wasn’t trapped inside the box of assumptions based on past knowledge, and could look at the problem with a fresh eye.
- Darwin’s ‘flash of insight’ was the result of special creative thinking processes – whether labelled ‘lateral thinking’ or ‘break[ing] down his associative barriers’.
But from what I saw at the exhibition, I’m not convinced that any of these three statements are true. And I’m absolutely convinced that, in spite of de Bono’s focus on the moment of insight, Darwin’s years of hard work were crucial to his success.
I’m not saying that Darwin didn’t display open-mindedness and intellectual courage in considering ideas that went against popular opinion at the time. But I don’t think he arrived at his big idea by simply letting go of the past and looking at things afresh, nor by using lateral thinking techniques. In fact, I saw a lot of evidence that he actually built on past knowledge and assumptions in order to formulate his theory.
Regular readers of Lateral Action will know that we are sceptical about the idea of ‘thinking outside the box’ and the value of creative thinking on its own. And we’re not very keen on the idea of towering geniuses who have abilities denied to the rest of us mortals. I actually think it would do Darwin a disservice to attribute his discovery purely to flashes of insight and effortless genius. As usual with the creative process, it’s more complex and interesting than that.
But if Darwin’s breakthrough didn’t come through extraordinary creative thinking processes, how did he get his big idea?
Darwin’s Own Explanation
One of the exhibits at the National History Museum is a letter from Darwin to his son, in which he gives a succinct explanation of the ‘art’ of scientific discovery – and one that has nothing to do with unusual thinking processes:
As far as I can conjecture the art consists in habitually searching for the causes and meaning of everything which occurs. This implies sharp observation and requires as much knowledge as possible of the subjects investigated.
I’ve highlighted the words that jump out of this description for me:
Darwin doesn’t speak of an isolated flash of insight, but of the habit of a lifetime’s enquiry. As we will see in the next article in this series, he didn’t look at things completely afresh, but through the lenses of a set of questions about the nature of life on Earth.
First-hand observation was key to Darwin’s success. Unlike most scientists of his day, he travelled the globe, observing animals and plants in their natural habitat. This meant that he did not have the same ‘facts’ as everyone else – unless you believe there is no difference between reading about something in a book and experiencing it for yourself.
Darwin’s own explanation flatly contradicts de Bono’s. He saw subject knowledge as an advantage, not a disadvantage, and amassed as much of it as possible. He may not have had the letters after his name, but he had done his homework.
In this brief passage, Darwin gives us a thumbnail sketch of a complex creative process, in which he alternated between questioning and observing, direct experience and studious reflection.
In my next two articles, I’ll show how the evidence of the exhibition bears out Darwin’s account and raises serious doubts about explanations of his discovery based on lateral thinking. I’ll also suggest what we can learn from Darwin’s creativity and apply to our own creative work.
About the Author: Mark McGuinness is a poet and creative coach.