Photo by Vibragiel
In the first article in this series, I asked the question How Did Darwin Get His Big Idea?. I considered a popular theory, based on Edward de Bono’s lateral thinking, as to why Darwin, unlike his learned contemporaries, was the one who devised the theory of evolution by natural selection.
According to this view, Darwin was a creative thinker of genius who looked at the facts unhampered by the blinkers of professional education and preconceived notions.
I contrasted this with Darwin’s own explanation, from a letter displayed in the wonderful Darwin Big Idea exhibition, which emphasises habitual searching (not a flash of insight), first-hand observation (giving him richer knowledge than most other scientists of the day), and the acquisition of subject knowledge (not ignoring it):
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.
Now I’m going to look at the evidence of Darwin’s early career, including the famous voyage of the Beagle, as it appeared to me when I visited the Darwin Big Idea exhibition. I’ll explain why I find Darwin’s own explanation of his creativity more convincing than that given by de Bono. I’ll also suggest what we can learn from Darwin’s example. The final article in the series will look at his later career, when he formulated his theory of evolution on his return to England.
So, to return to my original question – How Did Darwin Get His Big Idea?
Even as a young boy, Darwin was curious about the natural world, spending family holidays collecting wildlife specimens. At Cambridge he was an enthusiastic collector of beetles. His descriptions of the voyage of the Beagle are frequently radiant with enthusiasm:
The delight of experiences in such times bewilders the mind. If the eye attempts to follow the flight of a gaudy butterfly,
it is arrested by some strange tree or fruit; if watching an insect, one forgets it in the strange flower it is crawling over […]
The mind is a chaos of delight.
(Beagle voyage quote by Charles Darwin, from Annie’s Box by Randal Keynes)
As he matured, this curiosity developed into a passion that would last a lifetime.
Takeaway: Follow your heart.
According to the exhibition, many naturalists in the 18th and early 19th centuries collected animal and plant specimens and classified species in groups, but only a few of them speculated that species had evolved. One of them was Charles Darwin’s grandfather Erasmus Darwin, who wrote about the problem of evolution in his book Zoonomia.
Another was the Frenchman John Baptiste Lamarck, who formulated an influential theory of evolution. In his book Creativity: Beyond the Myth of Genius, Robert Weisberg points out that while a student at Edinburgh University, Charles Darwin became close friends with Doctor Robert Grant, a zoologist who believed in Lamarckian evolution. At Cambridge University, Darwin associated with leading scientific thinkers, many of whom were interested in questions of evolution. When the Beagle set sail, Darwin whiled away his time at sea reading Charles Lyell’s freshly published Principles of Geology, which included detailed speculations about the development of the Earth and living species.
All of which meant that – unlike many of his contemporaries – Darwin had inherited a set of burning questions about evolution and the nature of life on Earth.
Walking through the Darwin exhibition, one of the first things things I noticed about Darwin’s journals was his constant harping on the theme of evolution. He was not simply looking at the world around him with a fresh eye and an open mind, but scrutinising everything he saw through the lenses of these questions, which he had inherited from previous thinkers: Why had the species he observed taken that particular form? How did they relate to one another? What could explain the relationship between species that looked very similar, but had significant differences?
In his own words, he was ‘habitually searching for the causes and meaning of everything which occurs’.
Takeaway: Listen to the giants of the past. What questions are they asking you? Are you ready to stand on their shoulders?
Visiting the Darwin exhibition was a bit like spending time in the company of a charming but obsessive friend. We all know them – people who never shut up about football or cooking, or who reinterpret every conversation in psychological or political terms. They can be fascinating, but you sometimes wish they would change the subject. I got the impression Darwin hardly ever changed the subject. It seemed to be constantly on his mind. Even he found it wearying — while working on his theory of evolution he used to play billiards every evening, in an attempt to ‘drive the horrid species out of my head’.
The Japanese have a word for this kind of obsessive person – ‘otaku‘. It means something like ‘geek’ or ‘nerd’. A classic otaku has an encyclopaedic knowledge of things like manga comics or technology, but you can also be an otaku about any subject. We’ve seen before on the Lateral Action that obsessive behaviour is often critical to creative achievement – whether in Michelangelo’s countless drawings, Brian Wilson’s marathon recording sessions, or Stanley Kubrick’s mind bogglingly detailed research for his films.
Darwin was clearly an evolution otaku. His curiosity about the natural world combined with the questions he had inherited from past thinkers, leading to the habitual observation, questioning and thinking to which he attributed his success. His obsession manifested firstly in the meticulous observation and collection of specimens during the voyage of the Beagle, and later in the endless hours of study and reflection through which he worked out his theory. The fact that he was an otaku meant he persisted when the dabblers gave up.
Writing this, it’s just struck me that I must be a creativity otaku. I didn’t enter the Darwin exhibition with a completely open mind – I went looking for evidence of Darwin’s creative process. When I found it, I had to start scribbling in my notebook. Now, I feel compelled to share it with you. I originally only meant to write one short post, but I found the subject so interesting I couldn’t help writing three articles. Even now, I’m wondering if I have room to cram it all in. That’s what it feels like to be an otaku.
Takeaway: Give in to your creative obsessions. But don’t forget to switch off with a nice game of billiards in the evening.
Time and Money
Darwin lived at a time when education and scientific investigations were to a large extent the preserve of those who could afford it. He came from a rich family, so there was no pressing financial need for him to earn a living, and he could afford to devote himself to speculative pursuits. The position of naturalist on the HMS Beagle was unpaid – but as Darwin received an allowance from his family, he could fund it himself. How many of us could afford to take five years out to travel the world on the Beagle? More of us, probably, than in Victorian England.
So Darwin’s was a theory born of privilege. Even so, it required a sacrifice. One of the more amusing items in the exhibition, is Darwin’s list of the pros and cons of marriage. His chief concern was a ‘terrible loss of time’, which very nearly outweighed the attractions of ‘a nice wife on the sofa’. In the event he managed to accommodate marriage and a family within his working schedule – but it was evidently very much in that order, in spite of the fact that he was obviously devoted to his wife and children.
Takeaway: Get born into a rich family. Or if that’s not an option, find a job that gives you plenty of free time. Or devise a business model that earns you lots of cash for a small investment in time.
Darwin’s academic career looks undistinguished: he abandoned his medical studies at Edinburgh University, and failed to gain admission to the medical school at Cambridge. When he did go up to Cambridge, he studied divinity, with a view to becoming a clergyman, but failed to graduate. Edward de Bono seizes on this as evidence that Darwin’s ‘gifted mind’ was unsuited to the shackles of conventional education and ‘routine learning’.
But we’ve already seen that Darwin read and consulted leading thinkers about evolution. Robert Weisberg points out that he also learned ‘the scientists next observation and data collection’ while assisting one of his professors on a geological expedition. And we’ll see in the next article, that when studying at home, Darwin had an appetite for routine learning that was far greater than his fellow students, many of whom probably never opened an academic book after their graduation ceremony.
Reading through the accounts of Darwin studies in the exhibition, it seemed pretty clear to me that Darwin was not a poor student by any means – he simply wasn’t interested in becoming a doctor or a clergyman. He’d much rather spend his time collecting beetles or discussing evolution and geology with his mentors. By the time he set sail on the Beagle, he was an educated scientist with everything but the letters after his name.
Takeaway: Follow your heart (even when you’re grown up). Don’t become a doctor just because daddy thinks it’s a respectable career.
A Fantastic Voyage
On 27 December 1831, the HMS Beagle set sail from Plymouth. Its mission: to survey the coastal geography of South America. Charles Darwin joined the passengers, originally as a companion to the captain Robert Fitzroy, but also with the aim of collecting specimens for the study of geology and natural history.
The voyage of the Beagle has been by far the most important event in my life, and has determined my whole career. Everything about which I thought or read was made to bear directly on what I had seen or was likely to see; and this habit of mind was continued during the five years of the voyage. I feel sure that it was this training which has enabled me to do whatever I have done in science.
(The life and letters of Charles Darwin, 1887)
We’ve already looked at the lateral thinkers’ claim that Darwin had the same information available to him as other scientific investigators, and it was only his superior powers of creative thinking that separated him from the rest. But this passage shows that Darwin did not think so. He says that his unique experiences on the voyage of the Beagle ‘determined my whole career’.
Logically, it may be true that all of the ‘facts’ necessary to solve the problem of evolution were available to the scholars back home, even before Darwin set sail. But Darwin hadn’t just read the information in a book – he had a richer experience and understanding because he had been there, seen the species in their natural habitat, marvelled at them and collected them.
The voyage of the Beagle was the culmination of his youthful ambition, and the springboard for his mature achievement.
Takeaway: There’s no substitute for experience. You will learn more from taking action with total commitment than from just sitting and reading a whole library.
The big advantage Darwin gained from his travels was the opportunity to observe animals and plants in their natural habitats, and to compare species from different locations. But he wasn’t simply observing with a fresh eye, as the lateral thinkers suggest. He tells us that ‘Everything about which I thought or read was made to bear directly on what I have seen or was likely to see’ (my emphasis).
Darwin explicitly tells us that it was not observation alone, but the combination of observation, thinking and reading that produced results. And it didn’t happen quickly – this was a ‘habit of mind [that] was continued during the five years of the voyage’.
Takeaway: Keep switching between action and reflection. Let your theory inform your practice and vice versa.
Darwin didn’t simply observe what he saw and make notes in his notebook. He collected specimens – hundreds of them – catalogued them and sent them back to England for analysis. The quantity and quality of specimens he sent back was so remarkable that, although he had left Plymouth as a virtual unknown, he returned as something of a scientific celebrity, with leading zoologists, botanists and geologists eager to meet him and inspect his collections.
Apart from the intrinsic value of the specimens to Darwin’s theorising, they gave him an entree into elite scientific circles. While de Bono claims that Darwin had little interest in ‘routine learning’, his collections suggest otherwise. Darwin was no lofty thinker in an ivory tower – he did his own donkey work.
Takeaway: Don’t be afraid to roll your sleeves up and do the hard graft. You may get more for it than you expect.
I was surprised to learn what an inspiring writer Darwin could be. We tend to associate the appreciation and expression of beauty with artists rather than scientists. But Darwin had an acutely developed sense of the beauty of the natural world:
It creates a feeling of wonder that so much beauty should be apparently created for such little purpose.
(Charles Darwin Beagle Diary, edited by Randal Keynes)
As well as drinking in the beauty of the natural world, Darwin sought to express his theory in aesthetically pleasing terms. He described his use of an analogy, comparing nature to farmers selecting breeding stock, as ‘the most beautiful part of my theory’. And he didn’t hesitate to compare his scientific endeavours with those of the fine arts:
No poet ever felt more delighted at seeing his first poem published than I did at seeing, in Stephens’ Illustrations of
British Insects, the magic words, “captured by C Darwin, Esq.”’
(The life and letters of Charles Darwin, 1887)
If I were tempted to attribute Darwin success to a distinctive intellectual approach, I would probably focus on this finely developed sense of aesthetics. It was not so much a different way of thinking as a deeply felt sense of harmony and beauty in the forms of the natural world, which he sought to reproduce in his great theory.
Takeaway: ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty’ (John Keats).
Your Voyage of Discovery
Can you recognise yourself in any of Darwin’s creative work habits?
Are you a creative otaku?
Have you ever been on a voyage of discovery? What did you learn?
About the Author: Mark McGuinness is a poet and creative coach.