There is no doubt about the magnitude of Charles Darwin's contributions to science. There has, however, been a long-running debate about how brilliant he was. His kind of intelligence was clearly different from that of the great physicists who are deemed geniuses. Here, the nature of Darwin's intelligence is examined in the light of Darwin's actual style of working. Surprisingly, the world of literature and the field of neurobiology might supply more clues to resolving the puzzle than conventional scientific history. Those clues suggest that the apparent discrepancy between Darwin's achievements and his seemingly pedestrian way of thinking reveals nothing to Darwin's discredit but rather a too narrow and inappropriate set of criteria for “genius.” The implications of Darwin's particular creative gifts with respect to the development of scientific genius in general are briefly discussed.
Anecdotal, Historical and Critical Commentaries on Genetics
Genius: 1. An exceptional natural capacity of intellect, especially as shown in creative and original work in art, music, etc. 2. A person having such capacity.
The Random House Dictionary of the English Language (1966).
Some people called him an evil genius. Others just said he was a genius. Still, they unanimously saluted his brainpower. No other thinker shook Victorian England as deeply as Charles Darwin with his theory of evolution by natural selection. But Darwin was the most unspectacular person of all time… His personality did not seem to match the incisive brilliance other people saw in his writings.
Janet Browne (1995)
Charles Darwin is a mystery man. Was he a great scientist, really great I mean, of the calibre of Albert Einstein, that everyone accepts as having been a genius? Or was he perhaps like some of the prominent figures of molecular biology—smart and ambitious, but lucky in having been the person around when important conceptual moves and empirical discoveries were there to be made? Was he even a bit thick, a man who hit on his theory but really had no idea of what he had grasped? “Yes” answers to all of these questions can be found in the literature…
Michael Ruse (1993)
EVERY science, and every branch of the major sciences, has its outstanding figures, its emblematic heroes, people who saw much further than others, indeed, further than it was reasonable to expect any one to see at the time. Such brilliance is often accorded the epithet “genius,” and there is usually near unanimity on which individuals merit the appellation. Physics has a pantheon of geniuses: Galileo, Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein, Erwin Schroedinger, Werner Heisenberg, Paul Dirac, and Richard Feynman are just some of the names in physics that come to mind when one says “genius.” Biology, a younger science, has fewer, although Louis Pasteur, Francis Crick, R. A. Fisher, Barbara McClintock, and Joshua Lederberg would almost certainly qualify.
The case of Charles Robert Darwin, whose 200th birthday we celebrate this year, presents a major puzzle in this regard. If scientists were polled to name the outstanding biologist of all time, Darwin would probably head the list, and by a comfortable margin. This ranking would have been very different a century ago when so many of Darwin's major ideas were widely disbelieved (Bowler 1983), which illustrates that it is not enough to be perceived as brilliant to enter the “genius” sweepstakes: one must be believed to have been right as well. Isaac Newton, for example, may have brought the same brilliance to bear in his alchemical studies as in his physics, but it is for his discoveries in physics, not in alchemy, that we accord him the status of genius.
The puzzle about Darwin is that in terms of his insights—their depth, range, and importance—there does not seem to be anyone in his league, surely a mark of “genius.” Yet in his style and from what we can deduce of his mental processes, he does not fit the image of “genius” that we have inherited from physics and mathematics. He was not particularly fast in his thinking nor was he mathematically gifted. His most apparent qualities were thoroughness and doggedness, qualities that seem the antithesis of brilliance. This leads one to wonder whether Darwin, to use Francis Crick's description of Max Perutz, was actually a “plodder” (Ferry 2007), albeit an exceptionally productive and lucky one.
The nature of Darwin's intellect is certainly of historical interest, but its importance goes beyond history. It touches on the nature of scientific intelligence in general and on the sources of such intelligence. An inquiry into the special case of Darwin may ultimately help us revise our notions of the nature of and criteria for “genius.” Surprisingly, the world of writers and literary critics might provide more clues than that of historical reconstruction.
THE CASE FOR DARWIN AS GENIUS AND THE COUNTERCASE FOR DARWIN AS PLODDER
The case for Darwin as genius is straightforward. His development of the concept of natural selection and his arguments for it as the motor of evolution were brilliant. The basic idea may seem obvious now, but one must remember that it was not always that way: many eminent scientists, including even ostensible supporters, either did not truly understand the idea (e.g., T. H. Huxley) or could not believe it, and this period of misapprehension and rejection extended more than 70 years (Bowler 1983). (Indeed, the idea that natural selection has been the major player in shaping the world of living things is still unbelievable to hundreds of millions of people, mostly in various religious communities.) Furthermore, Darwin was truly first with the idea: Darwin had the basic idea 20 years prior to Alfred Russel Wallace, and his careful study during that 20-year period enabled him to assemble and write the main lines of evidence in The Origin of Species in just a little over a year. The theory of natural selection remains the central idea in biology.
Beyond natural selection, Darwin developed the idea of sexual selection (an idea that was similarly neglected and rejected for decades), produced an ingenious explanation for the origin of coral reef atolls, understood the larger implications of earthworm burrowing, explained the shape of orchid flowers (and what could be predicted from them), founded the study of the expression of emotions, and much more. Not everything he said or thought was right, of course—the failed hypothesis of “pangenesis” (Darwin 1868) is a notable example. But the fact that he was willing to look at all the difficult aspects of his theory, without flinching, and try to find solutions is in itself a sign of great intellectual courage, which is surely a component of intellectual genius.
The opposite case—the idea that Darwin was basically not much more than a diligent fact collector who sort of stumbled into his big ideas—is also strong. One particularly stellar witness for this position is Charles Darwin himself. He presented the case against himself as a genius in his autobiographical fragments (republished in Darwin 2002). He wrote these for his family, never intending them for the wider public, but they were published posthumously at the decision of his grown-up children, who felt that the public had a right to know more about their father. In his reminiscences, Darwin presents a convincing portrait of a man who was patient, thorough, and persistent but who lacked any outstanding intellectual gifts. Although he notes his better-than-average observational powers and his ability to put together a scientific argument, the overall picture is one of modesty personified. The reader can be forgiven for concluding that here was a man who had accomplished much primarily through diligence, the defining characteristic of a “plodder.” Of course, he was being deliberately modest—he did not want his family to remember him as a vainglorious character trumpeting his gifts—a self-deprecating style that characterizes other Victorian grandees, such as John Stuart Mill and Anthony Trollope, in their autobiographies (Levine 1988). After all, to downplay one's abilities, in effect inviting other people to “discover” their true magnitude, is a good strategy, even if not wholly deliberate. Yet Darwin's account of himself and his self-perceived limitations rings true: what comes through is the sense of a man who is genuinely surprised that he managed to achieve all that he had. Indeed, if we are to accept Darwin's self-portrait, we must be surprised, too. After all, there are plenty of diligent drones who work tirelessly for a lifetime and never come up with a good idea, let alone a whole raft of them. It is also certainly true that hard work is one element of “genius” and a very important one in many instances of high intellectual achievement (Gladwell 2009). Nor is this idea new: one recalls Thomas Alva Edison's remark that genius is a matter of 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. But to ascribe all such achievement to hard work is as reductive and patently false as the idea that geniuses are simply a product of their genes. It clearly does not explain why some highly diligent people produce unprecedented new insights while others simply chalk up a lot of hard work.
One can throw up one's hands and say, in effect, that the “real” Darwin is unrecoverable and that we will have to be satisfied just to make of him whatever we choose (Ruse 1993). But that conclusion is an unsatisfying post-modernistic dodge; It neither answers the question nor makes it disappear.
It would be more valuable to take a close look at Darwin's actual method of working, as evidenced in his Journal of Researches (the published record of his work aboard The Beagle), in his notebooks, and in his voluminous letters. From that material we can try to identify the elements that made his thinking unusual. The Journal of Researches is particularly valuable in this respect: as the Duke of Argyll points out in his prefatory note to the 1890 edition, “we have Darwin here before he was a Darwinian.” In other words, we have the still-young Darwin revealing his thoughts and quandaries long before he became an acknowledged Great Man or had to cope with that status. It was first published early in 1839 as the third volume of The Narrative of the Voyages of HM Ships Adventure and Beagle and then, on its own, in August 1839. (Much later, it was published and came to be known as The Voyage of the Beagle.)
JUGGLING UNCERTAINTIES: THE POWER OF “NEGATIVE CAPABILITY”
Of course, there can be no definitive answer to the question of the nature of Darwin's intellect. Even with individuals who are still alive and can talk at length about their mental states, it is often hard to tell what the reality of the situation is—as any psychotherapist will attest. But the puzzle of the nature of Darwin's thought processes is sufficiently intriguing to warrant a fresh look, concentrating on the way he worked.
There are two qualities of Darwin's mind that immediately strike one in reading the Journal of Researches or his notebooks. The first is his wonderful capacity for paying attention: borrowing the term used by the late Nobel laureate novelist Saul Bellow to describe himself, Darwin was a superb “noticer.” The second was Darwin's omnivorous curiosity about the world in all its aspects. The two were closely linked. Bellow was primarily a noticer of people and their quirks; Darwin was a superb noticer of nearly everything. Darwin could not see anything in the natural world without remarking upon its unusual features. And, no sooner had he noticed a puzzling aspect than he would pose a question about it, whether the matter under observation was an instance of human behavior in a tribal people, the disposition of rainfall and the resulting vegetation patterns on coasts and islands, a matter of insect form or behavior, the quality of the sounds in the South American jungle, the differences between mainland and island birds, the particular way in which a geological feature of a landscape came into being, or any one of countless other matters. Open to almost any page in The Journal and you will observe examples of this. His mind was abuzz with questions, all of which he was sure would ultimately have scientific answers. This degree of “noticing” and curiosity is typical of young children, but it is unusual in adults, even young adults. (Darwin was not quite 23 when he began his trip on The Beagle and was 30 when his account was first published.) These traits do not seem to have been present in such strength during his early years as a medical student either in Edinburgh (age 16–18) or in Cambridge (18–21). Although there are signs of his omnivorous curiosity in those two periods (Browne 1995), these characteristics of noticing and curiosity came to the fore only during the voyage of The Beagle. In part, he was almost certainly modeling himself on one of his heroes, Alexander von Humboldt, who also had these traits and whose great travel book Darwin took with him on the voyage. Darwin developed these traits to an extreme degree, and they became life-long features of his personality.
But he then did something even more unusual. The normal response to being puzzled about something is to say “I'll think about this later” and then, in effect, forget about it. With Darwin, one feels that he deliberately did not engage in this kind of semi-willful forgetting. He kept all the questions alive at the back of his mind, ready to be retrieved when a relevant bit of data presented itself. In his autobiography, Darwin modestly downplays the quality of his memory, but in fact it was superb, if not of the degree of perfection of the “photographic mind.”
This kind of tolerance of uncertainty, and refusal to dismiss it, is an example of what the great early 19th-century English poet John Keats, in 1816, called “Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason” (Keats 2002). In other words, it is a capacity for tolerating uncertainty and doubt, while somehow staying engaged with the matter in question. Keats was thinking about literary creativity specifically, but there is no reason to think that “negative capability” should be any less potent in scientific creativity. The connection between “negative capability” and the nature of Darwin's creative processes has, not surprisingly, been remarked upon previously (Levine 1988). In modern terms, what Darwin was doing was keeping all of the explained facts and questions in his unconscious mind, ready to be drawn upon.
Scientists today tend to be uncomfortable with the concept of the “unconscious” since it cannot yet be carefully defined in modern, i.e., neurobiological, terms. Furthermore, it has unhappy associations with that most unscientific of procedures, Freudian psychoanalysis. Nevertheless, there is increasing scientific evidence for some kind of mental processing and evaluation of which we are not aware and that hence is “below” the conscious level. It seems to operate in decision making, where the decision is registered as neurological activity before the “deciding” individual is aware of having made the choice (Libet et al. 1983; Frith et al. 1999) and even in dangerous military situations where some soldiers have a superb sense of something being not quite right in the landscape even though they cannot analyze consciously just what it is (Carey 2009). The evaluative process in all these circumstances must be complex, but it is operating underground, as it were. Despite many scientists' reservations about the validity of the concept of the unconscious, it appears to be a real phenomenon.
If we provisionally accept this, then we must accept that Darwin was conducting such unconscious evaluations on a massive and continual scale, as he sifted huge numbers of puzzling facts. This, in itself, should be regarded as a part of his “genius.” If one wants a vivid picture of his process of endlessly juggling many and often hard-to-reconcile facts, there is no better place to look than Rebecca Stott's popular account of Darwin's eight-year period of researches on the huge and diverse grouping of those odd crustaceans, the barnacles (Stott 2003). Darwin's barnacle period is often regarded with mild amusement as a sort of folly, a period that Darwin misspent when he should have been working hard at what became The Origin of Species, perhaps even as a form of displacement activity to avoid tackling the “species transmutation” question. Yet, as Stott shows, it was in his continual wrestling with the multiple developmental facets and evolutionary questions raised by the barnacles that allowed Darwin not only to solve many of the puzzles presented by these animals but also to hone his critical thinking and his whole approach to the tangled web of questions that he tackles in The Origin of Species.
It is such virtually ceaseless evaluation of hard-to-reconcile facts, along with outright gaps in knowledge of essential facts, that really distinguishes Darwin's mental activities from those of most scientists, who operate in much smaller mental arenas. The great American writer F. Scott Fitzgerald once said: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” Substitute “hundreds of puzzling facts” for “two opposed ideas” and one can see how well Darwin passes this test.
This speculation of what made Darwin's intellectual capacity so special cannot be proved, of course. Yet it appears in accord with the known facts. In addition, it may help us understand the other great mystery about Darwin: his endless illnesses. Take a reckoning of his main symptoms: multiple gut problems (in particular, those of digestion, flatulence, nausea), headaches, and exhaustion. For any one today suffering such conditions, when there is no manifest recognizable disease involved, the typical diagnosis of the cause would be “stress.” Yet, this would seem to be an inappropriate judgment: on the surface, Darwin had nothing to be stressed about. He had a wonderful wife whom he loved, children he adored, he was rich, he had no job insecurity, he had a deeply enjoyable life as a country squire, his work was wholly self-motivated, and he could set his own hours as he pleased. Not least, he had a firm and growing reputation as a scientist, which had begun even before he disembarked from The Beagle. What could possibly be a source of stress for such a fortunate man?
One possible answer is that it was the combination of all the specific scientific uncertainties that he was endlessly juggling in his mind, coupled with, from 1837 onward, a double additional uncertainty about his work: whether his initial skeletal hypothesis of “species transmutation” was true in the first place and whether he would be able to make the case for it to others in a convincing fashion. He knew that he was on the edge of solving one of the great mysteries of the natural world; he also knew that it was going to be very difficult to work out the idea in a satisfactory and convincing form in the first place. And, not least, he strongly suspected that no matter how good the argument might eventually look, it was going to be a struggle to show the world that he was right. His history of life-long illness began, apparently, about the time he had the first inkling of the idea of “species transmutation” by natural selection, shortly after he opened up his secret “transmutation” notebooks (Desmond and Moore 1991). And, for 20 years, he wrestled with all the attendant difficulties—of his own understanding, of missing evidence, of innumerable small questions, of persuading his friends that he was on to something yet not revealing too much, and of not being able to fully confide or discuss the idea with his wife (whose religious ideas were incompatible with it). To be essentially alone with all this uncertainty for two decades (before he published the idea) would be quite a psychological burden for anyone. Are gut problems, headaches, and exhaustion really all that surprising for someone grappling with all these unknowns? Darwin's most important biographers (Desmond and Moore 1991; Browne 1995) favor the stress theory, but they attribute it to overwork and Darwin's fear of the social consequences of letting his idea loose upon the world, as well as the tension over his wife's reception of his radical idea. Those fears may well have been contributory, but it is just as plausible that the main sources of anxiety were more central: for a scientist grappling with something big and highly uncertain, knowing that his worth as a scientist would ultimately be judged by his success in dealing with it, there would be huge internal stresses. Perhaps “negative capability” is not entirely cost-free, at least when the outcome of the unresolved issues is important. If so, a large indulgence in it might be bad for one's health.
It should now be apparent that the antithesis posed in the title of this article—genius or plodder?—is false. One can be earnest, diligent, and relatively slow in working things out yet, in the end, produce brilliant ideas. Darwin does not fit the template of “genius” that has been bequeathed to us from the worlds of physics and mathematics, yet the results of his work demonstrate extraordinary insight. The problem must be that our idea of “genius” is too restrictive. Physics provides a poor model for scientific inquiry in biology (Rosen 1997; Mayr 2004), and it may be equally deficient in providing a general model for great scientific creativity. Indeed, a closer look at Albert Einstein, the individual who personifies “genius,” indicates that he, too, may not fit the conventional criteria: by his own account, he was good but not brilliant in mathematics, and he was not famous for his mental quickness. His gifts revealed themselves in the profundity of his insights—rather like Darwin. And, like Darwin, a major element in his creativity was his ability to do thought experiments involving space and time.
Perhaps we should reconsider and broaden our criteria for “genius.” After all, there are different kinds of genius for different areas of endeavor: a musical genius is different from a mathematical genius. Why, therefore, should all forms of scientific genius necessarily be the same? And, perhaps, while considering this matter, we should also rethink (remembering Max Perutz as well as Darwin) the connotations of the term “plodder.”
These reflections prompt a further thought. If what made Darwin's intellect special were the qualities of high curiosity, the ability to entertain uncertainties and to keep questions open, to remember things and then to make connections, then it is easy to imagine that many people could develop these qualities. Of course, it takes a special temperament to cultivate those traits, but they should be there, as latent capabilities, in numerous individuals. Perhaps Darwin's example can inspire each of us to cultivate our own “inner Darwin.”
I thank the referees, Gillian Beer and George Levine, for helpful comments and criticisms on the originally submitted version of this article.
- Copyright © 2009 by the Genetics Society of America