THE BLOG

Was Darwin Really a Genius?

06/11/2015 05:25 pm ET | Updated Jun 11, 2016

You could never touch Mozart's musical genius, even if you stuck with your piano lessons for ten thousand years. Michelangelo's artistic talent would be eternally beyond your grasp. It is an impossibility that you could ever have written anything like Newton's Principia. OK - so even if you put all your life into it, you could not come close to Mozart, Michelangelo, or Newton's achievements. But what about Darwin?

Did Darwin really have any extraordinary and rare talents that are definitively beyond the limits of your own potential? Is it within the realm of the possible, with your innate intelligence and abilities, that if you had Darwin's experiences, interests, and background that you might have come up with and provided evidence for evolution and natural selection?

In order to get some further insight into the question, at least on the surface, I recently took a trip to South America's Galapagos Islands, Amazon rainforest, Ecuadorian cloud forests, and Andes Mountains. I went about, as sincerely as I could, to try to retrace the logic of Darwin's observations and thinking process in South America during his Beagle journey between 1831 and 1836, while trying all the while to pretend I did not know anything about evolution.

Of course, hundreds of cultural and historical contingencies made my attempt problematic. I travelled for 2 1/2 weeks, not 5 years. I had a beautiful and exciting woman as my primary travel companion, whereas Darwin had to look at the temperamental and austere religious fundamentalist Vice Admiral Robert FitzRoy.

One very crucial observation to the development of Darwin's ideas was noticing that the plants and animals of Galapagos were similar to species on the mainland of South America. In contrast the plants and animals of the Cape Verde Islands resembled those of its neighboring continent, Africa. He later argued that the islands were colonized by plants and animals from their mainland and that descendants then evolved into new species adapted to new environments.

So could I have noticed the difference in species between Cape Verde and Galapagos? Yes. Would I have noted with Darwin's clarity the similarity to their mainland flora, fauna, and fossils? Probably not. But even if you had the powers of collecting and observation that allowed you make these connections, would you bother to brainstorm an entirely new explanatory theory? Or would you more likely just try to fit those observations into the existing paradigm, in this case that independent species were fixed entities created by divine "centers of creation"?

While in the Galapagos, Darwin noticed that the appearance, song, and habits of the mockingbird (not the finch) seemed closely allied to the Chilean mockingbird. Darwin also noted that the mockingbirds on Floreana Island were different from the mockingbirds he collected on San Cristobal Island. Of all the animals, it was the mockingbird that Darwin noticed existed as distinct species on different Galapagos Islands and provoked his early ideas of diversification from a common ancestor through geographical isolation. I went purposefully looking for mockingbirds, and could barely keep them in the sight of my binoculars long enough to make any detailed observations. Granted, I didn't capture or shoot them for further study.

In addition, Darwin studied plant distribution, fossil distribution, and noted that the behavioral of the Galapagos hawk was similar to that of the mainland hawk. But another major factor that was central to Darwin's ideas - one which may come as a surprise - was that most of Darwin's notes and most of his thoughts during the Beagle years concern geology, not biology. In total he wrote four times more geology notes than zoology. Even in the Galapagos, with its startling array of unusual and primitive looking creatures, Darwin wrote 100 pages of notes on the geology of the Galapagos compared to 37 pages of notes on its animals. His talent as a geologist helped lead him to his thinking about the evolution and distribution of species.

Years later, back in England, Darwin read Thomas Malthus's work on principles of population. Applying these principles with its elements of struggle and competition to Darwin's observations of the natural world, Darwin wrote "it at once struck me that under these circumstances favourable variations would tend to be preserved, and unfavourable ones to be destroyed. The result of this would be the formation of new species."

How obvious this may seem to scientific literate folk now, but how difficult to put all together then, especially when such ideas ran counter to established religious, cultural, and scientific orthodoxy. Earlier in 1844, when he wrote that he was becoming convinced that species are not immutable, Darwin characterized the expression of these thoughts as "like confessing a murder."

But does this accumulated thinking, evidence-building, and synthesis of ideas actually constitute unique rare genius?

The magnitude of Darwin's achievement is beyond question. If genius is defined only by influence, rather than by extraordinary unique creative ability, then there is no debate. Philosopher Daniel Dennett called evolution by natural selection "the single best idea anyone has ever had." But the influence and magnitude of the discovery is not the question here - the question is whether Darwin really had rare "out of reach" genius and natural ability.

Darwin did not stand out for his intelligence as a child or teen. By his own admission, even as an adult Darwin had "no great quickness of apprehension" and "my power to follow a long and purely abstract train of thought is very limited."

Darwin's own perspective on his best mental attribute was "I think that I am superior to the common run of men in noticing things which easily escape attention."

Charles Darwin's son Francis wrote of his father

"... no fact, however small, could avoid releasing a stream of theory... In this way it naturally happened that many untenable theories occurred to him; but fortunately his richness of imagination was equaled by his power of judging and condemning the thoughts that occurred to him...he was willing to test what would seem to most people not at all worth testing. These rather wild trials he called 'fool's experiments,' and enjoyed extremely."

Here are the kinds of experiments Darwin did. In Peru, he observed a Vinchuca bug suck blood from a finger (not his own) until the bug was full. Darwin then kept the bug to see how long it could last between meals -- four months. That is the kind of experiment a 7-year-old child could do - but how many of us bother in adulthood? Darwin was the kind of person who bothered. And it was not irrelevant knowledge. The duration that bugs (or seeds, or birds) can survive provides evidence for whether they could have remained viable during a voyage from mainland South America to the Galapagos, some 600 miles away.

He floated seeds in tanks of salt water for long periods of time, after which he tried to germinate them. He extracted seeds from the feces of various zoo animals and recorded which ones successfully grew into seedlings. He cross pollinated flowers, bred pigeons, floated snails in tubs of salt water, and much more, all to gather facts with which to create and support ideas. After his Beagle journey, most his experiments were done in the vicinity of his back yard - no fancy labs or equipment needed.

The issue of Alfred Wallace's accomplishments and how that relates to the question of Darwin's genius provides ground for debate. Wallace's independent contemporaneous writings on natural selection may be the best argument against the claim for Darwin's rare genius. Alternatively, one could argue that both Darwin and Wallace were rare geniuses. But there is no doubt that even if Wallace's ideas about natural selection deserve equal credit, it was Darwin's years of methodical evidence gathering, experiment, and argument that made the impact. In addition, Darwin also developed important theories of sexual selection, mechanisms for speciation, and human evolution. In Wallace's own words to Darwin, "You had worked it out in details I had never thought of, years before I had a ray of light on the subject."

OK, some conclusions are starting to form. Darwin's powers of observation were exceptional and his willingness to entertain new theories to explain facts is extremely impressive.

But - and this is one of my surprising conclusions - Darwin possessed no specific individual skills or abilities that you could not find others possessing at your local university or among other talented individuals.

True as that may be ... here is a list I came up with and compiled of some of Darwin's personal qualities and talents that I learned on my trip played a significant role in the formation of his most noteworthy achievements:

• Darwin was interested in a large number of diverse subjects, and had the ability to synthesize broad areas of knowledge. It was his interest and talent in multiple different fields -geology, botany, zoology, paleontology, natural history, breeding, population studies, etc. - that helped allow him to make connections and put the idea of evolution together. That cross-subject passion and expertise is often absent in these days where specialization is lauded. But with ideas, as in nature, cross-pollination is an adaptive feature.
• He had a habit and ability for coming up with big-picture hypotheses. By his own words, Darwin's mind became "a kind of machine for grinding general laws out of large collections of facts."
• He demonstrated extraordinary patience, tenacity, and a willingness to build solid evidence before making a case. He was methodical, and had a rigorous approach to study, experimentation, and evidence. For goodness sake, this is the man who wrote entire books on earthworms and barnacles. He did not publish Origin of Species until about 20 years after his ideas about evolution began to form.
• Darwin was ambitious - as a young man, Darwin had dreams of discovering something new for science, and for earning the respect of his professional colleagues.
• He had an inborn driving curiosity, particularly about the natural world.
• Darwin had the kind of mind that can be powerfully focused on extreme details, such as subtle observation comparing related organisms, but at the same time thinks about the natural world in terms of the largest possible backdrop, such as change over geological and biological deep time.
• Not all people are constitutionally open to unorthodox thinking. Regardless of religious and cultural pressures, Darwin was able to think outside of the box and was open to the unorthodox. Not for the sake of being different, but, when good scientific evidence supported an idea, for the sake of learning the truth about our world.
• He was open-minded enough and had the personal disposition to accept change - change in scientific paradigms, change in social and religious thought, change of geological forms over time, and change in species and organisms through time.
• Determination and bravery - Darwin confronted a miserable and sometimes dangerous sea voyage, which included frequent bouts of sea sickness, for nearly 5 years. More importantly, he was later bold enough to incur the fury of public opinion with his controversial world-changing scientific ideas.
• Passion and enthusiasm. Some of Darwin's prose, particularly from his early years, is lyrical, reminiscent of Humboldt's writing and evocative of Church's tropical landscapes. I must have read Darwin's "tangled bank" paragraph hundreds of times, but now having seen first-hand the tangled banks of the Amazon River tributaries, I feel with more immediacy the descriptive power of his phrasing and emotion.
• He was not just an idea man. Darwin also had the technical tools of the trade - organization, collection, preserving, classifying.
• While Darwin was willing to come up with and consider all kind of wild explanations, he was also willing to discard his own hypotheses if the evidence was not supportive. Evidence and objectivity were his charioteers, not ego, ideology, or wishful thinking.

What is interesting about this list is this - pick any single bullet above, and you probably know someone who fits that description, more or less. Think of particularly talented or intelligent people you know, and probably several of the above characteristics apply. But the whole package? Every one of these notable characteristics collected together in the same individual? The cluster of all these positive talents put together, the synergistic sum that is greater than the whole of its parts is an extraordinary combination that does constitute a rare and exceptional individual capable of achieving great accomplishments.

And so here is my conclusion. Darwin possessed no single talent of creative genius that cannot be found commonly in others. Therefore many people could compete with Darwin on specific, isolated abilities. But the collection of his talents and character put together in one individual is extraordinary - the combined sum of all that made Darwin Darwin. That, along with the level of his accomplishments, qualifies him as an exceptional genius, on par with geniuses with off-the-charts specific talents. And if you, very intelligent reader, were on the Beagle, I do not believe you would have achieved Darwin's level of ideas and evidence. For these reasons, I would argue that Charles Darwin was a rare genius.

Maybe there is still a part of you that feels, "OK, Darwin was great and all, but I still think it is in the realm of possibility, if I had the kind of background, interests, and experiences that Darwin had, that I might have thought of and provided evidence for evolution and natural selection." I hope you are correct! If in doubt, I think we should err on the side of not believing in Darwin's unique genius. Why?

Because if indeed it is even remotely possible that you, with your talent and ability, could have discovered and provided evidence back then for biological evolution by natural selection - an idea that fundamentally changed how we see the world and our place in nature - then why not put genuine effort and true creative energy into insights about our world that could potentially make you the next idea revolutionary now?

If Darwin was a rare exceptional genius, we need to wait for the next genius to appear; if Darwin was a great man, but he did not really possess talents far beyond the horizon of your own highest potential, then, with effort and creativity, you could potentially be the next Darwin now. No reason to wait. There are more discoveries to be made.