The Genius of Charles Darwin

The gleam of a great idea often glows first and fiercest in an unknown eye and out of a dark corner. How many college dropouts and loners tinkering in their garages have become celebrated silicon entrepreneurs? How many great writers, poets, painters, and composers created their finest works in obscurity?  Even in the sciences the most elemental factor for a breakthrough is a roving and penetrating mind rather than a large, well-funded research lab. Prestigious schools and universities are not nurseries of genius: academies value absorption, conservation, and transmission of knowledge and may even discourage radical thinking. Perhaps it is so difficult to predict scientific revolutions because they start with individuals and outsiders. I was taught neat explanations of how science advances, but Paul Feyerabend offered a seductive alternative: the Berkeley philosopher caused a furor by arguing the narrative is often “anarchistic.”

While visiting Charles Darwin’s home last month I was of course musing about his theory of evolution. That’s why people go there! Down House is a quaint Georgian property outside a village near London. It was walking distance from my childhood home, and on my last visit I was a teenager pondering a career in biology and arguing with a school buddy about biodiversity from natural selection. I thought it was incontestable, but he snapped with the certainty that only a sixteen-year-old can have, “the Bible and The Origin of Species can’t both be right: you have to choose one or the other!” It is still argued over in America, but I think a false choice.

That summer I flipped through The Origin to be sure of my answers for our next spat. But how could I summarize the ocean of data that Darwin had meticulously marshalled for his heavy tome? Had I known at the time I would have simply quoted to my friend from Theodosius Dobzhansky: Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution. I might have cheekily added that he wasn’t only a great biologist but a lifelong member of the Orthodox Church too.  Maybe I was close to Feyerabend when he wrote, Human life is guided by many ideas. Truth is one of them.

Stepping across the threshold at Down House I wondered how much had changed in fifty years. When I was last there, Charles Darwin had already been dead for the better part of a century, and recall when standing in his home I imagined the owner had just stepped outside for an hour, perhaps to check experiments in his garden or stroll down his “thinking path,” the Sandwalk. But since my childhood, Down House and its acres have evolved from a hallowed place on a shoestring budget for a few scientific pilgrims to something of a tourist destination since it was adopted by English Heritage and nominated as a World Heritage site.

Instead of ringing the doorbell for the custodian to appear like a Victorian butler, the visitor is now received with a cheerful welcome from the ticket desk and invited to peruse glossy Darwiniana on sale. Down House still looks like a large family home, but most of its rooms are loaded (I won’t say ‘graced’) with information boards and even dioramas. I prefer the more authentic if dowdy interior from my memory. But I wasn’t disappointed with the Old Study, the room that always mattered most and has hardly changed.

The Study feels heavy with dark mahogany and dreary wallpaper. It could make an atmospheric setting for a Charles Dickens story. Daylight struggles to penetrate the windows and the air has the musty odor of an old stone church. At center-stage a table is strewn with old books, stamped envelopes, and yellowed papers; a feather quill stands in a dry inkwell; a glass goblet is inverted out of service; and books are crammed in a locked cabinet. It may look like a reconstruction in a museum, but is in fact fairly authentic.

Down House
The black chair in Darwin’s Old Study

A black leather chair with horsehair poking through its arms rests on castors askew to the table as if waiting for a sitter to return. I imagine a Victorian parson might have taken a break from preparing his homily there or a writer who put down his pen to walk outside and smoke for inspiration. Only the magnifying lens, a few dissecting instruments, and portraits hanging over the marble fireplace hint that a man of science once lived there. The piles of pillboxes point to an apothecary or a hypochondriac (as Darwin was), but you would only find dried beetles and butterflies if you took the lids off. Naturalists have little need of equipment to pursue their passion en plein air where they depend on sharp eyes and a curiosity that fermented when heads rest in comfy chairs. And what a head Charles Darwin had!

He had none of the obvious qualifications for scientific greatness. He never displayed intellectual fireworks as a young man, and his father, Dr. Robert Darwin, thought his lackadaisical attitude to studies and a love of hunting, dogs, and horse-riding would make his son a worthless loafer. Charles was prodded towards the family profession until he dropped out of the Edinburgh Medical School, and no one expected much after enrolling at Cambridge University with the vague intent of training as a Church of England parson. Joining the Beagle expedition changed all that, and arguably launched the greatest modern revolution in the way we understand the world.

Darwin had a different kind of genius to Newton, Pascal or Einstein, and we struggle to find its origins.

First, he came from a radical intellectual tradition through his grandfather Erasmus and by marrying into the Wedgwood family. They were influential figures of the Enlightenment who embraced scientific progress, opposed slavery, and backed grumbling American colonies before the Revolution. When Charles returned from his voyage in 1836 he settled down to family life in London and as a country gentleman for the next forty years at Down House. But even during the distracted years of his youth he was never idle, and a Whiggish background fortified awkward thoughts that later offended staid Victorian society. Unlike Grandpa Erasmus he never sought the limelight and said that expressing doubts about species being immutable was like “confessing a murder.” It helped that he had chronic ill health as an excuse for keeping his head below the parapet when the storm over Darwinism broke.

The Sandwalk at Down House
The Sandwalk

Second, he was painstaking and cautious at work and never felt the pressures that contemporary scientists endure who must focus on minutiae and hurry to be first into print with their discoveries and join ferocious competition for research grants. He had time to exhaustively validate data and ideas. From an early interest in beetles his curiosity expanded to the whole of nature, both living and extinct. He spent years studying barnacles, converted his lawn to experimental beds for studying earthworms and weeds, inquired about artificial selection of domestic animal breeds, and maintained a vast correspondence with other naturalists. All this knowledge built on his seminal observations from the Beagle was distilled for the theory of natural selection. It took time and a lot of shoe leather on the Sandwalk. He depicted his hunch that all living things are related in a sketch of tree-like branches linking species together. That was twenty years before the Origin, and on the same page he scrawled a note, “I think.” It took an abrupt convergence of ideas with Alfred Russel Wallace to force his hand into publishing. But his glacial pace of progress had prepared him for the resistance to come from the establishment. He had left no stone unturned and no detail was too small or arcane to be cast aside. Even barnacles helped to rock the world. In the end there was no risk of being forced into a disgraceful retreat, like some recent “discoveries” in stem cell science.

Third, Darwin was able to tinker at his fireside, though more in head than hands as inventors do in lonely garages. Unencumbered by employment and with servants to help care for his beloved family he withdrew from society for long periods, like St. Jerome in his cave. It was quality time to ponder and speculate. Charles would never have the same peace today with electronic gadgets constantly beeping for attention. Thinking is such a natural process that we hardly give it much thought or any training, and and if our attention spans are shortening we are feebler thinkers in consequence.

Darwin’s chair is still a source of wonder for me. As an ordinary object you would ignore it in the window of a cheap antique store—as you would driving past some unprepossessing garage in Silicon Valley—but it became the seat of something extraordinary. The revolution that began in the sitter’s mind long ago continues to roll forward and explain what had been inexplicable—fossils embedded in mountain tops, elaborate plumage of male birds, vestiges like the appendix, why many genes are similar from flies and worms to humans, and much, much more.

Once upon a time a gauche student was tempted to leap over the security cord at Down House to sit in Darwin’s chair. Others have dreamt of plonking themselves in the Coronation Chair at Westminster Abbey to feel a royal moment before a cop hauled them away. But the student realized the famous chair would never inspire great thoughts again because revolutionary ideas emerge from obscurity.

Next Post: Badger bother


Cost of Knowledge

I no longer sleep-walk when writing articles for scientific or medical journals, because I was woken to the drumbeats of an academic spring. As young scientists we were taught we must either “publish or perish” but I now hear the refrain “perish the publishers.”

Rebels have emerged from an unlikely corner of universities – departments of mathematics. This is not the throng you would expect to hear calling for revolution from city plazas and squares (or at least from internet platforms), but they have recently become uncommonly grumpy. They complain about monopolies held by companies that publish their work. Increasingly, they are marching behind the banner Open Access.  I am surprised that scientists, physicians, and especially sociologists haven’t joined them yet, because they too have commercial gatekeepers for publishing their works.

Until the ‘90s, few questioned the system for publishing scholarly work. When a project was completed, sometimes after months or years of labor, it was prepared in the time-honored way as a journal paper. Years ago, I remember some old colleagues admitting they never bothered with the finer points of grammar or spelling; they were satisfied as long as their data were correct, trusting the journal would take care of the rest. No longer. In those days, editors and publishers copy-edited, corresponded with authors and reviewers via snail mail, and sometimes even hired graphic artists to prepare figures. It was a lot of work.

While the cherished peer-review system for vetting papers has not been tampered with, it has changed in every other way. Much of the labor has been transferred from editorial offices and publishers to authors. We must submit manuscripts that are polished, with publication-ready figures, and with everything conforming to a strictly prescribed format for submission via the portal of the journal’s website. Communication is of course via email. I recall that my early papers took nearly year to emerge from the pipeline, but today, after the editor’s thumbs go up, a paper goes online within a few weeks, and print copies appear somewhat later. Authors are delighted by the streamlining.

Path for publishing scientific research

But the old partnership between academia and commercial publishers has broken down like a strained marriage in which one partner is the earner and the other pockets the income. Researchers who generate the papers and serve as reviewers and sometimes as editors generally give their services without any expectation of pecuniary benefit. Of course it is not strictly true that a free lunch is served at the academic table because someone pays their salaries (the rest of us or their students), unless like me they no longer work for a university but can’t give up the habit of writing. But as far as publishers are concerned writers’ services are free.

Mathematicians were first to wake up to a contrary world in which the Internet had enabled publishers to reduce their workload and costs while journal subscriptions and profits soared. Their anger focused on Elsevier, not because it deserved to be singled out as the greediest company, but perhaps because of its size. Elsevier controls 25% of science, technology, and medicine journals, and the market capitalization of its parent is over $11B.

Before our colleagues started grumbling I gave no thought to signing over to publishers the copyright for my articles, nor did I pay enough attention to the problems of people who are interested in original research papers but don’t have access to a large university library. But I think tax-payers interested in research on black holes funded by the National Science Foundation should be able to consult astronomy journals, and it is understandable why donors to medical research charities should want to read oncology journals. If I lost an original copy of one of my own papers and didn’t have access to a library or couldn’t afford a hefty journal subscription it would likely cost me $25-30 to obtain a replacement. And if I want to reuse my own material for a review article I have to apply for permission from the publisher. Don’t you agree that mathematicians have a point?

The current business models strain libraries at a time when budgets are tight. Critics also repudiate the policy of bundling arcane journals that have limited circulation together with expensive journals that libraries must have rather than setting a fair price for each. And until the proposed legislation was withdrawn, they were appalled at publishers lobbying Congress for the Research Works Act that would have reversed the N.I.H. policy of making sponsored medical research available to the public within a year of publication.

Many mathematicians are now boycotting Elsevier publications. Worldwide, over 13,000 have signed the Cost of Knowledge campaign. They have a conspicuous champion, (Sir) Nick Gowers, a Cambridge mathematician who won the Fields Medal (Nobel Prize for math). What is more, the distinguished editorial board of the Elsevier journal Topology (basically geometry) resigned in protest, setting up the Journal of Topology as a rival open access journal published by Oxford. Topology toppled soon afterwards.

I checked the new journal online – very briefly because pages of equations were even more forbidding than reading Mandarin or Japanese. Papers can be consulted gratis for up to six months from the publication date after which they go behind a subscription wall. Someone has to pay eventually, but who and when?

Publishing online is cheaper than the costs of printing and distribution, but not zero. Each paper may cost $2,000 to 3,000. Most researchers are too busy to be yoked with the full responsibility of running a nonprofit publishing enterprise, and business partners must make a profit. The U.K. Government has made a rather gallant proposal to pay for publications by its scientists and scholars. I worry that the funds will be taken from the science budget, and unless similar moves are made this side of the Atlantic and elsewhere the U.K. could be contributing more than its fair share.

Most people agree that knowledge ought to be liberated for free people, but it is too early to predict where the publishing revolution will lead. Its fluidity reminds me of the uncertain future course of universities, which I discussed recently. I dream of an ideal solution but suppose that when the battle for Open Access is over we will see in hindsight it might have been predicted by following the money.

This musing was written after my last paper was accepted by an Elsevier journal. As it was a contribution to conference proceedings I had no choice, other than to decline. It is difficult even for a seasoned writer to join a boycott, let alone a young faculty member who dares not offend. But I have another paper appearing soon in an open access journal, so I can finish this post in good conscience.

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