Darwin: the ultimate Outlier?

man-is-but-a-worm-punch-cartoonThis year is the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth, and I’ve been lucky enough to visit his home, which is not too far away in the beautiful county of Kent.

The house and gardens are well worth a visit and offer excellent value for money at £9. It is obvious that a lot of effort has gone into making this a good experience – David Attenborough and Andrew Marr are a couple of the bigger names who have contributed. I started in the garden (choose a good day to go as the garden is as important as the house itself), being guided by the touch screen audio tour handset. Its a bit disconcerting at first because some of the parts of the garden that are highlighted in the tour (the weed garden and the worm hole especially) are actually tiny. They would be very easily missed if you do not take the tour. Other areas are smaller than you might think given the importance of the work carried out in them – the greenhouse and the work shed in particular.

The ground floor of the house is decorated as it would have been in Darwin’s day and gives a good insight into his daily life. The first floor is an exhibition detailing his work, the times he lived in and the other important people and ideas of the time.

This ties in very nicely actually with the ideas raised in the book Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell that I’ve written about before. I did not know much at all about Darwin’s background and the environment he grew up in before his trip on the HMS Beagle. He grew up in a very well off family, and this wealth meant that he did not have to work to earn a living – he could dedicate himself full time to his studies.

In my first review of an extract from Outliers (a study of the people we believe to be geniuses) I wrote that there were many aspects that influence their talent:

the willingness to put in a lot of hard work, the opportunies available to them (that they then take full advantage of) and the times in which they grew up or honed their craft. All are important, and all have to occur concurrently over a period of time – when they do, something special happens; people are able to really make their mark.

I believe that these points apply very well to Darwin. He grew up and worked in a great period of change for the country – the industrial revolution – with new ideas affecting both the technology and society of the day. His freedom from the need to work comes from the wealth accumulated by his parents and grandparents – something that simply would not have been possible before. His timing was right – the Beagle voyage changed his life and gave him the desire to study this area.

Although he was well aware of society’s likely reaction to his theories, there must have been something in the air for science and the study of nature at the time because the idea of natural selection was not unique to Darwin – Alfred Russel Wallace came up with the same idea around the same time. This competition spurred Darwin on to complete his work, leading to the fame he enjoyed when he was alive – and becoming the genius we recognise today.

• National Geographic: Darwin’s First Clues, Modern Darwins

• Wikipedia: Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species,

Darwin at Downe

• The Open University: Charles Darwin

• The Guardian: Charles Darwin

• Richard Dawkins: The Ancestor’s Tale: A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Evolution


One comment

  1. Pingback: Mini review: The Greatest Show on Earth – the audiobook « Spare Cycles

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