Blistering Barnacles! What I learned from reading Darwin

Although I consider myself somewhat of an expert on chaos and complexity theory, innovation and creativity, for some time now I have been very conscious of a gap in my studies. Even though I have read much about Darwin through the works of Stuart Kauffman, Brian Goodwin, Stephen Jay Gould, Richard Dawkins, Stephan Harding, Lynn Margulis, Henri Bortoft and James Watson to name a few, I had never really studied Darwin in depth, being more interested in the latest scientific thinking. At University I bought myself a copy of The Origin of Species but don’t remember reading too much of it. I am with that same copy now, half way through, but it is not this that I wish to write about. For this blog is about one of the most extraordinarily amazing books I feel I have ever read, and that is Darwin, the biography by Adrian Desmond and James Moore.

I just cannot praise this book enough. The writing is wonderfully lucid, providing a richly textured narrative on the whole of Darwin’s life, including his student days first in Edinburgh where he studied medicine, although he could not stand the sight of blood, and then on to Cambridge, where he would prepare for a life in the Church, as a clergyman. The book is not so much a science book as a history book, and I feel I now have a much more sophisticated and detailed take on the early part of the nineteenth century in all its chaotic yet transforming and revolutionary aspects. What crazy times it was in England! The book also paints wonderful portraits of all the key people in Darwin’s life, both supporters and detractors and enemies alike.

It was my teacher Henri Bortoft who had alerted me to the importance of reading Desmond and Moore’s book. It was not until reading it that Henri realised just how important the study of barnacles was to Darwin in the development of his theory of evolution. Darwin’s famous journey on The Beagle lasted for five years. In this time he collected many specimens, and it took him a further ten years to describe them. It was in 1846 that Darwin wrote to his friend Henslow, saying how happy he was to have finished this work, all apart from one single barnacle species left to describe. Although Darwin at the time thought that this would only take him a few weeks, this marked the start of a new eight-year long study, encouraged by another great and close friend Hooker, which would transform Darwin from a well-respected geologist into a world-class biologist.

What made this work so important to Darwin was that before his study of barnacles, he had thought that variation only happened at certain times under certain circumstances. But after this work he came to realise that in fact variation was ubiquitous, a very condition of life itself.

We now need to take a step back and look at what my own motivations were for reading Darwin. As someone who teaches Complexity Theory, one of my main points is that in order to really understand complex phenomena, we have to shake off our current paradigms and frameworks, and we have to come to the realisation that seeing is not the naive activity we think it is, but that seeing is very much “theory driven.” What this means is that we do not simply see an objective three-dimensional world, but what in fact we perceive directly is “meaning” and if we do not come to this realisation, we will never be able to change the way we “see” the world.

To read the book Darwin is to really be given one of the greatest ever examples of this. The book really goes into detail of the political, economic, social and religious aspects of Darwin’s society, one where it was still thought on the whole that the world was around 6,000 years old, where God created species as finished entities, and whereby the very order of society was the result of the Church and clergy being the sole authorities of God on earth. To propose a theory of evolution which went against this was to directly challenge the authority of the Church, who had everything to lose from this cosy relationship which some scientists, philosophers and indeed much of the population at the time were beginning to regard as “corrupt” (much as we are seeing now with the dramatic collapse in faith of the Catholic church in Europe, and especially Ireland).

The United Kingdom was driving the Industrial Revolution, and in the book we learn not only of the importance of Malthus’ theory on population growth, but also the much lesser discussed theory on the division of labour of Adam Smith. Darwin came from an industrial family, marrying Emma from the Wedgwood family, “pioneers of factory organisation”. Darwin’s observations were that nature produces small variation, due to specialisation. Therefore one environment could support more species as they do the same thing in different ways, e.g. finches feeding in different ways. This would mean a small supporting a higher population. According to Henri, many books on Darwin miss this point, only focussing on Malthus (which Darwin discusses extensively in The Origin of Species).

Desmond and Moore though really go into detail on this aspect of Darwin’s theory, pointing out that it is this which provides Darwin with his mechanism for creating diversity. This for me is the real meat of the issue. To understand complexity, you have to really enter into a new way of seeing diversity, and Darwin, like Goethe before him who wrote the seminal Metamorphosis of Plants, excelled in this seeing perhaps like no others of his generation. He was able to transcend the devastatingly restrictive dogmas of his time, a huge achievement given the pressure to conform for a man of his stature, with a growing family to provide for (albeit one who could reply on his father to fund his travels and scientific work).

It was interesting to me to see how when his theory was finally published in 1859 (when Darwin was 40), he was criticised for being anthropomorphic. What happened was that in proposing a mechanism for Natural Selection, his critics said that for there to be selection, there had to be a selector. This was funny for me, since james Lovelock experienced these very same criticisms from some of Darwin’s most ardent supporters when he first proposed his Gaia theory in the late 1970s. How could life have evolved, without many different planets all competing against each other? How could the biosphere have evolved as a whole without there being many planets all evolving through tiny incremental developments? Lovelock had to be proposing an anthropomorphic theory wasn’t he? Gaia theory? Sounds like he is suggesting that the biosphere is a sentient being!

Ironic is it not, this same criticism coming from Darwinists?

That is not to say I totally agree with Darwinian evolution as the only mechanism responsible for the evolution of life on earth. I would say the jury is still out, and chaos and complexity theory continue to offer fresh and exciting insights, as does the nascent discipline of hermeneutical biology, which I have previously discussed.

Whereas Goethe thought it critical to stay within the seeing of the phenomena, the seeing of the variation, Darwin went far beyond this to suggest a mechanism. It could be said that in doing so, he perhaps lost the experiential side of what made him so great a geologist and biologist, his detailed powers of observation, and in focussing so much on the theoretical side, his seeing became much more cemented and theory-driven.

Another aspect of the act of seeing is in the task of categorising species. For in Darwin’s time we learn just how much disagreement there was in terms of what was a species and what was a variation of a species. Darwin himself suffered from this in relation to his famous finches from the Galapagos islands. Sometimes we think that it was these which influenced Darwin in his theory of evolution, but as we have seen, it was not, it was the barnacles. Darwin himself was confused about his specimens of finches he brought back with him, not realising their significance. He thought he was seeing lots of different types of bird, but it was actually John Gould, an ornithologist and taxidermist, who interrupted his own paying work and showed Darwin that what he was seeing, despite their seeming differences in beaks, were in fact only finches.

We live in a complex world, and in business we are always attempting to deal with complex problems. To really understand the dynamics of a situation, or an organisation, we have to enter into a profound way of seeing, or comprehending diversity, and in studying Darwin and Goethe together, we can begin to comprehend what it means to understand complexity in this manner. In many ways, we have to do this by doing what Henri Bortoft calls “philosophical work,” actually doing practical exercises that can lead us into this new way of seeing, rather than just discussing and thinking about ideas intellectually.

As Carl Sagan said, “Academic ability is no guarantee against being dead wrong,” and in studying Darwin and his contemporaries, we can really see this in action, through the early theories of evolution proposed by his grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, and the many proponents and detractors of evolution over the course of the entire nineteenth century.

For many people, modern science began with Sir Francis Bacon, and the works of probably the world’s greatest scientist Sir Isaac Newton. But in reading Darwin we can perhaps see that this was not the case, and it took Darwin, along with his supporters such as Hooker and Huxley, to really break the grip of the influence of the Church and religious dogma on Western scientific thinking.

We hear in this biography much about Darwin’s thoughts on his ability to write. Darwin was continually frustrated in what he saw as his inability to adequately express his thoughts in words. I feel a little like that right now, as I feel I can not do justice to Desmond and Moore’s phenomenal 808 page work, all the things that I have personally discovered in my ignorance of this period of British history, and in knowing about the life of one scientist who has personally proposed one of the most epoch-shatteringly important scientific theories of all time.

But what I do hope I have shown is the importance of reviewing scientific theories within the wider context of the historical context and of the scientist’s mental models. From this we can not only learn about the act of creativity and innovation, but also of the limitations when moving from one mode of thinking and seeing in which the creative act occurs, to a more intellectual way of thinking which seeks to explain, and the danger here is that we lose sight of the original phenomena and mode of seeing, and enter into a more restrictive and dogmatic domain, sometimes without knowing. Darwin is a masterclass in this, and I can not recommend enough that you read it. It is a wonderful, amazing and enlightening read, one that you will not regret investing your time.

Further Reading

Reflections on my two days at Sustentare Business School – an article about how I teach chaos and complexity theory, with references to Goethe

Henri Bortoft’s latest book Taking Appearance Seriously: The Dynamic Way of Seeing in Goethe and European Thought is now available for pre-order. It covers much of what I have been discussing in this article.

2 responses to “Blistering Barnacles! What I learned from reading Darwin

  1. Pingback: Why visionaries, design thinkers and business leaders need to study the history of science « The Transition of Consciousness·

  2. Pingback: Porque visionários, design thinkers e líderes de negócios precisam estudar a História da Ciência « The Transition of Consciousness·

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