Charles Darwin: Genius or Plodder?

By Wilkins, Adam S. | Genetics, November 2009 | Go to article overview

Charles Darwin: Genius or Plodder?


Wilkins, Adam S., Genetics


ABSTRACT

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.

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. …

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