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Tomorrow is the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin, discoverer of the principle of natural selection and the theory of evolution. And in October we will mark the 150th anniversary of the publishing of his landmark book On the Origins of Species, a book that changed the way we think about the world.

What can we learn from Darwin’s life and discoveries about innovation?

1. Curiosity: Darwin was exceptionally curious about everything, from the time he was a small child. In his long four-year voyage on the Beagle, he visited Chile. He made extensive notes on everything he saw. There, he climbed high mountains and noted how layers of soil had been pushed up to form mountains. In the layers he found fossils of seashells and crustaceans. Aha! He thought. These layers were once, therefore, under the sea. How did a layer under the sea become a 12,000 ft. mountain? Later, he found the answer in a book by geologist Charles Lyell, who theorized (against conventional wisdom) that earthquakes pushed the earth up, twisting horizontal layers into near-vertical mountains. This process must have taken millions of years, Darwin thought. He filed this insight away — for later use.

2. Integration: Darwin read widely. He read about geology. And he read about economics. In 1798 an economist named Thomas Robert Malthus wrote an essay, An Essay on the Principle of Population, in which he observed that population expands rapidly, geometrically, while food expands only as an arithmetic series, meaning that food per person declines, leading to a struggle for survival. Darwin later remembered this idea and integrated it, along with his geology readings, into his theory. The theory of evolution owes its discoveries to Darwin’s ability to understand and use ideas very far from biology.

3. Courage: Prevailing theory about how species evolved attributed them mainly to Divine Providence. At the time Darwin lived, the Church was very powerful. Theories that contradicted doctrine were labeled as blasphemy. Nonetheless, Darwin published his insight, published in 1859, despite the consequences. Species evolve, he wrote, as they struggle for survival; only species who have traits that help them survive to reproduce will endure and pass on those traits. He used his observations of mockingbirds, collected in the Galapagos Islands, whose beaks had adapted according to conditions in different islands. This process, he noted, took many thousands of years. It contradicted the literal Biblical theory of creation (though, not entirely — the sun and stars were created only on the fourth day, so the first three “days” could have lasted for many millions of years). But Darwin wrote what he believed was the truth, regardless of Church sanctions.

Innovators should follow Darwin, as a role model, and constantly seek new ideas and information. One day, perhaps, you will take a piece from geology, a piece from economics, and a piece from botany and zoology, like Darwin, assemble it, integrate it, and find something so beautiful, so insightful, so earthshaking that the world will never again be the same.

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Blog entries written by Prof. Shlomo Maital

Shlomo Maital
February 2009
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