Monday, 26 February 2007

How Darwin changed the world

I've been enjoying the "biography" of Darwin's Origin of Species which charts the genesis of Darwin's ideas right through to their modern applications.

I'm not a scientist, and this post is not about science but about marketing. How did Darwin's ideas have the impact they had?

The third chapter of this book offers some clues to the secret of Darwin's success:
  • His writing style: reasonable, humble, cohesive. Evolution wasn't a new idea in 1859, but it had never been presented so completely. Darwin also adopted a personal and writing style that was personable, calm, and inoffensive in style. His naturally friendly nature was a great help in getting across some truly revolutionary ideas.
"Much later on, his son Francis Darwin said this pleasant style of writing was characteristic of his father in 'its simplicity, bordering on naivete, and in its absence of pretence ... His courteous and conciliatory tone towards his reader is remarkable, and it must be partly this quality which revealed his personal sweetness of character to so many who had never seen him.'"
  • He told stories, even if by accident. Originally Origin of Species was meant to be longer, but the impending release of a competing book meant Darwin compressed his argument more than he would have liked. But it seems to have worked.
"Few scientific texts have been so closely woven, so packed with factual information and studded with richly inventive metaphor." ... "Hardly daring to hope that he might initiate a transformation in scientific thought, he nevertheless rose magnificently to the occasion."
  • He had a network of trusted friends and associates who appreciated his ideas and embraced them in their own work. Although they varied on specifics - some believed in God, for example - they were united in their support of Darwin's work. Social networks mattered, long before the word blog ever existed.
"These four supported Darwin wholeheartedly even while pointing out flaws in his evidence or reasoning. They stood united, gathering their own disciples and followers, engaging in individualised battles on Darwin's behalf but also moving the debate further and wider, drawing in other thinkers, other topics, other implications, in an incremental process that ultimately generated major transformations in cultural attitudes and scientific thought. With Darwin busy in the background writing letters, these four recruited a standing army, commandeered the journals, invaded the learned societies, monitered the universities, dominated dinner parties and penetrated the byways of empire."

Being reasonable, telling stories, and making friends. Doesn't sound so hard - as long as the idea is a powerful one.

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