11 lessons from Darwin’s Origin of Species

Let's begin by noting that this is not a post about evolution vs. creation. It is by no means an assumption that either argument is right or wrong, and, truth be told, I don't find them to be mutually exclusive. I've recently read Charles Darwin's Origin of Species, and I've found a few things I think are worth taking away and applying to our modern world.

Charles Darwin1. Generalization vs. Specialization. This is something that Buckminster Fuller writes about in Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth. Fuller's take is that generalists are important leaders, and they'd best know where to find specialists. That is, if you know a lot about X, you're a great Xer. But I don't want you running the business I own, because we also need people who are great at U, V, W, Y and Z, and you don't know anything about those. What I want is someone who knows enough about U, V, W, X, Y and Z to recognize someone who is great at each – a generalist.

Darwin refers more to the survival of species. If you're a specialist as a species, that's fine, but you'd better really know what you're doing. If you're all about pollinating one plant and eating one species that would otherwise wipe out that plant, you'd better understand population control. If you eat all of your prey, you're simply going to starve to death. If you're a generalist, you have many more options, but you're a lot more spread out as a species – that's bad for safety. So pick your poison.

2. Use begets strength. We sometimes forget this, from a fitness perspective. We spend a lot of time sitting in our culture and tend to think, "Eh, I don't want to lift anything heavier than I need to, it'll just make me tired and lead to injury." But you're more likely to injure a muscle or joint you don't use regularly. Darwin was able to use this knowledge to determine why some creatures had strong hind legs or longer beaks.

3. Domestication vs. the wild. Your dog (yes, the one cuddling with you on your love seat) was descended from a wolf. We have DNA evidence of that. If you need further proof of it, introduce your dog to some strange dogs of different breeds – they will know how to play together and how to hunt together. But your dog, having a life of general safety, will take chances a wolf would never take, like playing in traffic. Domesticating animals takes many – but not all – of their instincts away. They lose some things in an effort to make them better pets. See also, No. 2.

4. Breeding. This is natural to follow from No. 3. In creating dog breeds, we keep certain traits in and leave others out. We can give them floppier ears, or make them run faster, or give them flatter noses, or make them mean (see this documentary; it's fascinating). Darwin recognized this early on. If you want your pigeons bigger, breed the two biggest pigeons you can find, then mate those pigeons with other big pigeons.

Now take a look at humans, and imagine what, with the culture we maintain, we're breeding into and out of ourselves. We're likely breeding in better resistance to toxins (great for those who enjoy eating Twinkies and drinking Gatorade, at least until they take out the BVO, not so great for the future effectiveness of chemotherapy and radiation treatments). We're breeding in larger gluteal muscles (we sit a lot, and we want some padding back there). We're breeding in greater wrist strength (future generations will likely suffer less carpal tunnel). We're breeding out the ability to function without a screen nearby. [OK, not really, but damn, people, get off Twitter and talk to one another occasionally, he wrote as he constructed in his head the Tweets that would refer to this blog post.]

5. Species as an arbitrary designation. We, as humans, must categorize things. If we see a fir tree, it's a tree, but if we see a computer speaker, it's not a tree. Birch? Tree. Scotch tape? Not a tree. We do categories (trees, phones, paper), and then we have to break the categories down (pine, smartphone, construction paper). We do this for two primary reasons: (a) We need to be able to wrap our heads around our world, and categorizing is a great way to do that; and (b) we need a way to communicate &ndashl if I call something a "notebook" and you call it a "coffee cup," we're never going to be able to agree to which object the other is referring. But, Darwin points out, what we call things is fairly arbitrary.

6. Observation. We tend to be very wary these days of anything we can't measure. And it's hurting the progress of our knowledge. Darwin noticed things, because he looked at them. Story: I broke my nose playing baseball as a kid. The ER doctor came in and said, "Your X-rays are negative," and sent me home. Two days later, we went to another doctor, who walked in looking at another set of X-rays. "Your X-rays are negative," he said, and then looked up. "But I can tell by looking at you it's broken." Sure, your Klout score may be an 88, but that doesn't mean you're not an asshole. I have to look at what you're doing on social media to make that determination for myself.

Lesson: Stop relying on measurements; they don't tell you the whole story.

7. Community. For Darwin, this was an ecosystem, a group of animals and plants that needed each other to survive. For us, it's a reminder that we do need communities, interconnected systems that help us to live, and, more importantly, to thrive.

8. Nature and nurture. I mentioned in the introductory paragraph that I don't think evolution and creation are mutually exclusive; it's not a case of nature versus nurture. Both can occur, and my interpretation of his work is that Darwin believed that some aspects of species were a product of genetics, while others came from their surroundings. A dog will, innately, try to get into the trash (it smells food), but you can train it not to. The former is nature, the latter is nurture.

9. Isolation can be beneficial. If a species is getting wiped out in the wild, sequestering a few of its number in zoos or on wildlife reserves greatly increases its chance at survival. We deal with a lot of overwhelm – too much noise, too many screens, too much stuff – sometimes isolating ourselves is best for our individual survival.

10. Adopt new habits. Remember our specialists from No. 1? Sometimes they need to adopt new habits if they're going to survive. So, too, must we adopt new habits to thrive as the world changes around us. How many of us who learned BASIC in the 1980s, writing 150 lines of code to get a ball to move across a screen, thought we'd be able to give a telephone a couple of voice commands and send a video of our kids around the world in a few seconds? The world has a tendency to make vast changes around us, and if we want to grow with the world, we need to change our habits.

11. It's OK to be wrong. Darwin admitted that not only did he not know if a lot of the stuff he wrote about in Origin of Species was correct, he didn't even know if some of it was testable. We don't do nearly enough speculating these days, mostly because we're afraid to be wrong. Being wrong just takes a possibility of the table, but at least you're looking for something new.

What did I miss while reading Darwin? Anything you want to share?


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