I’ve always been a fan of Charles Darwin. I think that he was a great scientist – a careful observer and deep thinker. But I still agree with many of Richard Lewontin’s points from his recent article about Darwin in the New York Review of Books. The main point that Lewontin makes in the first half of the article is that much of the Darwin fetishism these days is out of proportion to the quality of Darwin’s work. In particular, he tries to move away from the great man theory of science. In doing so, Lewontin cites Alfred Russel Wallace’s simultaneous publication of a theory of natural selection, and the dependence of both theories on a hereditary mechanism as developed by Mendel. So instead of talking about Darwinian evolution, Lewontin maintains that we should be discussing Darwinian-Wallacian-Mendelian evolution.
Fair enough – we probably should be doing exactly that. Or we should be calling it the modern synthesis to recognise the great genetics-based development of evolutionary theory in the 20th century. So why do we still often talk about Darwinism? Darwin and Wallace first published their pieces on natural selection at the same time – they essentially had the same idea. Why did Darwin’s version have the greater impact? I have two reasons for this, and both are important for modern innovators to understand.
The first reason is that Darwin’s network was much, much better than Wallace’s. Darwin was friends with Hooker, Lyell and Huxley. It was Hooker and Huxley that arranged the joint presentation of Darwin’s and Wallace’s papers to the Linnean Society after Wallace submitted his before Darwin was ready to publish The Origin of Species. One of the reasons that Darwin became synonymous with natural selection is that he had pre-existing strong relationships with the people that needed to use and write about the theory. The modern lesson is that your network connections are critically important. When you try to get your ideas to spread, it helps tremendously if you are well-connected within the network of people that can use your idea (and this is true whether your idea is a product, a service, a way of doing things, or a theory).
The second reason that the idea of natural selection is more strongly associated with Darwin than with Wallace is that Darwin’s execution of the idea was much better. Wallace basically had the thought, quickly wrote it out, and sent the paper out. Darwin had been thinking about the idea for more than twenty years. He had carefully gathered evidence and arguments to support the idea, and he was able to demonstrate this support effectively. The modern lesson here is one that I keep hammering on – implementing ideas is much more important than having them. When you have your great innovative ideas, the value is in how you implement them. What business model will support the idea? What network will you put it in? What needs does the idea address? If you have better answers to these questions, your execution of the idea will win.
We still talk about Darwinism today because of Darwin’s network, and because of his strong implementation. One thing to think about while we’re celebrating the anniversaries of his birth and the publication of The Origin of Species this year is that these are powerful lessons in how to get your ideas to spread.