Last week I talked about 19th century communication networks, Charles Darwin, and how we have had more information coming at us than we’ve known what to do with for a long time. It seems like it is a problem caused by the internet, but the roots are much deeper. I’ve also been saying for some time that the way to effectively deal with information is to use an aggregate, filter and connect strategy. This works when you’re building a business model for an information-based enterprise, and it works for individuals as well. I’ve run across more evidence of the latter this weekend, reading David Quammen’s book The Kiwi’s Egg, describing Darwin’s development of the concept of natural selection.
In my earlier post I talked about Darwin’s extensive network and prolific letter writing. These were the tools that he used to aggregate information. For evidence of filtering and connecting, here is a quote from Quammen:
He was reading widely in the literature of exploration and natural history, plus a diverse selection of books on animal and plant breeding, history, and philosophy of science and he had begun putting cryptic questions to anyone who knew anything about the odd, targeted topics that interested him… Clues, clues, clues. What did they signify, how did they fit? The cuckoos of Java versus the cuckoos of Sumatra and the Philippines – species or varieties? He wanted every possible piece of relevant data, whatever the source. He went to the Regent’s Park Zoo to see its newly acquired orangutan. He became a greedy amasser of seemingly unconnected facts. He busted his brain to connect them. It was an intense program of research and cogitation.
Aggregate, filter and connect. Darwin did a lot of all three over the 20 years between his arrival back at the end of the voyage of the Beagle and publication of The Origin of Species. And his breakthrough came because of the novel combinations of ideas that he developed. No one previously had connected the success that animal breeders had with artificial selection with a theory of natural evolution. No one previously had given much thought to the amount of variety found within species, because there was no theory to connect those facts to. Combining ideas is a central part of the innovation process – and Darwin was particularly skilled at it.
Darwin’s network of correspondents was awesome – and we can still learn a great deal now from studying how he effectively used his connections to get his ideas to spread. He wasn’t on Twitter, but if he had been, some of his writing would have worked on it:
There is a grandeur in this view of life with its powers of growth, assimilation and reproduction.
From so simple a beginning, through the process of gradual selection of infinitesimal changes, endless forms most beautiful and wonderful have evolved.
True, he would have had to have found a shorter word than ‘infinitesimal’ in the second bit, but still… And of course, Twitter is not the best medium for building one long argument, as he did in Origin. Nevertheless, Darwin’s aggregate, filter and connect approach is one that we can all use now – and we all probably should. I can think of worse people to emulate.