Charles Darwin – From an ordinary boy to scientist extraordinaire

“Charles Darwin wasn’t very smart by the ordinary standards of human acuity, yet there he is buried in Westminster Abbey“. When I heard this on a talk given by Berkshire Hathaway’s, Vice Chairman Charlie Munger at the Harvard Law School, my interest to know more about the life and works of Charles Darwin grew intensely. I just completed reading the Autobiography written by Charles Darwin himself. It is a very short read and it felt like I was listening to a humble frail voice of old Charles Darwin narrating his life story.

Obviously we know Charles Darwin as one the greatest and revolutionizing scientists to have significantly changed our understanding of the world around us and gave us the ‘Theory of Evolution’. Yet the man behind that greatness struggled with lot of short comings like ordinary men. I have extracted few paragraphs from the book to illustrate just a few aspects of his life –

Ordinary boy expected to bring disgrace to the family

When I left the school I was for my age neither high nor low in it; and I believe that I was considered by all my masters and by my father as a very ordinary boy, rather below the common standard in intellect. To my deep mortification my father once said to me, “You care for nothing but shooting, dogs, and rat-catching, and you will be a disgrace to yourself and all your family.”

Young Charles almost missed the voyage that lead to the Theory of Evolution and the timeless classic ‘Origin of Species’ that revolutionized our understanding of evolution

Upon seeking permission to go on the voyage as the Naturalist, Charles Darwin’s father said to him

“If you can find any man of common sense who advises you to go I will give my consent.”

The captain of the ship Beagle almost rejected Charles Darwin as unfit for voyage

I heard that I had run a very narrow risk of being rejected, on account of the shape of my nose! He was an ardent disciple of Lavater, and was convinced that he could judge of a man’s character by the outline of his features; and he doubted whether any one with my nose could possess sufficient energy and determination for the voyage.

Charles Darwin writes about his challenges

I have as much difficulty as ever in expressing myself clearly and concisely; and this difficulty has caused me a very great loss of time; but it has had the compensating advantage of forcing me to think long and intently about every sentence, and thus I have been led to see errors in reasoning and in my own observations or those of others.

I have no great quickness of apprehension or wit which is so remarkable in some clever men, for instance, Huxley. I am therefore a poor critic: a paper or book, when first read, generally excites my admiration, and it is only after considerable reflection that I perceive the weak points. My power to follow a long and purely abstract train of thought is very limited; and therefore I could never have succeeded with metaphysics or mathematics. My memory is extensive, yet hazy: it suffices to make me cautious by vaguely telling me that I have observed or read something opposed to the conclusion which I am drawing, or on the other hand in favor of it; and after a time I can generally recollect where to search for my authority. So poor in one sense is my memory, that I have never been able to remember for more than a few days a single date or a line of poetry.

Darwin

His greatest strength was independent observation, systematic collection of facts and ability to stay free of confirmation bias

On the favorable side of the balance, I think that I am superior to the common run of men in noticing things which easily escape attention, and in observing them carefully. My industry has been nearly as great as it could have been in the observation and collection of facts. What is far more important, my love of natural science has been steady and ardent.

From my early youth I have had the strongest desire to understand or explain whatever I observed,—that is, to group all facts under some general laws. These causes combined have given me the patience to reflect or ponder for any number of years over any unexplained problem. As far as I can judge, I am not apt to follow blindly the lead of other men. I have steadily endeavored to keep my mind free so as to give up any hypothesis, however much beloved (and I cannot resist forming one on every subject), as soon as facts are shown to be opposed to it.

This is how Charles Darwin wraps his biography and sheds light on the factors for his success

Therefore my success as a man of science, whatever this may have amounted to, has been determined, as far as I can judge, by complex and diversified mental qualities and conditions. Of these, the most important have been—the love of science—unbounded patience in long reflecting over any subject—industry in observing and collecting facts—and a fair share of invention as well as of common sense. With such moderate abilities as I possess, it is truly surprising that I should have influenced to a considerable extent the belief of scientific men on some important point

Here are my top five takeaways from Charles Darwin’s Autobiography

  1. Surround yourself with smart people from every walk of life and hang out more with people who share common interests
  2. Make reading a habit, keep notes of learnings and use what you learn in daily life
  3. Passion and love for a specific subject is hard to ‘develop.’ One can only ‘identify’ what is already innate and nurture it with intense focus
  4. Observation, observation and observation – Give attention to things that everybody sees and nobody notices
  5. Stress, challenge and struggle are the realities of life. More the success, more the stress, challenges and struggle

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