Charles Darwin, the naturalist whose theories on evolution and the development of species had wide-ranging effects on scientific study that persist today, was not a genius.
He wasn’t especially good at math.
He didn’t have the quick thinking skills often attributed to geniuses.if Darwin attended Harvard in:
Biologist EO Wilson estimated that Darwin’s IQ would have been around 130 or so - high, but not quite the level (140) where the word “genius” starts getting mentioned. Darwin was, however, relentless about learning.
He devoured information about all the topics he was interested in pursuing.
He hoarded facts and was hyper-diligent about taking notes.
His ability to hold attention was legendary, and when it came to testing, his work ethic was tireless.
Darwin’s thinking was purposely slow because he was so fastidiously detail oriented.
He believed that to have any authority on a topic one needed to develop deep expertise on it, and expertise doesn’t happen overnight (or in a month, or in a year).
The point is that Darwin is regarded as one of the ultimate examples of the importance of hard work and diligence in surpassing natural intelligence. Darwin’s uncommon talent Darwin’s method was so all-encompassing that he even gave deep attention to information that countered or challenged his own theories.
This approach forms the backbone of his golden rule as he expressed it in his autobiography.
The very basic guideline of Darwin’s golden rule was to be more than just open to contradicting or opposing ideas - indeed, Darwin gave them his fullest attention:
“I had, also, during many years, followed a golden rule. Namely, that whenever a published fact, a new observation or thought came across me, which was opposed to my general results, to make a memorandum of it without fail and at once. For I had found by experience that such facts and thoughts were far more apt to escape from memory than favorable ones.”
Darwin completely immersed himself in evidence or explanations that went against his findings because he was aware that the human mind is inclined to dispose of those contrary views.
If he didn’t investigate them as fully as he could, he’d be likely to forget them, and that would create mental dishonesty.
Darwin knew that his own instinctual thinking could be a hindrance to finding the truth as much as it could help, and he established a way to ensure he wasn’t missing out on any information. Darwin handled all this conflicting information responsibly.
He genuinely considered material that might have disproved his assertions, and took pains to fully absorb every single scenario, anomaly and exception to his theories.
He didn’t filter out information that didn’t support his beliefs; he was utterly immune to confirmation bias.
More than anything else, Darwin didn’t want to be careless in finding the truth—he knew that a half-cocked assertion solely intended to persuade others without much thought was intellectually dishonest.
His thorough method required more time and effort on his part, but he was committed. Of course, the Darwinian Golden Rule calls back to intellectual honesty and the maxim, “Strong opinions but held lightly.” It assumes intellectual humility, or being unattached to any stances or theories and simply following the evidence. Uniquely, Darwin forces a dialogue of skepticism back to himself, instead of to others.
To himself, he would direct questions such as: What do you know? Are you sure? Why are you sure? How can it be proved? What potential errors could you have made? Where is this conflicting view coming from and why? As you can imagine, it takes quite a bit of self-discipline to constantly double-check yourself.
Darwin accurately realized that if you hold the belief that everyone else is wrong, you’re in trouble.
What Darwin seemed to understand is that the biggest threats to our intellectual and cognitive rigor are often unconscious, personal and psychological, and nothing to do with the soundness of our arguments or the quality of our reasoning.
In fact, you’ve probably encountered someone who cloaks their unconscious biases, assumptions and desires in neutral terms precisely to conceal what is really motivating their behavior.
This type of person asserts, “It’s other people who have irrational emotions and beliefs, but I only believe in the objective facts.”
Truth > being right
Try this exercise yourself: think of something you deeply believe to be true—take your time with this, because it may be that your most pervasive belief is actually the one that is almost invisible to you.
Now, imagine you are not yourself, but a person who actually believes in precisely the opposite.
Play pretend for a moment, and genuinely try to occupy the other person’s point of view.
Imagine, if you like, that you are in a lively debate with yourself, as this other person.
Really try to immerse yourself in this other worldview.
What other priorities does that person have? What does the world look like to them? In what ways might they be right? As you debate yourself, don’t worry about deciding who is correct.
Simply watch what stories and narratives your brain throws up in the dialogue. Internet activist Eli Pariser noticed how online search algorithms encourage our human tendency to grab hold of everything that confirms the beliefs we already hold, while quietly discounting or ignoring information that doesn’t align with those beliefs.
We set up a so-called “filter-bubble” around ourselves, where we are constantly exposed only to that material that we agree with.
We are never challenged, never giving ourselves the opportunity to acknowledge the existence of diversity and difference.
In the best case, we become naïve and sheltered; in the worst, we become radicalized with more and more extreme views, unable to imagine life outside our particular bubble. The results are disastrous: a complete erosion of civic discourse, intellectual isolation, narcissism and self-centeredness, and a lack of everyday empathy, as well as the real distortion that comes with believing that the little world we create for ourselves is the world.
When two people from mutually exclusive echo chambers encounter one another, the effect can be explosive.
We’ve already seen that for geniuses, broad is always better than narrow, and this rule applies here.
We need to constantly be on guard for any stubbornness and rigidity in ourselves, or any narrow, unchallenged convictions that shut us out of gaining a deeper, wider, and more nuanced vision of the great big world around us.
We can see how this ability to actively court the “other side” was instrumental to Darwin’s success.
Like both Einstein and Socrates, he was non-conventional, but only in the sense that he was willing to adjust his view if necessary, and never ruled out any avenue of inquiry (an attitude which is truthfully seldom in fashion!).
Today, Darwin is credited with founding a completely paradigm-shifting theory that forever changed the way naturalists thought of the world and their place in it.
He called into question many of the predominant religious and moral attitudes at the time, and there is evidence to suggest that he did so even when his findings contradicted his own assumptions.
It’s hard to imagine how Darwin could have done any of this without a deep respect for truth, and an intellectual vigor that goes beyond personal bias. At the time, the implications of Darwin’s theories on natural selection made some of his contemporaries angry, and he was mocked for suggesting a view of the world that countered the dominant religious framework.
Though the theory of evolution is now commonplace, try to picture what it must have been like in Darwin’s time, when the idea that man descended from ancestors that were not in fact human was as outlandish as suggesting they came from the moon.
Darwin was mocked and derided by many in his lifetime, but this didn’t dampen his enthusiasm for continuing research he thought was important.
Though most Victorian scientists at the time folded to public opinion and religious sentiment, not wanting to be unpopular or create a stir, Darwin didn’t mind going against the grain.
His “golden rule” tells us how highly he must have thought of genuine intellectual enquiry, no matter where it took a person, and no matter how unpopular the findings were.
Can we say the same for ourselves? Are we willing to risk pursuing an unpopular avenue of thought, or suspend the judgment of others in favor of coming to our own conclusions? It’s easier said than done.
Consistency > brilliance
But intellectual honesty wasn’t Darwin’s only forte.
He was also a remarkably patient man.
Though Darwin was not considered particularly brilliant intellectually, it didn’t matter, because he was abundantly blessed in the traits we’ve already identified as crucial to the genius’s success.
Darwin was intellectually honest, humble, methodical, disciplined, and an incredibly hard worker.
Though he must have possessed considerable curiosity for the subject matter he pursued, and he was certainly a polymath like many of the others we’ll consider in this book, Darwin’s life shows us that so much of what makes a brilliant person’s life is not necessarily brilliant—it’s just consistent.
Darwin didn’t put together his many important works overnight.
His was a life’s work, and took many, many years of diligent and focused effort.
Like Socrates, he was unwilling to let bias and assumption derail or contaminate his efforts, and so made a concerted effort to weed out errors of thinking.
And, like Socrates, he understood that the process toward knowledge takes time.
If we are to piece together ideas that are sound and worth something, we often have to do so one step at a time, with many corrections along the way, and with as much stamina as we can manage.