The connectedness of things

Bee on a flower by elvis_payne

12 February is the bicentenary of Charles Darwin’s birth and the BBC’s Darwin Season is now in full swing. If you didn’t catch Melvyn Bragg’s In Our Time four-parter last week, episode four, where Darwin’s pottering around in his greenhouse, is the one worth listening to.

In the latter half of Darwin’s life, the kitchen garden at Down House in Kent became the centre of his biological research, the place he called his “experimental bed”.

Here he experimented with orchids, primroses, cowslips, honey-bees and – less romantically – pigeons and worms.

One discovery was that pollination of flowers by insects ensures the variability that’s the lynchpin of evolution through natural selection. Constantly self-fertilizing plants simply don’t evolve in the same way.

And Darwin also found out that, for successful pollination, a whole number of variables were necessary – primroses, for example, don’t simply have male and female flowers, they also have “long-styled” and “short-styled” structures.

His belief in the importance of diversity (ironically enough, he was married to his cousin, but we’ll gloss over that) appears to have been just one element of Darwin’s “leader 2.0” approach.

Despite it being a good 100 years before the world’s first computer network was established, Darwin practiced an early form of crowdsourcing in order to carry out his research.

As Melvyn Bragg puts it, “Down House was a retreat for Darwin, but he was also open to the world”. Darwin claimed to write eight to ten letters a day (no less than 7,000 of these survive and are held in an archive at Cambridge University).

These letters were used to co-ordinate international research, exploring human orgins for “The Ascent of Man”. Darwin wrote to his network of existing friends around the world – diplomats, missionaries and fellow scientists – and asked them to tap into their own networks.

This research covered all countries in the British Empire (approaching its peak in the mid nineteenth century) as well as the Americas. For example, the Brazilian-based botanist, Fritz Muller, sent Darwin exotic seeds, which he would then send on to contacts in other parts of the world for comparison and comment.

Bizarre objects would frequently be attached to the letters – one in the archive in Cambridge University Library comes from New Zealand; it still has squashed bees taped to the paper.

Thus correspondence (the social media of its day) was immensely important to Darwin’s scientific discoveries. And Darwin was impressed by the quality of the information that his contacts gathered and delivered to him, motivated not by financial reward, but simply for the sake of reciprocation and communal discovery (sound familiar?).

As Darwin wrote to his friend, John Jenner Weir in 1868: “If any man wants to gain a good opinion of his fellow men, he ought to do what I’m doing, pester them with letters.”

Darwin’s biographer, Jim Moore, notes that he was very good at getting people to do what he wanted by being extremely appreciative of the help they offered him.

Darwin was also very serendipitous in his sources of information. Whenever a baby was born to a couple in the Darwin’s circle of friends, unusually it would be Darwin (not his wife, Emma) who’d send the card of congratulations – a questionnaire contained within it. This questionnaire would ask about facial emotions, which Darwin would then relate back not only to the origins of racial differences but also to expressions of sorrow and fear in young animals.

Based at home, Darwin’s life and work were completely intertwined and his family were involved with all his projects. Darwin and his wife had ten children, six of whom survived to adulthood. His wife, and his eldest surviving daughter, Henrietta, helped him with his correspondence.

“Science obsesses itself with trifles” observes geneticist Steve Jones, who points out that Darwin’s central theme was another property echoed in web 2.0: “the enormous power of small means”. (cf: network effects?)

According to Jim Moore, Darwin’s vision of nature was of “a struggling progressive cosmos in which all life is related”. This vision is now universally accepted (if not always remembered).

“If we had Darwin’s humanity that accompanied that vision, his love of life and his hatred of cruelty, it would be the completion of his work,” adds Moore.

So, how did Darwin’s life work conclude? Well, his last book was about earthworms.

“The last book he published wasn’t some grandiose world view, some old testament from the top of an intellectual mountain, it was a book about earthworms”, says Melvyn Bragg, who then goes on to cite Darwin’s humility and his realisation of the connectedness of things as hallmarks of his greatness.

It seems there’s a lot some of today’s leaders could learn from this man who died 127 years ago.