Charles Darwin explained a guiding principle of his life as “I have steadily endeavored to keep my mind free so as to give up any hypothesis, however much beloved as soon as facts are shown to be opposed to it.”
To understand why this is such a rare and brave approach to life, we need only examine our own behavior and beliefs. Most of us fight mightily to defend every small action and utterance we make, even when some of these are most obviously wrong. Too often, we stick stubbornly to some statement long after it is shown to be in error. It takes great bravery to stand up and say – I am wrong; the evidence shows I am mistaken, I will change my mind. It was this sincere search for truth that allowed Darwin to give up and significantly modify his initial beliefs and assumptions.
Darwin developed this scientific temper of mind when, as a young man of 22 years, he went on a voyage to South America on a ship called the “Beagle,” captained by a Mr. Fitz-Roy. Darwin nearly did not get to board the ship, had it not been for two pieces of luck.
- Darwin, in his Autobiography, recalled how his father “strongly objected” to Darwin going on the voyage. Darwin writes that his seminal voyage on the Beagle depended on “so small a circumstance as my uncle offering to drive me thirty miles” (in those days, there were no cars, so “drive” meant a horse and carriage) to talk with Darwin’s father. Darwin’s uncle convinced Darwin’s father to let Darwin go on the voyage.
- Darwin later found out he had faced the risk of being rejected by Fitz-Roy due to the “shape of my nose!” Fitz-Roy was “convinced that he could judge a man’s character by the outline of his features” and initially doubted whether anyone with the shape of Darwin’s nose could “possess sufficient energy and determination for the voyage.”
Fitz-Roy, fortunately, changed his mind, and Darwin joined the expedition. It was for Darwin, “the most important event of my life.” The voyage lasted nearly five years, from 27 December 1831 to 2 October 1836.
It was on this extended trip that Darwin learned how to study all the available evidence. He took detailed notes and collected a vast array of plants and animals. An example of Darwin’s attention to detail is provided by David Attenborough, the natural historian, who says that when Darwin visited a forest outside Rio de Janeiro in 1832, “In one day, in one small area, he collected sixty-eight different species of small beetle.”
On his return Darwin began a systematic inquiry on the “innumerable well-observed facts” he had collected. He came up with many hypotheses and, eventually, his theory of evolution by natural selection.
The power of Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection was the combination of hypotheses with their implications and a vast collection of empirical evidence. Darwin paid the closest attention to “data” and observations that could have shown his theory wrong. He wrote that “I had, also, during many years, followed a golden rule, namely, that whenever a published fact, a new observation of 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 from experience that such facts and thoughts were far more apt to escape from memory than favorable ones. Owing to this habit, very few objections were raised against my views, which I had not at least noticed and attempted to answer.”
Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection ranks as one of the most important of any human achievement. It would do us all a lot of good to keep in mind what James Birx, a Professor at the State University of New York, wrote about Darwin. Birx wrote that Darwin teaches us what can be accomplished by “a direct result of giving priority to empirical evidence and rational argumentation.”
Darwin had several admirable qualities. He was intellectually adventurous and read widely. He was always kind and formed strong friendships, on which he said, “A man’s friendships are one of the best measures of his worth.” However, above all his virtues, the foundation of his great character was a striving to see the world as it is, not as we wish it to be.
© Kaikhushru Taraporevala