He Who Hesitates is Forgotten

It took Charles Darwin over 20 years to go public with his theory on evolution. His voyages on the HMS Beagle that lead him to his Theory of Natural Selection were over a five year period from 1831 to 1836. But it wasn’t until 1859 that his On the Origin of Species was finally published.

Did it take a quarter century for Darwin to finalize the theory? Well, yes and no. The theory was largely defined much earlier, but there were a few vexing exceptions to the elegant concept that Darwin wanted to explain to his own satisfaction first. So he continued to pick away at the theory, and often put the work on the shelf for long periods of time, while he worked on other areas, including a rather intensive study of barnacles, or dealt with his recurring health issues.

But further insight is gained when one examines Darwin’s character and the social environment he was in. Darwin was cursed with an extremely developed habit of self deprecation. He constantly questioned his own intellect and status in scientific circles. So, given that the theory he was working on was so potentially controversial, especially in tight laced Victorian England, it was natural (pun fully intentional) that Darwin would fret over its release. He carefully pondered the religious implications.

What made Darwin finally publish? In came down to a race with another biologist, Alfred Wallace, who was also pursuing ideas that were similar, or identical in many cases, to Darwin’s long developing theory. Ironically, Wallace choose Darwin as a channel to forward some of his thoughts to a common friend, and Darwin, upon reading Wallace’s notes and realizing that 20 plus years of work could be for naught, quickly took a much larger manuscript he had been working on and pared it down to a publishable abstract. Darwin published first. And that made the difference. Chances are, you never heard of Alfred Wallace before this blog post.

The point of this is that the speed of society in Victorian England was much slower than it is today. Publishing can be instantaneous. The need to do something, anything, is greater than ever. If you have something important to say, say it. Don’t worry too much about being wrong. There has been an explosion of scientific discovery in many areas in the last few decades, including many areas of psychology and neorology. Some of this acceleration is due to new diagnostic technologies, but I believe a large part of it is due to the compressed timelines of publication. We’re putting ideas out there faster than ever, and peer review as well as public review is happening quickly and organically. Darwin’s own environment of natural selection has taken an online bent in the form of idealogical evolution.

What this means, in the words of my friend Mike Moran, is that you have to “Do It Wrong Quickly“. You have to be prepared to go out on a limb, take chances and be willing to be shot down. But, on the other hand, you just might come up with the next Google, Facebook or Theory of Natural Selection. Ironically, it’s a world that Charles Darwin probably wouldn’t function very well in.

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