Darwin's Dilemma and Innovation

by Scott Bowden

Darwin's Dilemma and InnovationCharles Darwin, the English naturalist who is most often synonymous with the theory of evolution,  eclipses another leading thinker of the 19th century who independently developed evolutionary theory and co-discovererd natural selection.

I recently wrote about the experiences of Alfred Russel Wallace and how modern innovators can benefit from understanding his life story.  There is another side to the Wallace story which I alluded to in my previous posting that warrants additional discussion, and is cogently presented in a recent article by James Tabery, an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of Utah.  Wallace is the less well-known expositor of the theory of evolution.  He worked in parallel to Darwin, making observations in Brazil and the Malay Archipelago. In 1858, Wallace sent Darwin a manuscript that outlined the same concepts that Darwin had been working on for nearly 20 years, though Darwin, for various reasons, had chosen not to publish his findings yet.  Tabery notes that the history of science is replete with examples of scientists bending the rules of ethical behavior to advance their careers and make great breakthroughs.  However, in the case of Darwin, we see precisely the opposite behavior (though Darwin still is synonymous with the ultimate discovery).

When Darwin received Wallace’s manuscript in 1858, he had a number of options to consider, ranging from destroying the document, to stealing ideas from it for his own theory, to threatening Wallace not to proceed with his research.  Instead, Darwin sent the manuscript to two fellow scientists, Charles Lyell and Joseph Hooker, and sought their guidance for how to proceed.  Lyell and Hooker recommended that Darwin and Wallace conduct a joint presentation of their discoveries to the Linnean Society to make it clear that both authors had arrived at their conclusions independently. By approaching the dilemma in this manner, not only did Darwin rise above the ethical entanglements posed by this situation, but he also chose a path that further enhanced scientific knowledge by sharing with his colleagues the different pathways that he and Wallace took to arrive at the same conclusion. The ethical path expanded scientific knowledge in a way that could not have been accomplished through the alternative approach.

From the standpoint of the modern innovator, there are two key lessons from Darwin’s treatment of Wallace’s manuscript.  First, a recurring experience for anyone working in the innovation field is to sense that one has achieved a breakthrough only to find out, after further investigation, that someone else has already tread across that path and articulated the same insight, often in a more succinct manner.  In some ways, working on an idea for an extended period of time then finding out that someone else has already mastered that concept can be more devastating than working on an idea that ultimately fails in its core conception.  For instance, designing and building a prototype of a tool to solve a problem and ultimately seeing that tool fail and not work as planned could be seen as less painful for an innovator than spending the same amount of time on the tool and realizing late in the process that someone else has already built it and succeeded.

Darwin’s lesson for the innovator is to acknowledge that in the course of scientific discovery even the sharpest minds investing tremendous amounts of time can stumble across the possibility that another sharp mind will match or surpass their output.  If twenty years of scientific investigation can be superseded by opening a single letter in the mailbox for one of the brightest minds in the history of science, then we as innovators should be prepared for similar experiences in our careers. A second innovation lesson from the Darwin/Wallace interactions in 1858 lies in the way that Darwin handled the dilemma of what to do with Wallace’s manuscript.  Darwin chose the path that leveraged the expertise of fellow scientists and focused on expanding the boundaries of knowledge without (much) thought as to who would receive credit for the final discovery.  In the end this approach proved beneficial not only to Darwin and Wallace but also to the development of knowledge as a whole.

Source: James Tabery, “Science and Ethics: What Would Darwin Do?” Salt Lake Herald Tribune, February 10, 2012, page A13.

image credit: visualizingevolution.com

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Scott BowdenScott Bowden works on Innovation Programs for IBM Global Services.

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