Charles Darwin: the ingredient beyond intelligence

Charles Darwin wrote a summary of his survival of the fittest theory in 1842. And yet, his book “On the origin of species” was published only in 1859! What the hell did he do for those 17 years?

Darwin was inspired by the preacher and economist Thomas Malthaus who had written an essay on the principle of population. The essay (written in 1798) delved into how population growth had always overpowered food growth. Leading to cycles of hunger and struggle. Darwin thought that if life was a struggle, beneficial traits would give some folks an advantage, wouldn’t it? 

But when Darwin shared his idea with his friend and mentor Joseph Hooker, Hooker asked a lot of questions and dug quite a lot of holes in the theory.

The flaws in Darwin’s thesis

The main hole being how could Darwin be sure of evolution? Where was the proof that species evolved to adapt to their surroundings and there was no spontaneous generation of their features instead?

The second fatal hole was: all creatures within a species seemed identical. Maybe you can differentiate between humans but can you differentiate between a 100 house flies? If there was uniformity, wouldn’t life and death be based on luck? What was to say everything was just not random?

Darwin didn’t have conviction. He was ambivalent. Maybe his theory was correct and maybe it wasn’t. But what he had was determination. He had to prove it or disprove it one way or another.

Darwin thought that the best course of action would be to go deep. And so, he decided to study a creature called Cirripedia – better known as the barnacles – for a few weeks. 

Little did he know that the weeks became months and the months became years! It took Darwin 8 long years to dissect, study, and catalogue all the known species of barnacles till then! Why? Because he found that there are over a 1000 barnacle species! Most people can’t find differences in the barnacles. But if you go deep and look closer, you find so many minute differences based on which part of the world the barnacles came from.

Such was his obsession that when his young son George went to a neighbours home and didn’t see a microscope, he asked: where does your father do the barnacles?

The minute differences in different barnacle species led to the theory of evolution being proved correct.

But how could Darwin sustain himself with this boring work for 8 long years? 

The crucial ingredient besides intelligence

The scientist Richard Hamming first worked at the Manhattan project that built the atom bomb. And then at the legendary Bell Labs that was an innovation powerhouse. Over his lifetime, he started studying how someone came up with a breakthrough idea. A high impact Nobel Prize winning idea. 

And he realized that these ideas came about not because of the scientist’s intelligence. There were a lot of very very smart scientists who didn’t end up achieving much in their entire lives.

There is a trait besides intelligence that is required for huge impact breakthroughs. And that is the ability to tolerate ambiguity. Most people believe something is true or not true. But great scientists can deal with ambiguity. They can hold opposite ideas in their minds. Uncertainty does not faze them. They don’t look for immediate closure. 

Charles Darwin by all accounts wasn’t a very intelligent scientist. He was average. But what he was above average in was his ability to tolerate ambiguity. 

Take Einstein. Probably one of the smartest scientists we have seen. He revolutionized science by writing 4 seminal papers in one year – when he was just 26 years old. But those 4 papers were a result of a question Einstein asked when he was merely 14 years old. When Einstein was 14, he thought: “what would a light wave look like if I went with the velocity of light itself to look at it?” While a lot more people have had similar thoughts, most of them have given up on it after a few hours to a few weeks because the thought is so uncertain. But not Einstein. He stuck with this ambiguous thought for more than a decade before he came up with his theories of general and special relativity.

So can you even cultivate tolerance for ambiguity?

Carol Dweck shows us the light. Dweck is a Stanford psychologist who conducted research on Kindergarten kids. The kids were given a non verbal IQ test. 

  • And then randomly, half of them were praised: “you did so well, you must be really smart!”
  • The other half were praised: “you did so well, you must have worked really hard!”

The kids were then given very hard problems to solve. And would you believe it: the kids who were praised for their smartness gave up very quickly when they could not come up with a solution right away. On the other hand, the kids who were praised for their hard work kept on going on for a lot longer!

What’s going on here? The kids who were termed as smart quit because they don’t want to look stupid. Not because they lack the ability, but just because of how failure would make them look.

That’s the reason being in an ambiguous situation makes someone feel anxious. The fear of looking foolish.

Richard Hamming had observed something similar too. He called it the Nobel Prize Effect. Hamming observed that Nobel Prize winners stopped taking risks. The number of impact ideas they would come up with after winning the award drastically reduced.

Not because their ability changed. But because now they had labeled themselves as a Nobel laureate. How would it look if they failed now?

To get over this fear of looking foolish, you have to separate your self esteem from the merit of your ideas. You need to have inherent confidence in your abilities. 

Action Summary:

  • You have to be willing to be bad before you become good. 
  • And thats why, you need to be ok with ambiguity. You need to be ok with not knowing things. You need to be ok with looking foolish.
  • Tolerance for ambiguity beats intelligence when it comes to doing great things.