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4 Innovation Lessons From Charles Darwin

2017 May 10
by Greg Satell

Many people think that Charles Darwin came up with the idea of evolution. He didn’t. In fact, by the time he hit the world stage, many people already believed in evolution and there were already a number of theories, such as those of Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, that sought to explain it. Darwin was merely the first to come up with a workable hypothesis.

Today, Darwin’s theory pops up in places you wouldn’t expect. Besides medicine, where it has great influence, algorithms based on Darwin’s work are used in everything from logistics to engineering. As Pedro Domingos explains in The Master Algorithm, it has also made major contributions to artificial intelligence.

Clearly, Darwin is one of the most influential scientists who ever lived. Today, more than 150 years after he first published On the Origin of Species, his theory remains one of the most essential and pervasive scientific tools we have. Yet it is not only product of his work that’s valuable, Darwin’s innovation process is something that we can all still learn from.

1. The Value Of Exploration

When most people think about innovation today, they usually think about things like agility and entrepreneurship. Ambitious young go-getters join a startup and iterate their way to a successful product. The goal is to fail fast and cheap, learn lessons and hit on a successful business model while the money still lasts. If things don’t work out, they join another startup and try again.

Darwin took a very different path. A mediocre student at best, but with a passion for geology and biology, in 1831 he signed on as a naturalist on the HMS Beagle for a five-year voyage to explore South America and the Pacific. It was during his time on the Beagle that he made the observations that led to his breakthrough.

His first discoveries were geological. He found bands of seashells on top of mountains, which supported the theory, just emerging at the time, that the world did not always look as it does today, but formed over millions of years. We take this idea for granted today, but in the early nineteenth century, it was considered radical.

Yet what most struck him was the incredible diversity of life he saw. For someone who had never left England, seeing how each landmass, even relatively small islands and atolls, spawned completely different species of plants and animals was a revelation. It was Darwin’s experiences on his voyage, more than anything else, that spawned his famous theory.

2. Innovation Is Combination

Darwin’s experiences on The Beagle weren’t limited to first-hand observations alone. The long journey also gave him ample time to read. One book in particular that influenced him was  Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology, which described the new theory that helped Darwin interpret his observations of seashells on mountaintops.

Another crucial influence came after he returned to England and encountered an essay by Thomas Malthus, which described how populations grow faster than the means to support them. It was that essay that formed the final piece to the puzzle of what became Darwin’s theory of natural selection.

If, as Lyell had suggested, the world was constantly changing and, as Malthus had shown, there was always more life than means to support it, then there must be constant competition for survival. Under these conditions, characteristics favorable to a particular environment would be passed on and those unfavorable would die out.

So Darwin’s theory was, more than anything else, the combination of Lyell’s ideas about geology, Malthus’s observations about population and his own explorations which he had meticulously documented during the voyage. It’s hard to see how Darwin could have come up with his theory without all three elements.

3. No Theory Is Perfect

Darwin’s theory has proven to be one of the most successful in the history of science, but it wasn’t perfect. In fact, some aspects of the original theory were gravely mistaken, such as the idea of blending inheritance, which suggested that offspring take on an average of their parents traits.

This is almost laughably wrong, as Darwin realized soon after his book was published. If traits were passed down that way, then they would become more similar over time rather than more diverse. Since natural selection depends on variability to produce adaptations, the idea of blending inheritance undermined the very theory Darwin was trying to establish.

This was more than a minor error and Darwin’s later attempts, such as his theory of pangenesis, did little to bridge the gap. Ironically, an obscure Austrian monk named Gregor Mendel discovered the key to the inheritance riddle in 1865, shortly after Darwin published On the Origin of Species, but the two never came across each other’s work.

So Darwin’s work remained an incomplete theory for roughly a half century until scientists independently discovered the same rules of genetics that Mendel had published many years before. What we consider Darwin’s theory today is, in many ways, a combination of the two men’s work.

4. We Can Attack Complexity In Small Pieces

Think back to what it was like to live during Darwin’s time and his theory describes almost unfathomable complexity. Most people lived their entire lives just a few miles from where they were born. Nearly a third of the men and half of women could not read and even for those who were literate, books were too expensive for most to afford.

So the idea of millions of species vying for survival in a changing environment was beyond the scope of most people’s imagination. It was only when Darwin ventured out into the unknown that he could begin to unravel the mystery and he did it, strangely enough, by diligently documenting the organisms he found one by one.

Today, as complexity theorist Sam Arbesman describes in his book, Overcomplicated, much of the complexity we experience arises out of our own creations. Few technologists understand little more than one or two aspects of computer systems, just like even the most studious lawyer is unable to attain mastery of more than a small slice of the legal code.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Arbesman suggests that we approach the problem of modern day complexity much as Darwin did, through cataloging and documenting small pieces of ecosystems with the hopes that in doing so, a more complete theory will emerge, much as Mendel’s work combined with Darwin’s to form a complete picture.

The truth is that innovation needs exploration. Much like Darwin’s voyage on the Beagle, we cannot expect to know what we will find beforehand. The only certainty is that we learn nothing by staying put.

– Greg


An earlier version of this article first appeared in

9 Responses leave one →
  1. Robin Solis permalink
    May 11, 2017

    Brilliant as always. You have a typo with the correct there-their usage. I do that one more often than I can control.

  2. May 11, 2017

    On this post? I can’t find it?

  3. May 11, 2017

    It’s in the third paragraph under number 2.

  4. May 11, 2017

    Great post. My favorite fun fact about Darwin was that he was the first (as far as we know) to put wheels on his chair so he could slip back and forth between his desk and sample cases.

  5. May 11, 2017

    Got it now. Thx!

  6. May 11, 2017

    Didn’t know that!

  7. Michael Gallagher permalink
    May 12, 2017

    A few points about exploration skills. As you say, Darwin didn’t know what he would find when he set out on his journey. But he did have questions that he wanted to explore. He was not just wandering around. Using Dan Kahneman’s vocabulary, he was a “slow thinker” – asking questions that he could not know the answer to at the time. Not something that humans are comfortable doing very much. Nor are we encouraged to do it in making important decisions. Just ask Chip and Dan Heath (their book, Decisive). And Darwin may not have been a great stodent, but he had a great sense of the strategic learning value of the questions he was asking. Hmmm … strategic thinking – not many courses on that!

  8. May 12, 2017

    Actually, in this case, he didn’t really know what he was looking for. With respect to the Heaths, that’s not at all uncommon. I encountered many similar stories while researching my book. For example, Jim Allison didn’t start out trying to cure cancer, but rather to figure out how the immune system work. Nevertheless, he developed Cancer Immunotherapy, which is now saving countless lives.

    – Greg

  9. Michael Gallagher permalink
    May 12, 2017

    Right – they had questions that led them to explore and that started their intellectual adventures. That is what I was trying to point out. Not that they knew what they were looking for. As you say, they found all sorts of things.

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