The theory of evolution is one of the greatest scientific discoveries of modern times. Charles Darwin will always be remembered as the man who explained how all life evolved on earth.
But what was remarkable about the story was the fact that Darwin, himself, was not a formally educated scientist. He had shown little academic ability at school, but had a genuine love of nature. An opportunity arose to join HMS Beagle on its round the world scientific expedition as a self funded amateur.
He spent time ashore making up scientific collections, one of which comprised of 13 finches from 13 different islands. On his return to England he sent the collection to an eminent zoologist called Gould. Darwin’s knowledge was so limited, he didn’t even know what species of birds he had collected.
What perplexed Gould was that each bird was slightly different to one another. He assumed, as did most people of that time that God made a fixed number of unchanging species when he made the world. So he was utterly perplexed as to how to explain the differences which were slight, but noticeable.
It was Darwin who came up with the answer. That the birds had gradually spread out from one island and settled else where. Over time they changed their appearance depending on their environment. All the evidence to support the theory of evolution was around at this time. So why was it possible for Darwin, an untrained scientist, to take the known facts and fit them into a groundbreaking theory.
Gould had approached the problem as a trained zoologist and tried to fit everything he saw according to the rules of taxonomy. If ideas didn’t fit in with with what he had been taught, he discarded them as worthless. He was trapped in a box of past assumptions.
Darwin came up with the idea because he was not hamstrung by ideas still closely associated with established religious, cultural and scientific orthodoxy of the time. His success was not down to logical thinking, but being able to think laterally and being open to other theories and perspectives.
His friend Julian Huxley, a very eminent scientist of the time, remarked “how extremely stupid not to have thought of that.” It would take many years to validate, extend and fully explain the theory of evolution, but it was Darwin’s creative thinking that made it possible in the first place.