What can we learn from Darwin in today’s technological world

Charles Darwin was born on February 12, 1809. The world he was born into would be entirely unrecognisable to us today. Bicycles had yet to be invented, steam engines were just beginning to appear, and slavery was commonly practiced in both England and the United States. During the course of his lifetime, Darwin saw the world around him change enormously, but arguably the most significant change came from his own ideas. Darwin’s theory evolution of natural selection, altered the ways we think about almost every aspect of life.

While Darwin’s theory was ground breaking, shocking, and tremendously illuminating during his lifetime, what can it mean for us today? With all the time that has passed since Darwin’s birth, is there anything we can still learn from him? In the pursuit of science and everyday life, there are countless ways Darwin’s words still ring true today.

I recently watched a film called ‘Concussion’, which triggered the thoughts behind this blog. Starring Will Smith as Dr. Bennet Omalu, a Nigerian-born pathologist who brought the issue of brain damage in retired NFL players to the forefront, Concussion is the sort of underdog-stares-down-corporate-behemoth feature that reliably manages to stir up some awards buzz.

The true-life story began unfolding in September 2002 when Omalu, then with the Allegheny County coroner’s office in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, was assigned to perform an autopsy on the body of Mike Webster. Known as “Iron Mike,” Webster was a beloved former Pro Bowler with Pittsburgh Steelers, the anchor of a front line that helped the team win four Super Bowls. However, his mental health deteriorated to the point where he was ranting at strangers and zapping himself with a Taser gun, until his death from a heart attack at age 50.

In the film, Dr. Bennet Omalu did significant research across Darwin’s observations of birds and quoted in the film: ‘All of these animals have shock absorbers built into their bodies. The woodpecker’s tongue extends through the back of the mouth out of the nostril, encircling the entire cranium. It is the anatomical equivalent of a safety belt for its brain. Human beings? Not a single piece of our anatomy protects us from those types of collisions. A human being will get concussed at sixty G’s. A common head-to-head contact on a football field? One hundred G’s. God did not intend for us to play football.’

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell was subsequently hauled in to testify before a House Judiciary Committee in October 2009 about safety measures, and stricter guidelines were established in the pro game to limit head injuries. Still, dozens of former players embarked on legal action against the NFL in 2011, claiming that the league had failed to adequately warn and protect them. As of the summer of 2015, more than 5,000 former players were involved in a consolidated lawsuit, with a settlement figure of $765 million deemed insufficient by a judge.

This was just one example of Darwin and his teachings in our fast-technological world, it could be said that we do not observe enough, and only in times of necessity or extreme need, as with the case with ‘Concussion.’

Nature is wonderful. Darwin taught us that complex animals like birds, frogs, and even humans came about in complex ways over long periods of time. Evidence for this history is everywhere, you just have to stop and notice the details. His vivid description of an entangled bank reminds me that there is wonder in acknowledging this simple fact from time to time:

“It is interesting to contemplate an entangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent on each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us.”

Beauty can be found in the struggle. Darwin knew all too well that nature can be brutal. Individual animals fight, starve, and die other horrible deaths. Darwin acknowledged that existence is a struggle, that nature is often at war, and that resources are scarce. Somehow, he still found solace in the end product:

“Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object of which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life…from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”

We are all connected and we depend on each other. Evolution reminds us that all living creatures came about through the same basic principles. We all evolved from common ancestors in the remote past, from simple beginnings. Let’s return to Darwin’s entangled bank quote. He asks us to:

“….reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent on each other in so complex a manner…”

His theories are now associated with business through the concept of ‘Darwinian Economics’, namely that it is organisations that are best able to adapt that are most likely to survive.

But what else can you, entrepreneur, business leader or individual learn from Charles Darwin?

Use the power of observation. Many people are so busy making decisions, analysing problems and seeking answers that they pay no attention to simply observing. Darwin, on the other hand, spent much of his career observing. He spent six years, for example, dissecting and describing in eye-watering detail the structure of barnacles!

If you are observing you cannot be analysing, and vice versa, and it was Darwin’s observations that formed the basis of his idea that changed the world. His five years on the Beagle trip, for example, involved him taking thousands of samples of various species.
Observation requires getting out there, suspending your beliefs and simply taking note. It cannot be done from behind a desk through reports.

How much time do you spend on the front-line observing your team or your customers rather than analysing second or third-hand data?

Looking to the past for innovation breakthroughs. Darwin was not the first person to have thought of the concept for evolution: he was not even the first person in his own family to have the idea! His grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, had promulgated the idea that all animals had a common origin before Charles was born.

Similarly you can see the process of recombining ideas in other major breakthroughs and innovations. For example, Lou Gerstener refocused IBM away from hardware to service and consultancy support by connecting his prior (negative) experience as an IBM customer with his McKinsey consultancy experience and with the existence of a highly-active sales support unit within the company. This change in strategic direction transformed IBM from a company delivering record losses in the early 1990’s to multi-billion dollar profits by the end of the century.

What are you doing to make new connections that lead to new, breakthrough concepts?

You can only change the world through action, not thinking. Darwin sat on his theory for 17 years before he published ‘On The Origin Of The Species’. He held back publication in order to ensure that he had irrevocable evidence to support his theory (hence his interest in barnacles!). Darwin’s hand was only forced when a rival publication was developed and his desire to be seen as the originator of the idea of evolution overcame his need to be 100% certain of his ideas.

Likewise, taking action and prudent risks is the cornerstone of business growth and an offensive, rather than defensive strategy, is critical for ongoing survival and success. For example, Gillette has established market leadership by a stream of innovations that make their existing ranges obsolete. As a senior Gillette executive once said, “We have never launched a major new product without having its successor in development. You have to steer the market.”

In summary, the miraculous discoveries upon Darwin’s ideas established a philosophy by introducing the time factor, by demonstrating the importance of chance and contingency, and by showing that theories in evolution are based on a set of new principles that influence the thinking of every person in the living world, through evolution, can be explained without recourse to supernaturalism; essentialism or typology, and possibly one of the most important facts is that we must adopt population thinking, in which all individuals are unique with a belief and a can do attitude.

One of Darwin’s most famous quotes:

“It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is most adaptable to change.”

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