Survival of the Thesis, Writing Advice from Charles Darwin

NB: For more on Charles Darwin’s outlook on human emotion see the article that prompted this post Thomas Dixon’s piece for the Guardian –  Forget cut-throat competition: to survive, try a little selflessness.

In 1842, Charles Darwin relocated to the English countryside where he would spend the next seventeen years working on his magnum opus, The Origin of Species.

There he adopted a surprisingly relaxed routine. The following schedule, provided by Francis Darwin, summarises a typical day in his father’s life.

7 a.m. Rose and took a short walk, followed by breakfast.
8a.m. Worked in his study; he considered this his best working time.
9:30 a.m. Went to drawing-room and read his letters, followed by reading aloud of family letters.
10:30 a.m Return to study, the end of his working day.
12 noon Walk, starting with visit to greenhouse, then round the sandwalk, the number of times depending on his health, usually alone or with a dog.
12:45 p.m. Lunch with whole family, which was his main meal of the day.
3 p.m. Rested in his bedroom on the sofa and smoked a cigarette, listened to a novel or other light literature read by ED [Emma Darwin, his wife].
4 p.m. Walk around sandwalk followed by clearing up matters of the day
6 p.m. Rested again in bedroom with ED reading aloud.
7.30 p.m. Light high tea while the family dined. In late years never stayed in the dining room with the men, but retired to the drawing-room with the ladies.
10 p.m. Left the drawing-room and usually in bed by 10:30, but slept badly.

Darwin’s strategy is one of crafted self-possession. He prioritises domestic comfort, time with the family, rambles in the country, and immersing oneself in the sensory world over hard-lined intellectual endurance. His emotional discipline is built on positive rather than negative reinforcement.

Moreover, it likely that this approach was adopted in an effort to maintain both his mental and physical health. As Scott Stossel notes in My Age of Anxiety: Fear, Hope, Dread, and the Search for Peace of Mind Darwin’s wellbeing was psychosomatically wed to his work.

Observers going back to Aristotle have noted that nervous dyspepsia and intellectual accomplishment often go hand in hand. Sigmund Freud’s trip to the United States in 1909, which introduced psychoanalysis to this country, was marred (as he would later frequently complain) by his nervous stomach and bouts of diarrhea. Many of the letters between William and Henry James, first-class neurotics both, consist mainly of the exchange of various remedies for their stomach trouble.

But for debilitating nervous stomach complaints, nothing compares to that which afflicted poor Charles Darwin, who spent decades of his life prostrated by his upset stomach.

However this modus operandi not only safeguarded Darwin’s health but also fostered a deep emotional connection with his research.

The personal intimacy intertwined with Darwin’s ‘entangled bank’ resonates within the lucid flow and appreciative tone of his argument.

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.

There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.

Darwin resists an algorythmic, automatic, or breakneck approach; the symbiotic pleasureside_illus-lefthe takes in both his writing and research is tied  with his ability to take a moment, breathe, and witness the world in a wider dimension.

This consciousness of place, evolving from a sharpening of vision, and a slowing down of time is a method that can be applied to both natural history and to writing.

If your writing is made up of non-stop, frantic, action with no breathing space at all, then –  instead of accelerating your work – you can just create a confusing muddle of disparate ideas.

In a letter to H.W Bates in 1861 Darwin provides a plan for dredging your thoughts out of this primordial soup. Lamenting the sting of labouring ‘very hard and slowly at every sentence’, he admits he sometimes finds style ‘a great difficulty’. His advice to fellow floundering writers is as follows:

I find it a very good plan, when I cannot get a difficult discussion to please me, to fancy that some one comes into the room, & asks me what I am doing; & then try at once & explain to the imaginary person what it is all about.— I have done this for one paragraph to myself several times; & sometimes to Mrs. Darwin, till I see how the subject ought to go.— It is, I think, good to read one’s manuscript aloud.

He also suggests that a writer should power through their piece briskly in order to construct a kind of skeleton argument; noting ‘it is good I think to dash “in medias res”, and work in later any descriptions of country or any historical details which may be necessary.’

Darwin, unsurprisingly, encourages writers to work with (rather than against) the natural selection process. Adam Gopnik in  Angels and Ages: A Short Book about Darwin, Lincoln, and Modern Life explores Darwin’s strategy for adapting his argument to different environments. Short of growing gills, or developing the ability to camouflage,  Gopnik describes Darwin’s power to create ‘a book that is one long provocation in the guise of being none.’ Gopnik notes that the habit of “sympathetic summary,” what philosophers now call the “principle of charity,” is essential to all the sciences and traces the the heart of Darwin’s rhetorical power with his ability to preemptively defend his ideas.

A counterargument to your own should first be summarized in its strongest form, with holes caulked as they appear, and minor inconsistencies or infelicities of phrasing looked past. Then, and only then, should a critique begin. This is charitable by name, selfishly constructive in intent: only by putting the best case forward can the refutation be definitive. The idea is to leave the least possible escape space for the “but you didn’t understand…” move. Wiggle room is reduced to a minimum.

All of what remain today as the chief objections to his theory are introduced by Darwin himself, fairly and accurately, and in a spirit of almost panicked anxiety — and then rejected not by bullying insistence but by specific example, drawn from the reservoir of his minute experience of life. This is where we get it all wrong if we think that Wallace might have made evolution as well as Darwin; he could have written the words, but he could not have answered the objections. He might have offered a theory of natural selection, but he could never (as he knew) have written On the Origin of Species. For The Origin is not only a statement of a thesis; it is a book of answers to questions that no one had yet asked, and of examples answering those still faceless opponents.

Darwin rhetoric not only predicates an opposing argument but inhabits it with all the fidelity and spirit of one who truly holds such an intellectual position.  The survival of his thesis is won on the field of intellectual empathy,  within the privacy of his own work, rather than through an indelicate fight to the death played out in the public arena.

Thus, Darwin teaches us that, in an effort to make sure that your work does not go the way of the dodo – and become usurped by an argument better suited to the wider intellectual climate – it is  worthwhile to adapt your methodology and anticipate arguments in order to survive. 

In the spirit of this philosophy, I think it is important to remember that such advice is worthless if you do not possess the tenacity to actually write the damn thing – intellectual stagnation, masquerading as perfectionism, is an all too common affliction of writers and researcher’s alike – Darwin himself after all did take over two decades to produce Origin, in equal parts due to academic ambivalence and an eight year sojourn to study barnacles.

sandwalk-wood-charles-darwin-simon-kregar
Sandlewalk Wood by Simon Kregar (2012)

Scott Stossel, My Age of Anxiety: Fear, Hope, Dread, and the Search for Peace of Mind (London William Heinemann, 2014)

Charles Darwin On the Origin of Species, (Oxford Classics, 2008)

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 3338,” accessed on 27 July 2016, http://www.darwinproject.ac.uk/DCP-LETT-3338

Adam Gopnik Angels and Ages: A Short Book about Darwin, Lincoln, and Modern Life (Vintage, 2010)


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One thought on “Survival of the Thesis, Writing Advice from Charles Darwin

  1. I love this, it gives you a real insight into how he lived his life and what he prioritised, his
    pointers for unpacking your own writing applies equally today as it did two hundred years ago.

    Liked by 1 person

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