The Darwin dilemma: on greatness, and the game of chance

I recently had the pleasure to take a trip to the home of Charles Darwin, Down House, a lovely residence near Orpington in Kent. In the first of my research blogs series, I would like to take a closer at the life of Darwin the man, and what the extraordinary circumstances of Darwin’s rise to greatness tells us about the world we live in.

Charles Darwin is widely regarded as a “great” scientist – indeed, perhaps one of the greatest of all time. After all, this is the man who published On the Origin of Species and put the theory of evolution on the map; a man who completely changed the face of science. But how much of Darwin’s “greatness” can be attributed to the man, and how much was just down to chance?

The question of chance

First, let’s take a look at Darwin’s background:

  • Darwin was not a naturally gifted scientist. He neglected his medical education at the University of Edinburgh, and instead helped to investigate marine invertebrates.
  • Having quit medical college young Darwin was encouraged to join the church as an alternative, but couldn’t settle, preferring riding and shooting to studying.
  • Circumstance led to Darwin being offered a place on the HMS Beagle. Darwin’s father objected, but was persuaded by his brother-in-law to agree to and fund young Darwin’s participation on the trip.

At each step along the way right from Darwin’s birth, to his becoming established as one of the 19th century’s most prominent figures, there were key moments of chance or circumstance that led to Darwin eventually taking his place among the pantheon of scientific greats.

  • Darwin was not a naturally gifted scientist. If he had been, he would have stuck out medical college and most likely faded into obscurity. He certainly wouldn’t have ended up on the Beagle.
  • The alternative presented to him, the church, was a well-respected profession – one in which he could have done very well. His decision not to follow through with his move into the clergy was not the normal course of action for someone in his position. Indeed he was fortunate to be offered other opportunities.
  • Darwin’s father objected to his son taking up a place on the Beagle. In most ordinary circumstances, his father would have won out. Only the intervention of Darwin’s uncle could sway his father to finally accept the proposition and allow his son to travel.

Add to this the fact that Darwin’s family were very well off, and his father – a doctor and financier – was able to fund his trip on the Beagle. Most young men would not have been in his position, and most would not have been given so many second chances.

Not only that but sea travel was notoriously dangerous in the 19th century. According to The History of Safety at Sea, in 1867 there were 1,313 shipwrecks causing the death of 2,340 British sailors and 137 passengers.[1] Similarly, young Darwin could have contracted sickness at sea, or could have succumbed to any number of accidents throughout the course of his voyage.

All of the above factors point to Darwin having led something of a charmed life. What’s interesting here is that given the opportunities made available to Darwin, would any of us have chosen Darwin’s path? If any of us were to start life knowing we’d end up as famous as Darwin, would we have made the same choices in order to reach that final destination? If we wanted to be a famous scientist, we’d all choose the life of a scientist wouldn’t we? We’d have worked to overcome our failings and stuck out science at Edinburgh wouldn’t we? And if that failed, then the church is/was an extremely well-respected alternative, right?

The point I am trying to get to here is that no one could have predicted the final outcome of Darwin’s life. Even after his famous voyage on the Beagle, he didn’t publish his theory until many years later – and only then when prompted by the imminent release of a similar theory from a rival.

So if Darwin hadn’t published his famous work in 1859, someone else would have, and we wouldn’t even be talking about Darwin at all – just some unremarkable beetle-collecting stickler who never quite lived up to his promise.

Funny how the world works out isn’t it?

On the concept of greatness

What the Darwin example shows is that “greatness” in itself can never really be something that someone possesses. Rather, it is a fabricated construct – a characteristic that is granted by others, and can be just as quickly taken away.

Take Lance Armstrong for example; widely hailed one of the greatest athletes of all time, only to have a dramatic fall from grace when he was outed as a drugs cheat and stripped of his Tour de France titles in 2012. If we were to go back in time to when Armstrong was racing, I am sure almost everyone would have described him as a sporting “great” – it only with hindsight that we are able to retrospectively adjust our conception of the man, and alter our collective social memory of events. And then that is only within the context of what we have defined as “cheating”, and the pseudo-morality associated with how we ascribe concepts of “right” and “wrong”.

Mohammed Ali is another interesting example. Ali was certainly one of the most revered athletes of the last century, and the reaction to his death this year is testament to how highly the man was regarded in both sporting and wider cultural circles. But would he have been so “great” if he hadn’t been the icon of a generation (i.e. if he was white, or didn’t convert to Islam, or didn’t get drafted to Vietnam)? And – this may be a controversial statement – but what if he had not taken the punishment he did against George Foreman? Would he have even been considered so great if he had lost that fight, but perhaps retained his long term health? If he had known the final outcome, would he have made the same choice?

Games within games

Both Armstrong and Ali were considered great at one time, but only one will stay with us as a long term historical “great”. Not only is the whole concept completely arbitrary, but it is also very much down to chance — both in terms of the sporting success they achieved (or not), and how they got there in the first place. What if Ali had died in Vietnam? What if Armstrong’s illness had forced him out of cycling? What if someone else had risen up the ranks at just the right time and beat either one of them to the top spot?

And of course all of this operates within the spectrum of the things that we as a society hold in high esteem. Looking at both sports in a cold, logical light, they are both essentially farcical in nature and certainly not worthy of merit in the same way as say, Darwin. One is expending energy to punch, and be punched in the face, while the other is expending energy to cycle between two points. What do either of these sports really add to our society?

When I ask these questions, I should be clear that I ask them in order to provoke response. Of course they do to some extent add “something” to the world in which we live, but not necessarily in the way you may think. Sport in itself is a very much un-tapped field for philosophical research, and is an area I am keen to write on at some point in the future.

For now though, I leave you with this thought: how much choice did any of Darwin, Ali or Armstrong have in the way in which they rose to prominence.

My feeling is very little, if none at all.


[1] The History of Safety at Sea, article reproduced on the International Maritime Organisation (IMO): [accessed 21/7/16].

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