While we’re on the subject of communicating new ideas, I’ve been meaning to mention a lecture I heard while on a bike ride last spring, when I was sampling the Biology 1B course in the Berkeley webcast series. It was the introductory lecture for the evolution section of the course, taught by Montgomery Slatkin. The second half of the lecture focuses on Darwin’s On the Origin of Species — and in particular, on the rhetorical strategy in the early chapters.

Darwin, says Slatkin, was like a salesman who finds lots of little ways to get you to say yes before you’re asked to utter the big yes. In this case, Darwin invited people to affirm things they already knew, about a topic much more familiar in their era than in ours: domestic species. Did people observe variation in domestic species? Yes. And as Darwin piles on the examples, the reader says, yes, yes, OK, I get it, of course I see that some pigeons have longer tail feathers. Did people observe inheritance? Yes. And again, as he piles on the examples, the reader says yes, yes, OK, I get it, everyone knows that that the offspring of longer-tail-feather pigeons have longer tail feathers.

By the time Darwin gets around to asking you to say the big yes, it’s a done deal. You’ve already affirmed every one of the key pillars of the argument. And you’ve done so in terms of principles that you already believe, and fully understand from your own experience.

It only took a couple of years for Darwin to formulate the idea of evolution by natural selection. It took thirty years to frame that idea in a way that would convince other scientists and the general public. Both the idea, and the rhetorical strategy that successfully communicated it, were great innovations.

Several comments on yesterday’s item pointed out that you can’t get ahead of the curve, that early adopters are by definition a minority, that the cool new stuff will transfer from the elite to the masses in due time, and that fun, useful, and compelling products will be the vector for that transfer.

I agree with all that. At the same time, I believe there are world-changing ideas in the air, that those ideas can take root in many minds, and that if they do, lots of people will start to influence the technology pipeline in healthy ways.

How do you sell those ideas? Darwin’s rhetorical strategy provides a great example.