Darwin’s rhetorical strategy

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.

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14 thoughts on “Darwin’s rhetorical strategy

  1. Jon – fascinating conjunction of two worlds, thanks. I guess the *really* interesting question is: what are the “key pillars” people recognise when using “world-changing technology”? Search, shopping, mail, teenagers making connections, maybe music – and then, what? I’m very struck by a close friend of mine who memorably said “the Internet is for geeks” in 1999 and now has a fully-loaded iPod, books all his holidays online – but still doesn’t check his email. He doesn’t see the point. The problem with a lot of the Web 2.0 type stuff I see out there is it’s tech for tech’s sake. It doesn’t fulfil a human need. It doesn’t talk to those “key pillars.” Hmmm. Rather rambling comment, I’m afraid.

  2. Actually, I don’t think it took thirty years to frame his theory in a way that was acceptable. Darwin was painfully aware of the resistance his ideas were bound to encounter, being so clearly against the Biblical account according to the then dominant interpretation. It took one letter from Wallace sharing his discoveries with Darwin — he knew he was about to be scooped. At that point he was forced to publish. Eventually their findings were presented simultaneously but Wallace ended up in the oblivion bin of science history. Nonetheless, I agree the “Origin” is a wonderful example of science writing, maybe the last great book that addresses both the expert and the lay person at the same time. Its example is probably most relevant for highly controversial subjects like stem cell research and evolution. Did I say “evolution”? Because despite that great book, evolution is still controversial for the majority of Americans (but not, for instance, Icelanders http://www.livescience.com/humanbiology/060810_evo_rank.html).

  3. Except that Darwin made that daring leap from the obvious facts of micro-evolution (change within species) to the incredible assumption that the same principles must apply to general evolution.

    You don’t have to be a Creationist to realize that his general theory is in serious trouble these days even among serious scientists. It’s just that it’s so politically incorrect to admit a disbelief in Darwinan evolution that you don’t hear much about it in the general press.

  4. Darwin did have one advantage, though: he lived in an era where there was less competition for people’s attention. Depending on one’s perspective, either we don’t yet know what the key ideas we want to communicate are, or there is so much to communicate that a lot of it will not make it out.

  5. I thought Antonio’s comments were enlightening. Innovation is often an experience of rejection. Darwin succeeded, at least in getting his ideas heard, because he persisted in the face of rejection.

    As Chris points out, the ideas are still not fully accepted. That might be because they do not make a critical difference in how you conduct your day-to-day life.

  6. As Chris points out, the ideas are still not fully accepted. That might be because they do not make a critical difference in how you conduct your day-to-day life.

    Interesting observation. Given the right focus on real human needs, that’s something we could get right.

    I had an interesting conversation with my brother last night. I showed him a web site (bikely.com) which allows him to look up cycling routes all over the country. You should have heard his enthusiasm. He doesn’t know anything about mashups, APIs or Web 2.0, but he saw a tool he could use to find bike routes for his next trip, and he was hooked.

  7. I don’t know about the passing of years but, for better or worse, the Dawkin book the Selfish Meme took the same approach – first build a “public understanding” then stake your claim. Perhaps he inherited the method from his predecessor…?

  8. Interesting article; I feel certain I’ll be trying that technique in the near future thanks to your analysis.

    Jon >> I believe there are world-changing ideas in the air,

    So what are some of those world-changing ideas that you see at the moment?

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