Every generation comes with a few men and women who become beacons of light for others to follow. Their lives reflect back to us those universal principles and values that uplift, ennoble, inspire and empower us to live more effectively and meaningfully. Charles Darwin was such a man.
He was born on February 12, 1809 in Shrewsbury, England to Dr. Robert and Susannah Darwin. His father was a medical doctor and his grandfather a scientist. Perhaps, it is from his family that he inherited his scientific bent of mind.
School years were uneventful for Charles Darwin and disappointing to his father. Young Darwin would rather collect beetles, rocks, fossils, watch birds, study plants and animals to the disgust of his father. His interest was in nature and life on land, in the sea and in the skies above.
In 1825, his father enrolled him in the University of Edinburg to study Medicine but he dropped out of the school after two years because he could not stand surgery and other medical practices of the time. Disappointed, in 1827, his father arranged for him to study at Cambridge University to become a Priest. He graduated with a Bachelor of Arts Degree in 1831.
His interest in the Ministry was far below average. He would rather spend his time wandering the seashores, watching birds and reading books in natural history. This explains why he jumped at the position of a naturalist on a Naval Ship, HMS Beagle which was to survey the Coastlines of Argentina, Chile, Peru and a complete chronometrical measurement around the world as a basis for establishing the exact longitude. His father resented the idea but he was convinced by Charles Darwin’s maternal uncle to let him go.
The Beagle left England in December 1831 captained by Robert Fitzroy with the young and curious Darwin on board. In Brazil he was amazed at the diversity of life in the rain forest. Argentina presented another set of surprises for him. Much more surprises was to come at the Galapagos Island where he saw unique creatures, giant marine Iguanas and giant tortoises, which were not only different from those he saw elsewhere but had features unique to each of the 13 islands.
Throughout the journey, he drew and wrote about what he saw and sent specimen such as birds, plants and fossils attached to the copy of his journal back to Cambridge University, England. His analytical mind began to wake up and he tried to piece together the puzzles he encountered in the journey. He began to theorize about the geology of the places they covered. It was the journey that had sown the seed of the theory of evolution.
Charles Darwin returned to England in 1836 and spent the next few years cataloguing and recording the specimen he had collected. He began to put down his findings in a book, journal and remark which got published as part Robert Fitzroy’s book of, Narratives. He joined and become active in the Council of Geological Society and became a fellow of the Royal Society in 1839. Soon his health began to fail him and he moved to Down House, near Bromley, England in 1842 for the calm and comfort of the country side.
It was here that he worked heavily to perfect the theory of evolution by natural selection which he had conceived in London. In 1858, after 20 years of scientific investigation, he introduced his idea to the scientific community and in November 24, 1859 he published the book, On the Origin of Species.
Charles Darwin’s life is worth studying. From his time as a school boy to the Beagle voyage, his years in London after the journey, his move to Down House to the decades spent in scientific investigation speaks volumes. His ways of working is not only an inspiration to those interested in natural history, but remains a rich repository on which PR professionals concerned with self improvement and progress can tap into and learn from.
Here are four key lessons we can draw from his life to drive our personal and professional lives:
Lesson I: Passion is a great enabler.
What kept Charles Darwin going despite his failing health was his passion for natural history. After returning from the Beagle Voyage in 1836, he is reported to have suffered for over 40 years from long bouts of vomiting, gut pain, headaches, severe tiredness, skin problems and depression. Yet he endured the suffering and continued his research, experimentations and writings.
PR people should know that “To be successful”, as Sister Mary Lauretta noted, “the first thing to do is to fall in love with your work”. It doesn’t matter the circumstance you find yourself. Your weaknesses will not count or stay on your way. Passion is a great force that surmounts mountains. John Campbell, an American Mythologist, writer and lecturer knew this fact when he said “Passion will move men beyond themselves, beyond their shortcomings, beyond their failures.”
Lesson 2: Curiosity is the wick in the candle of knowledge and understanding.
Darwin’s maternal uncle, Josiah Wedgewood must have been a Prophet. When trying to win the consent of his nephew’s parent for the journey on the Beagle, he remarked that Charles Darwin was “a man of enlarged curiosity, it affords him the opportunity of seeing men and things as happen to few”. He was right.
Charles Darwin’s curiosity knew no bounds, especially on matters of natural history. He was interested in the wonders of barnacles, the mystery behind the different shapes, colours and textures of the beetles, the morphology and anatomy of flowers, especially orchirds, animal behavior, how and why humans and animals express emotions. In fact he wanted to know everything about how the natural world works. And he found answers that enlarged his knowledge and understanding. This culminated in the massive discoveries and contributions to advance knowledge in geology, ecology, biology and other related fields.
It takes “enlarged curiosity’ to succeed in public relations. The PR professional is expected to seek understanding of his practice environment, know the taste and preferences of stakeholders, know what is trending on the internet, understand PR and clients’/organization’s industry. It is only in being current on key information can he/she be able to develop PR programmes that deliver the desired outcomes.
Lesson 3: The road to creative ideas lies outside the box of received knowledge.
When Charles Darwin returned to England after travelling the world on HMS Beagle, he was confused about a collection of 13 birds he brought with him from Galapagos Islands. So he took them to John Gould, an eminent zoologist of his time for analysis. Gould himself was perplexed. The birds all bore the semblance of finches, yet each looked different from the other. Because he didn’t understand why they look different from each other, he declined to place them as finches.
Gould saw the birds through creationist eyes. He could not step out of the box of received wisdom of his time which had it that God had created a fixed number of unchanging species when he created the world. It took a creative thinker like Charles Darwin to quickly realize that the birds were all finches, but were different because they were from 13 different Galapagos Islands. They had originally looked the same, but were now looking different because they were evolving in response to the separate environments of the different islands they found themselves.
Don’t forget that Charles Darwin was a trained clergy, but he kept the creationist view, the received wisdom aside and employed creative thinking to resolve the problem.
PR practitioners must know that not all theories, case studies and expert suggestions we read from books, journals and websites are useful in solving all problems we encounter in our professional lives, for no two PR problems are alike.
Creative thinking, looking at a PR problem from a fresh perspective, sometimes outside the box of the received wisdom of our profession is all it takes to crack the code of difficult PR problems and issues.
Lesson 4: Sharing your knowledge and experience leaves you a legacy, deepens your profession and adds to the advancement of mankind.
Charles Darwin knew that his ideas would not be able to reach posterity if he did not capture his thoughts and experiences in books. So he went to work. In many volumes, he described all the known barnacle species, fossil and living; explained how orchids are fertilized by insects and how plants climb; discussed human origin and sexual selection; detailed how coral reefs are formed and explored earthworm behaviour and the formation of vegetable moulds. His books also addressed the effects of cross and self-fertilization in vegetables, the different forms of flowers on plants of the same species, how man and animals express emotion, the behaviour of insectivourous plants and his five year voyage in HMS Beagle.
His ground-breaking contribution to the advancement of humanity remains.
The theory of Evolution by Natural Selection captured in his books’ “On the origin of species” which was published in 1859.
Today he is remembered for shattering the creationist belief which had it that everything was created when God created the world that all things God created remained the same, immutable. This paradigm shift from creation to evolution changed the way we think and see ourselves and caused a revolution in science. Science moved from a religionist untested method to rational understanding through the use of what we now know as the scientific method, which has led to great advances in many of its fields including medicine, biotechnology and psychology. For example, evolutionary medicine can now explain the development of resistant bacteria and the formation of resistant pathogen, insects and noxious plants. Genetically modified crops, gene therapy and the human genome project became possible through an understanding of the theory of evolution. All these would not have been possible if Charles Darwin did not put down his insight in books and articles.
One of the core aspects of the PR profession is writing, but our experienced and highly successful professionals are not doing enough in that regard.
PR professionals should know that any profession whose members do not put down in articles, books and other recorded forms their triumphs, failures and mistakes for the young ones and posterity to learn is sure to die by installments, for it lays no foundation for future generations to build on.
In conclusion, it is important to state that great minds in every field of human endeavour are bright lights that show the way to progress. If we in Public Relations are desirous of real progress for ourselves and for our profession, we must study their lives and ways of work, extrapolate and model those values and styles which stood them out among their peers and made them great.