Greatest thinker, runner-up: Darwin,

So here we are in the ninth and penultimate post of The Hannibal Blog‘s search for the world’s greatest thinker ever. And the runner-up is…. Charles Darwin.

Darwin’s thought fits all the criteria The Hannibal Blog has laid out so far: his insight was simple and yet non-obvious and subtle (and thus still frequently misunderstood). He appears to have been right. And for good measure, his insight is also extensible, explaining far more than “just” speciation.


Even though the details are still being debated, the core insight is so simple that I always think it borders on tautological. Those genes whose vehicles (phenotypes) are relatively better at making it to the next generation and the next and the next … are the ones you see around you today. Duh. Those genes that manifested themselves in phenotypes that kicked off too early to reproduce, or that reproduced but created offspring that couldn’t repeat the performance … are not the ones you see around you today. Duh.


As Geoff Carr, our science editor at The Economist, once reminded me, people often get the implications of natural selection and evolution (which is what I described above) wrong. I’m not even talking about the fire-and-brimstone creationist types. What many people infer is that evolution is somehow about improvement. (This is the seed of an entire genre of cartoons.) It is not. Instead, evolution is about adaptation. It would merrily go on if we humans were to wipe ourselves out tomorrow with a nuclear war. The bacterial slime in thermal vents would carry on unperturbed.

The other thing that people get wrong is to overemphasize the survival part. It’s the reproduction part that drives the process. Somebody once explained it to me best by saying it’s about which organisms have the most grandchildren. Ie, think of a strapping stallion and a purdy donkey. Both are great at surviving, and great at reproducing, but something in their genotype makes them choose each other. They will have lots of sterile mules. Two generations later, their genes will be gone.


I think the expansion of the concept really kicked off in earnest with Richard Dawkins and his idea that even non-biological systems evolve. Culture is such a system, and the equivalents of genes are idea snippets called memes. Some memes (ideas, fads, fashions) adapt, travel and spread, others do not.

The basic concept also explains so amazingly much else. Why grandmothers tend to be closer to their daughters’ children than to their sons’. Why women show a bit more skin at one time of the month than during the rest of the month. Why humans are sometimes altruistic and sometimes not. Why so many of us are religious. And on and on and on. In short, why we are who we are….

Next time: the overall winner. Once again, I promise a surprise.

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17 thoughts on “Greatest thinker, runner-up: Darwin,

  1. While Darwin may be the second greatest thinker of all time, he was arguably no greater a thinker than Alfred Russel Wallace – the co-discoverer of the significance of natural selection.

    Could it be, then, that you’ve selected Alfred Russel Wallace as THE greatest thinker of all time?

    That Darwin became famous, while his contemporary, Alfred Russel Wallace, didn’t, may be a (metaphorical) example at work, of the survival of the fittest.

  2. You’re right about that, Christopher. I don’t know why we remember the one and not the other. (There are many instances of this kind. Leibniz and Newton….)
    So let’s consider them to be joint runners-up.

  3. I knew it. Well, I thought of Darwin, but I don’t know much about him. Anyhoo (There should be law against drinking and blogging, but here goes.) Last week’s Science did a cover article on Darwin – and why he was revolutionary among his peers. My take away was the importance of ‘improvement’ following the appearance of the abnormal. Freaks among us are our best hope. This kind of works with Kuhn. Freaks are leaps…

  4. I want enthusiastically to endorse Cheri’s suggestion of Jonas Salk as the winner.

    While he may not have been the greatest thinker, in the way thinkers are normally regarded, he was, through his developing the polio vaccine, one humanity’s greatest benefactors.

    I still remember the polio scares of each year, when the weather was at its hottest, and the relief when Salk’s polio vaccine came out in its sugar cube form, which we who were then in school were, en-masse, ordered to imbibe.

    Dr Jonas Salk is one of history’s unsung heroes.

  5. Jonas Salk is indeed a Hero. (But not an “unsung” one. There’s a lot of singing about him, no?)

    I like this, incidentally. In the course of this series, we’ve collaboratively come up with quite a range of great minds.

    But I will still wager that my choice for winner will intrigue you…

  6. Hmmm. Christopher wants “enthusiastically to endorse”, whereas Mr Crotchety wants “to enthusiastically endorse”. We have an infinitive splittist and an anti-splittist among us. I’ve been wondering for a while whether I should return to my grammar thread….

  7. However great Darwin’s theory of evolution is, it is not predictive.
    Richard Dawkins tells us it is a fact. It is only a fact in the sense that history is fact. Otherwise we are limited to facts we personally observe, however persuasively in support of the theory. Questions of completeness and consistency again arise.
    Where does the ordered environment in which evolution operates come from? Is it ordered?

  8. I know that there are experts on this, but I believe that the ordered environment is chemistry. There is evidence for evolution of chemical compounds (biomineralization, salts, etc.) over time. These are symptoms of climate, and presence of life. There was an article in Science recently describing how certain evolutionary phenomena are inevitable. A question would be, does life that evolve elsewhere have the same general traits (e.g., do eyes on planet X appear and function pretty much the way they do on earth). Some say yes. However, until we visit more planets we risk drifting into science by consensus. Andreas, do not tell Olivia Judson about this comment. She might think I’m trying to get her attention.

  9. Richard, when you say that evolution is “not predictive” you probably mean that the theory cannot tell us, say, how a bacterium will evolve in the next few generations (which would be nice, because we could be ready with the bug spray). But it is predictive in that it tells us that the bacterium will evolve (hence, superbugs).
    So it seems to me to be similar to Newtonian physics: we cannot predict how a rubber ball will bounce (whether it kicks left or right) if I drop it on a gravelly surface; but we can predict that it will bounce and explain the forces involved.

  10. Here’s an excerpt from the Science article. I could e-mail the entire thing.

    Is Genetic Evolution Predictable? (Review article)
    David L. Stern, Virginie Orgogozo
    Science 6 FEBRUARY 2009 VOL 323
    […]The genetic basis of evolution may be predictable to some extent, and further understanding of this predictability requires incorporation of the specific functions and characteristics of genes into evolutionary theory.

  11. Thank you andreaskluth.

    Is the question the verification of predictions? Newton is much verified within his parameters. Is your gravelly surface the exceptional three-body problem, which gave us Chaos Theory?
    I recall the headline “Light Caught Bending” when Eddington verified Einstein at the transit of Venus.
    Isn’t Quantum Theory the most verified, though paradoxically resting upon uncertainty?
    Are Darwinism and Chaos theory similar in that Darwinism reveals the wonder and consistency in minute observation whilst Chaos Theory reveals the wonder, beauty variety and unpredictability of imposed consistency? I’m out of my depth. Please provide examples of verified predictions from both, if you have a moment.

    Thank you, too Mr. Crotchety.

    Where does the order of inevitability come from? Is it “Turtles all the way down”? Thank you for offering to email me, but I probably lack the skills and knowledge to make adequate use of the material. You can always challenge science by consensus with winner Godel’s incompleteness theorem. It’s nice to see you trust andreaskluth.

    • I’m also out of my depth, Richard. You’re moving deep into the philosophy of science, and I was sick that day in school. 😉
      You’ve got a lot of ideas in that comment, Richard, but I think that, yes, the “wonder, beauty, variety and unpredictability” of chaos theory is a metaphor that Darwin could live with. There are populations. They have gene pools, and variation from one generation to the next. The environment–infinitely complex and unpredictable, indeed chaotic–changes. Some phenotypes with certain alleles will do better than others at reproducing in this new environment. Overtime their genotype prevails.
      So, yes, chaos theory in a way.
      But you can’t say: Evolution predicts that an eye will evolve.
      If I may try this way: the predictability works into the past, not into the future. you can make certain hypotheses about the lineage of an organism (based on body plan or whatnot). This would pass Popper’s falsifiability test. Then you can look at the genomes and verify. “Corroborate” is the term, I believe.
      But once again: I am waaaay out of my depth now. Mr Crotchety might be man enough. I’m just a journalist….

  12. Yes, Richard Dawkins’ “Blind Watchmaker” and “The Selfish Gene” are utterly convincing to an amateur, but how can we reverse the chronology of observation and theory? There is a difference between a theory which directs us to further observation and one which recognises a pattern in existing observations. It’s a sort of abstract thermodynamics with reverse entropy. True, both risk Popper.
    “Chaos” theory is a bad label, of course. I don’t think we can call the environment chaotic in the true sense. Its very existence is a puzzle.
    I’m not a bible-puncher, but I think the ancients had it in metaphor in Psalm 100: “it is he that hath made us and not we ourselves”.
    Mr. Crotchety doesn’t seem very crotchety. I hope all this is provoking him.
    Come down a few steps, further into the water, and you’ll find me – a lawyer…
    Have a look at my blog, . It’s a load of old rubbish.
    To quote the Bible again (sorry!): “in a multitude of words there is sin”.

  13. Mr.Crotchety… Andreas … Cheri (what’s an ellipsis between friends?)

    I can’t find the blog about Godel.

    Here’s his proof of God’s existence –

    Axiom 1 (Dichotomy) A property is positive if and only if its negation is negative.
    Axiom 2 (Closure) A property is positive if it necessarily contains a positive property.
    Theorem 1 A positive property is logically consistent (i.e. possibly it has some instance.)
    Axiom 3 Being God-like is a positive property.
    Axiom4 Being a positive property is (logical, hence) necessary.
    Definition A property P is the essevce of x if and only if x has P and P is necessarily minimal.
    Theorem 2 If x is God-like, then being God-like is the essence of x
    Definition NE(x): x necessarily exists if it has an essential property.
    Axiom 5 Being NE is God-like,
    Theorem 3 Necessarily there is some x such that x is God-like.

    Clear now? Can we await God’s proof of Godel’s existence?

    Should we have a recount on the greatest thinker ever?

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