Jonathan Weiner, author of the magisterial Beak of the Finch, has a lovely essay explaining what Darwin can teach writers. This struck close to the bone:
Sitzfleisch. Robert Oppenheimer once observed that a physicist needs not only inspiration but also sitzfleisch–the ability to keep one’s flesh sitting in a chair. Writers need the same gift, and Darwin was a hero of sitzfleisch. Even his patience was larger than life. His motto was, “It’s dogged as does it.” After his big idea, he spent 20 years sitting at his desk, in the bosom of his growing family, working out his theory and its implications.
I think one of the toughest things for young writers to accept is that writing is a craft. It takes work and time. You learn by doing, by sitting at your desk and playing with words. Good sentences require bad sentences. Rewrite rewrite rewrite.
I’d add two additional entries to Weiner’s extended list:
Make your Prettiness Accurate. Even when Darwin indulges in the occasional rhetorical flourish – for example, when he writes “that man with all his noble qualities … still bears in his bodily frame the indelible stamp of his lowly origin” – he keeps the language firmly tethered to his theory. He doesn’t let his language overwhelm his science. This skill was especially rare in the 19th century, a time of grand scientific ambition but limited scientific knowledge. Darwin admirably avoided hyperbole.
Consilience. Has there even been a more consilient thinker? Darwin took the political economy of Malthus, merged it with the invisible hand of Adam Smith, and applied it to the history of life. Economics has never been more useful.