The Frontal Cortex

Darwin As A Writer

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.


  1. #1 Geoff Wozniak
    May 4, 2007

    “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.”

    If only we had that long…

    I don’t think it’s necessary to spend 20 years working out an idea before publishing anything about it, but I agree that learning to write is extremely important and that it takes a lot of practice to write well.

  2. #2 tinisoli
    May 6, 2007

    I think there’s an implication here that Darwin took 20 years to publish his theory because he was working hard to perfect it. Perfectionism may indeed have been part of his rationale and his method, but he was also downright worried about how his theory would be received and how much tumult it could yield, not only in his own life but in the world at large. And rightly so.
    If he hadn’t gotten wind of Wallace’s eerily similar theory and been warned of its imminent publication, I wonder if Darwin would’ve held onto his paper for another ten years.
    And do we know just how much progress Darwin made in, say, the five years prior to publication? Do we know that he was in fact making his theory stronger and the writing better?
    Maybe he was just stalling, as many writers do when they have to let go of their “baby.” Truman Capote never finished another book after “In Cold blood,” and Joseph Heller’s last novel was about an author who never came close to duplicating the success of his first book.

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