8 mental habits from Charles Darwin that made him one of the greatest thinkers of all time
Updated: Jul 13, 2021
Regularly referred to as one of the greatest thinkers who ever lived, Darwin’s work on science and his autobiography revealed that he wasn’t born a genius, instead, he out-thought the rest of mankind by developing certain mental habits.
“My success as a man of science, whatever this may have amounted to, has been determined, as far as I can judge, by complex and diversified mental qualities and conditions. Of these, the most important have been–the love of science– unbounded patience in long reflecting over any subject–industry in observing and collecting facts–and a fair share of invention as well as of common sense. With such moderate abilities as I possess, it is truly surprising that I should have influenced to a considerable extent the belief of scientiﬁc men on some important points.” — Charles Darwin, The Autobiography of Charles Darwin 1809–1882
Buried in Westminster Abbey in 1882, lies the grave of Charles Darwin, one of the most revered figures in science. The NY Times heralded him ‘The greatest Englishman since Newton’, and it may be surprising to some he is buried next to perhaps one of the most gifted individuals in the history of the world, calculus-inventing genius Sir Isaac Newton. Charles Darwin’s ‘Origin of Species’ is considered one of the greatest scientific books ever written.
By his own accord, Charles Darwin noted he had no superior intellect or mathematical ability and notes that most of the time he spent in school was wasted. His autobiography displays his wonderful mental habits for objectivity as one of the keystones to his success.
In this article, I will attempt to disclose 8 of those habits that are worthy of discussion and further thought (all quotes below are direct quotes from his autobiography — the emphasis being mine).
1. His love for science and the pleasure of investigation Early on in his own autobiography, Darwin recollects his love for observing natural science began early. He considered it a privilege to be able to contribute back to the ‘great mass of facts in Natural Science’ one day.
“My chief enjoyment and sole employment throughout life has been scientiﬁc work; and the excitement from such work makes me for the time forget, or drives quite away, my daily discomfort.”
True passion and love for one’s work is an important precursor to spend the time and effort necessary to produce great work. Darwin worked to his utmost ability during his famous voyage merely out of the pleasure of investigation. He had a curious mind that enjoyed asking ‘why?’ and investigating to figure it out.
“I think that I am superior to the common run of men in noticing things which easily escape attention, and in observing them carefully. My industry has been nearly as great as it could have been in the observation and collection of facts. What is far more important, my love of natural science has been steady and ardent ..”
2. The careful study of observation and documentation Darwin was an acute and keen observer and kept a well-documented journal and diary, consistently observing, reasoning, and adding to a collection of facts that had gradually been accumulated. Darwin considers the observations that occurred during the voyage the first real education of his mind and enabled his great work.
“Everything about which I thought or read was made to bear directly on what I had seen or was likely to see; and this habit of mind was continued during the ﬁve years of the voyage. I feel sure that it was this training which has enabled me to do whatever I have done in science.” He greatly enjoyed forming reasoning to his investigations, predicting what else he could find, and documenting carefully and vividly all that he had seen. Darwin was a relentless note-taker, keeping multiple diaries and journals. He often reflected on prior work written, eager to formulate complete arguments, fill in gaps, and re-visit prior conclusions. Later in his life, Darwin derived a better method for putting down his propositions during an observation by scribbling down whole pages as quickly as possible correcting them deliberately later.
3. Collecting, grouping and indexing facts Charles Darwin elaborates on learning a system of collecting facts by keeping a full index to all books he reads, so they might prove useful to him as he went along advancing his work. He made it a habit to continuously learn, collect, and group facts as he went along.
“.. I was very glad to learn from him his system of collecting facts. He told me that he bought all the books which he read, and made a full index, to each, of the facts which he thought might prove serviceable to him ..”
4. A strong desire to understand and explain observations (grouping facts to general laws)
“From my early youth I have had the strongest desire to understand or explain whatever I observed,–that is, to group all facts under some general laws.”
Once Darwin wrote down his detailed observations and collected a vast body of information over time he mentions a strong desire to understand and explain these observations. Then group all facts into general laws.
“Nothing before had ever made me thoroughly realise, though I had read various scientiﬁc books, that science consists in grouping facts so that general laws or conclusions may be drawn from them.”
5. Long thought and ponder to form complete argumentation in a clear manner
Darwin disliked attempting to learn by mere habitual repetition, instead he enjoying forming long lines of argumentation. It is evident from the book that Darwin had incredible patience to reflect and ponder for any number of years over any unexplained problem. He also greatly valued the independent thought that came with it.
“… These causes combined have given me the patience to reﬂect or ponder for any number of years over any unexplained problem. As far as I can judge, I am not apt to follow blindly the lead of other men …”
Taking these long intervals to reflect enabled him to criticize his work better once he came back to it, almost as if someone else had looked at the work.
6. Concentrated attention
Darwin acknowledges his skills of natural observation are superior to the average person, noting that he spots things that easily pass and escape other's attention. Darwin makes clear the habit of energetic industry combined with the power of concentrated attention to whatever he was engaged in enabled him to produce his work on natural science.
“… various special studies were, however, of no importance compared with the habit of energetic industry and of concentrated attention to whatever I was engaged in, which I then acquired.”
7. He was determined to avoid prejudice
Darwin goes through remarkable lengths to prevent what psychologists call “confirmation bias” and other forms of psychological misjudgment that would deteriorate his work. He undoubtedly realized that he can fool himself subconsciously, and put in place various habits to keep prejudice in check.
“I have steadily endeavoured to keep my mind free so as to give up any hypothesis, however much beloved (and I cannot resist forming one on every subject), as soon as facts are shown to be opposed to it. Indeed, I have had no choice but to act in this manner, for with the exception of the Coral Reefs, I cannot remember a single ﬁrst-formed hypothesis which had not after a time to be given up or greatly modiﬁed.”
Even when Darwin began to appreciate the formation of new species, a theory that had been a mystery to him for years, he was anxious to work on it so as to avoid any prejudice.
“… The result of this would be the formation of new species. Here then I had at last got a theory by which to work; but I was so anxious to avoid prejudice, that I determined not for some time to write even the briefest sketch of it.”
8. The golden rule of documenting dis-confirming evidence immediately
One of the greatest parts of this biography for me was learning how this little habit proved invaluable to the creation of his work.
“I had, also, during many years followed a golden rule, namely, that whenever a published fact, a new observation or thought came across me, which was opposed to my general results, to make a memorandum of it without fail and at once; for I had found by experience that such facts and thoughts were far more apt to escape from the memory than favourable ones. Owing to this habit, very few objections were raised against my views which I had not at least noticed and attempted to answer.”
The human mind has a way of disregarding dis-confirming evidence almost immediately unless trained to reflect and challenge previously held notions. Darwin sets an example for us all, as to how to deal with this problem.
“My habits are methodical, and this has been of not a little use for my particular line of work.” — Charles Darwin, The Autobiography of Charles Darwin 1809–1882
When Darwin was young, he thought the idea suggested by a friend that he would someday be a ‘Fellow of the Royal Society’ was preposterous. Even at the height of his success, Darwin shows us how remarkably humble he was throughout his life. Dedicated to his work and it’s argumentation, Darwin was not driven astray by the success of his work. Reading the life and work of Charles Darwin reinforced the idea of objectivity and study of human behavior being a cornerstone of intelligent thinking and reasoning.
Over 150 years after the ‘Origin of Species’ was first published, it still remains a masterpiece of work on natural science. The theories and argumentation Darwin masterfully put into the book have stood the test of time.