One of the fascinating aspects of invention is tracking the continuity of ideas across an arc of time and tracing the progression of ideas over time. My previous article examined how blending antecedent ideas to form new ones led to the invention of the Gutenberg’s press, the rotary steam engine, and the Wright Brothers‘ first powered flight. In this article, we will explore a related mental model for creativity.
A fundamental component of creative thinking is combining whole ideas (or just certain elements of ideas) to create a new concept. When we synthesize—i.e. fuse ideas to forge new ones—we mirror the footsteps of some of humankind’s most imaginative breakthroughs.
James Maxwell’s work on electromagnetic radiation developed from the synthesis of seemingly unrelated concepts such as electricity, magnetism, light, and motion. His theory of electromagnetism was one of the most significant discoveries of the nineteenth century. Albert Einstein described Maxwell’s work on electromagnetism as “the most profound and the most fruitful that physics has experienced since the time of Newton.”
Even more profoundly, Darwin and Mendel’s work exemplifies the most groundbreaking synthesis of ideas. Combined more than four decades after their deaths, their ideas shaped the foundation of life sciences, as we know it. Allow me to elaborate.
Charles Darwin’s Theory of Evolution
The word “evolution” was first used in English as early as 1647. Long before that, pre-Socratic Greek philosopher Anaximander (611–546 B.C.E) speculated that humans must have evolved from an animal and that this evolution must have sprung from the sea. By the end of the 18th century, naturalists conjectured that different life forms develop progressively from more primitive forms. They also hypothesized that all life forms were interrelated. Erasmus Darwin (1731–1802,) Charles Darwin’s grandfather and a natural philosopher and physiologist, as well as the French naturalist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (1744–1829) argued along those lines. However, most of their thoughts on evolution and the relatedness of all life forms were purely speculative.
Darwin’s most notable scientific contribution was his vast body of evidence supporting the aforementioned hypotheses. Even more significantly, Darwin identified natural selection as the mechanism that determines evolutionary change. In his seminal treatise, “Origin of Species” (1859,) Darwin distilled the theory of evolution through two foundational concepts:
- In any ecosystem, individuals of the same species are likely to differ in their measurable characteristics. Such variations tend to be inherited.
- Living beings—plants and animals—reproduce more quickly than nature can impart the resources for their survival. Individuals of a species must therefore compete in order to live and reproduce in a competitive ecosystem.
Charles Darwin’s work on evolution was really a synthesis of concepts from comparative anatomy, paleontology, geology, geography, and animal breeding.
Advancing his theories further, in “The Descent of Man” (1871,) Darwin described humans as an outcome of evolution. Humans have the same general anatomical and physiological principles as animals and are in fact an advanced animal form whose superior traits are a consequence of evolutionary progression. Darwin hypothesized that humans share a common ancestry with animals, more specifically evolving from primates.
The Big Gap in Darwin’s Theory: Lack of an Explanation for Heredity
In the introduction to The Descent of Man, Darwin wrote, “It has often and confidently been asserted, that man’s origin can never be known: but ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge: it is those who know little, and not those who know much, who so positively assert that this or that problem will never be solved by science.”
Darwin’s theories about the evolution of humankind created an instant uproar among advocates of Christian theology and its concept of a wise, benevolent, and omnipotent Creator as laid out in the Book of Genesis. Since then, few scientific theories have been as hotly debated among nonscientists as evolution and its opponent, creationism (and recently, intelligent design.)
After The Descent of Man, it was more than a decade before Darwin’s work came to be scientifically established. Darwin’s work remained deficient—if natural selection was to have lasting effects, these advances had to be conserved and passed on from one generation to the next. He agreed with scientists who argued that his evolutionary theory failed to explain how variations are transmitted from parents to their offspring.
Cross-breeding Experiments by Gregor Mendel: Evidence of Heredity
Between 1856 and 1863, independent of Charles Darwin (1809–1882,) Moravian monk Gregor Mendel (1822–1884) conducted extensive pea plant breeding experiments in his monastery’s garden. He systematically studied what farmers had known for centuries: that crossbreeding animals and plants creates “hybrid” offspring with desirable traits. Based on his pea plant experiments, Mendel laid the foundational rules of genetic inheritance and heredity.
Synthesis of Darwin and Mendel’s Work as the Foundation of Life Sciences
It was not until the 1930s, long after both Darwin and Mendel’s deaths, that biologists started to study Mendel’s work on heredity in conjunction with Darwin’s theory of natural selection. Scientists were then able to understand how variation of characteristics is passed on to new generations and how evolution is a process of descent with modification. Mendel’s laws provided justification of inheritance, thereby completing Darwin’s theory of natural selection. Subsequently, Darwin’s theory became the basic mechanism of evolution—evolutionary genetics was established as biology’s central theorem and the bedrock concept of all life sciences. From that point on, Darwin became one of the most influential persons in human history.
Scientists continue to fine-tune humankind’s understanding of evolutionary biology as new evidence and fresh insights pour in from biochemistry, genetics, archaeology, neuroscience, and various other disciplines.