Charles Darwin Skirted the Danger That Is Public Scorn
Charles Darwin’s fear of disapproval almost pushed him into oblivion. Fear of others’ judgments just about forced Darwin to miss the title of the father of evolution.
For over a decade, while Darwin (1809–1882) compiled a vast body of evidence in support of evolution, he suffered crippling anxiety whenever he considered publishing his theories. His principles of evolution by natural selection directly contrasted with the dominant views on the origin of life per Christian theology.
Darwin feared that publishing his views on evolution would affect his standing among his Victorian peers and with his outstandingly pious wife, Emma Darwin. To his botanist friend Joseph D. Hooker, Charles Darwin wrote, “it is like confessing a murder.”
Only before fellow British naturalist and anthropologist Alfred Russel Wallace (1823–1913) published his independent conclusions about evolution through natural selection did Darwin give up his fear of non-conformity. In 1889, he published his seminal “On the Origin of Species”. Darwin thus secured his place as one of most influential persons in human history by a slender lead.
To Conform Is to Be Treated as “One Of”
Our social and professional lives are brimming with rituals, customs, norms, rubrics, rules, procedures, and guidelines that we are expected to observe. There is a clear benefit to be gained from this conformity: when we follow the structures imposed on us, we fit in.
While conformity is often important to group cohesiveness and social acceptance, when conformity becomes unquestioning, we are vulnerable to groupthink. Groupthink creates a powerful pattern of conceptualizing, thinking, and living that disregards alternative rubrics and ignores alternate attitudes and behaviors.
Don’t Passively Absorb Other’s Ideals
Nonconformance to social and organizational norms (engaging in deviant attitudes and behavior) can be problematic. As individuals, we risk being shut out, excluded, and disregarded. Possessing a life-philosophy and mindset that run counter to our peers and wider community can indeed be troubling. Therefore, the pressure to conform dominates our everyday lives. Too often, we silently bear the inconveniences of adherence and sacrificing our individuality.
In a 2001 interview with Charlie Rose discussing “Letters to a Young Contrarian”, author Christopher Hitchens, the outspoken critic of theocracy and religion and arguably the most masterful rhetorician of our times, said the following about being a contrarian:
It’s not for everybody. Not everyone wants to always be an outcast or out of step or against the stream. But if you do feel that the consensus doesn’t speak for you, if there’s something about you that makes you feel that it would be worth being unpopular or marginal for the chance to lead your own life and have a life instead of a career or a job, then I can promise you it is worthwhile, yes.
In the same vein, Apple’s Steve Jobs said in his famous 2005 commencement address at Stanford,
Don’t be trapped by dogma which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition.
Idea for Impact: Shun Synthetic Conformity
Where practically possible, shun synthetic conformity. Question the authorities. Never feel content with the limits of your mind. Think independently. Form your own opinions. Engage your knowledge and your wisdom to discover your uniqueness. Exercise your freedom to determine your own experience in life instead of having it imposed by someone else. As Eleanor Roosevelt said in “You Learn by Living”, “When you adopt the standards and the values of someone else or a community or a pressure group, you surrender your own integrity. You become, to the extent of your surrender, less of a human being.”
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