Creativity is Cool (Happy Birthday Charles Darwin)

By Emily Jane Dennis,@emilyjanedennis

Creativity is cool.

Today is Darwin’s birthday. Instead of talking about his life or how he made everything in biology make sense, I want to talk about two of his drawings.

Darwin’s first (left, 1837) and final (right, 1859) evolutionary trees.
Darwin’s first (left, 1837) and final (right, 1859) evolutionary trees

These two drawings, separated by 22 years, are a perfect illustration of the creative process in scientific thought. On the left is the first ever evolutionary tree, and on the right is Darwin’s final tree from On the Origin of Species.When he sketched out this first tree, Darwin had already spent years coming up with and expanding on his idea of transmutation (what we call evolution). I think about this drawing as a proof, a way to visually evaluate what he had been mulling over for so many years. He used this figure to take a bunch of independent thoughts and pull them together to address one big question: how do the species we see today relate to species that existed in the distant past?

I like to believe that the “I think” above Darwin’s first tree drawing is a glimpse into his inner-critic. It was written by that doubting voice inside his head, urging him to find something wrong with his new idea. “I think” embodies something that everyone has felt… the magical and scary power of putting an idea down on paper. It makes everything feel more real and makes us see flaws we’d otherwise miss. “I think” reminds us how much easier it is to criticize than it is to create. For me, “I think” makes Darwin feel less like a patriarch and more like a real person.

I love that with just two words, Darwin gives us so much to talk about.

Twenty-two years later, the “I think” is gone. After so many years of talking to other experts, thinking deeply, collecting more evidence, and really fleshing out these ideas, Darwin was finally ready to explain his theory to the world. In On the Origin of Species, we see his final theory of evolution, refined by twenty-two years of drawings, writings, thoughts, discussions, and observations.

This second image is much clearer, includes more information, and is much closer to the evolutionary trees we make today. The basic idea: as you move your eyes up the graph vertically, starting at the bottom, you start at some ancient time with twelve species (A-L) and 14,000 years later, there are still 12 species… along the way a few have gone extinct, some new species have emerged, but very few species today look like the ones that existed 14,000 years ago.

Together, these images show what great science is all about. Scientists come up with an idea or a question, and then we test it, refine it, doubt it, talk about it, tweak it, throw it out, bring it back, and question it all over again. In the end, we’ve described some little slice of the universe as best we can, and the cycle starts all over again.

Want to know more? There are tons of other people talking about these images, tattooing them on their bodies, and discussing the man himself… especially today. If you’re interested in learning more about these drawings, Darwin, or the tree of life itself, check out these links!

  • Wellcome Trust has a cool, interactive tree of life graphic
  • OneZoom has interactive trees for birds, amphibians, and mammals. Very cute!
  • Wikipedia has put in a ton of effort to create a really useful, in depth, and bias-free set of articles about evolution. It’s a great, accessible place to start if you’re interested in learning more about how and why people study life on earth.
  • Tree of Life Web Project a HUGE resource filled with information about all the different groups of organisms and their evolutionary history
  • Darwin Online can direct you to any of Darwin’s original works that are available on the internet.
  • The Darwin Awards always funny… (caution! not for kids)
  • Tree of Life blog covering the author’s most-recent publication… on Darwin’s finches!


These views are the work of individual authors, do not necessarily represent the views and opinions The Rockefeller University, and are not approved or endorsed by The Rockefeller University.



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