How the humble lab rat can teach you to raise your kids smarter and grow old gracefully
The importance of knowing how to look
Today, Charles Darwin is largely known for his theory of natural selection. Yet although his status as a scientific legend is assured, the nature of his fame does him an injustice. Darwin was not a theorist in the modern sense. First and foremost, he was a brilliant observer, and his extraordinary gift for observation is, more often than not, hugely underappreciated.
While the difficulty of observation is easily overlooked, it has become abundantly clear that we do not perceive the world ‘objectively’ (indeed, as Borges’ ingenious tale of the one-to-one map of the world reminds us, objectivity is a tricky idea at the best of times). Instead, our brains invent their perception of the world, inferring the nature of reality by means of a variety of processes based on of guessing and learning. For better or for worse we are theorists by nature, and the unreliability of perception is one of the reasons why we do science in the first place. It is also why observation is such a vital – and very difficult – scientific skill. Our facility to observe in an ‘objective-like’ fashion – consciously resisting the temptation to interpret every observation in accord with our minds’ prior expectations – is one of the great intellectual achievements of our species.
A prime example of Darwin’s genius for observation is found in his little-known contributions to the study of child psychology. Aside from his other well-documented achievements – and despite suffering from chronic illness throughout his adult life – Darwin not only fathered ten children, but even more remarkably, he found time to be a wonderful, engaged dad in an age when fathers were typically distant.
Darwin kept detailed diaries of the observations he made as his kids grew, and as a result of these we know that he may be the first person to ever notice a simple, yet deeply puzzling phenomenon that has tended to pass just about every other parent by: the bafflingly long time it takes kids to learn the meanings of color words. (more…)