How can we explain this coincidence of scientific and literary success in Darwin, Watson and Wilson? (And in many other biologists--too numerous to list?--who have been reviewed in a decades-long parade in the pages of Scientific American.)
One trivial factor has to do with mathematics. There's a publishing rule that every formula you use in a book cuts your potential readership in half. In Origin, Darwin was able to write profoundly about evolution without using a single formula. In Principia, on the other hand, Isaac Newton used so many formulas that if that publishing rule is correct, according to my rough calculations, the book shouldn't even have been read by Newton. Even today biologists such as Watson and Wilson can often do without formulas and still give us deep, wide views of nature. Other kinds of scientists manage that, too, but the trick is harder to bring off if you're a theorist of prime numbers, quantum states or string.
Then there's the power of biology as a subject. Like artists, philosophers, theologians and the rest of us, biologists think about life and death. Because these are subjects we all brood about, we can understand why biologists might care deeply enough to make the science of life their life's work. It is Darwin's love of life (a passion for which Wilson coined a word, "biophilia") that makes his Voyage a perennial pleasure to read. As Watson writes, Voyage is a story of discovery "not only of unknown lands and the organisms that inhabit them, but also of a young man's discovery of his own potential." Darwin's memoir of his years on the Beagle is, as Watson says, "an intimate book in which Darwin reveals much of his character." You could say the same of Watson's Double Helix or Wilson's Naturalist. Each memoir is about the wonders of life and about finding a wonderful life. We can feel Darwin's enthusiasm on his opening page, when he describes the Beagle's first landing, on January 16, 1832, in the Cape Verde Islands. "The scene," Darwin writes, "as beheld through the hazy atmosphere of this climate, is one of great interest; if, indeed, a person, fresh from sea, and who has just walked, for the first time, in a grove of cocoa-nut trees, can be a judge of anything but his own happiness."
And there's the style in which Darwin worked toward his theory of the origin of species. He didn't gather a thousand and one facts and then invent a theory to explain them--which was the scientific style that had been urged on the world by the prophet of science Francis Bacon. Instead the young Darwin made a leap of imagination and then worked for decades to find out if his idea really held up. David Dobbs talks about Darwin's revolutionary style of doing science in Reef Madness, a book about Darwin's coral reef theory. (Dobbs's book is a gem; the title is its only flaw.) Darwin's leap of imagination is a feat that an artist can appreciate. He had a powerful vision of the way things are, of the way things go, and then he wrote a shelf of great books that convinced his readers of his vision. As Dobbs writes, "It was a move toward the power of story." Watson and Crick worked the same way in their discovery of the double helix: first the leap of intuition, then the tests.
Finally, of course, there is the power of the story itself. Darwin was born in the static world of scripture, and he left us a turbulent world of perpetual change. Ever since Darwin, we live in a world of stories. The story of that change will be told forever. We'll never get tired of reading and rereading it. First Darwin journeys alone from surmise to sunrise. Then the truth dawns on us all.
This article was originally published with the title From Surmise to Sunrise.