Tuesday, July 31, 2007


Darwin's Bookkeeping

Darwin's cousin and the father of eugenics, Francis Galton, sent all members of the Royal Society a questionnaire that formed the basis of Galton's 1874 work, English men of science - their nature and nurture.

Each scientist was asked his self-assessment of what his own best feature, his special talent, was. Darwin's reply was that he was particularly good at business, "As evinced by keeping accounts, replies, correspondence and investing money very well."

There was some considerable justification for his view. He kept "meticulous documents detailing every household expenditure from snuff and lawnmowers to microscopes and chimney sweeps" and:

He started married life with £10,000 from his dad, £573 in the bank and £36 in his pocket. By the year before his death his shrewd investments totalled over £280,000 - and that is not including the profits from his books.
Janet Browne, the author of this generation's definitive two-volume biography of Charles Darwin, Voyaging and The Power of Place, speculates that there might have been a connection between Darwin's meticulous bookkeeping and his recognition of the concept of natural selection:

A species to him, with his new evolutionary perspective, might be regarded as having many debits and credits in the natural economy. Each favourable adaptation might add to an organism's individual capital and each profitable transaction lead to a consolidation of an organism's market share.
Maybe we should rename it "natural accountancy." Think of all the CPAs we'd win over to the side of science!

You can hear an interview with Professor Browne at The Guardian.

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