Big picture: Look at every feather of every bird…

then take a step back and ask yourself: What does this mean?

The research of British naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913) played a pivotal role in developing the theory of natural selection. But over time, Charles Darwin became almost universally thought of as the father of evolution.

On the way to work today I listened to a story on NPR radio about Alfred Russel Wallace, a British naturalist who died 100 years ago and who was the co-author of Darwin’s revolutionary first paper on the evolution of species. What struck me when listening: To get to his insights about the very very big picture, Wallace did not start by looking at large trends and aggregate data. He sailed out to the furtherest ends of the known world and looked at every feather of every bird. In his lifetime he collected more than 100 000 insect, bird and mamal speciemens. And while he was traveling for years, doing the backbreaking, fever inducing work of looking at every detail of the world around him, in the back of his mind, he couldn’t stop asking “Why?”. Why do I find this species here but not on the next island over. Why are there similar species in far away places – while I don’t find them close by?

I don’t think it  is a fluke that he had his greatest insight, that animals evolve adapting to their environments, after years of dealing with the details, when he lay in fever. Because in this half-concious state the mind allows itself to wander, and connect areas that are normally disconnected by our concious control.

So, if you want to discover evolution and tectonic shelfs by looking at bird feet (or have any other big insights in the field that is your passion), this is what I recommend:

Become obsessed with understanding every detail in your field, even if it is not obvious to anyone else how they might be related to a bigger question. Follow your gut and sail to the ends of the known world. With your eyes wide open, never stop asking: “Why?” While you collect the details, you will feel something growing inside of you that is bigger than just a pile of details, the individual dots will slowly fall in place. Every once in a while, step back, step way back. See if a picture evolves. And make sure you are there, you are listening that day when you think your one great thought, maybe under the shower, maybe in a fever or a dream. Don’t let it pass, hold onto it, write it down, let it rest a bit and then go back to work. Apply your concious mind to your fever thought and see what you can do with it.

And, you may wonder, why does this touch my heart? Because when listening to this story I realized that, on a much smaller scale, no tropical fever involved, this is what I do when I Net-Map. I loose myself in the details, listen to every story about everyone on the maps, chew and chew on the network data afterward till I have a stale taste in my mouth and hope, sometimes in desparation, that something will bubble up from that place deep inside of me and that this something will be bigger than the details on the maps. It’s a painful process at times, a tight-rope dance. Because you have to do the detail work even if it feels like all you can come up with is dry dust. But then, on a walk, under the shower, and sometimes even, big surprise, in front of my computer, the big storyline comes to me that holds everything together and I smile. Relieved more than anything, that there is a safe platform at the other end of the tight rope…

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