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The myth of Darwin’s ‘eureka!’ moment

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The “eureka!” moment came for Charles Darwin in October 1838, as he was reading something Thomas Malthus had written about population. All of a sudden, the basic algorithm of natural selection popped into his head.

At least, that’s how the story goes. In truth, there was no single aha moment.

Several years ago, a scholar named Howard Gruber looked at Darwin’s notebooks from this same period. Fortunately for us, Darwin wrote down every little hunch and idea.

In combing Darwin’s notebooks, Gruber found that Darwin had the full theory of natural selection for many months before his alleged Malthus-inspired epiphany. His writings revealed that Darwin had a firm grasp of the concept, but it took a long period of time to become a “great idea.”

Call it a slow hunch. That’s how great ideas blossom; not as a single moment when someone is alone, hunched over a lab table, peering into a microscope. They incubate over time. They percolate at conference tables during weekly meetings, or when someone shares a story about a mistake, or wherever different ideas are swirling about.

If you’re trying to build an organization that’s more innovative, design a space that allows people to have repeated, interesting, unpredictable collisions, so slow hunches can be nurtured over time.

— Adapted from “Where good ideas come from,” Steven Johnson,

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