Charles Darwin’s reading habits

by on December 15, 2016 at 1:03 am in Books, Education, Science | Permalink

Exploration and exploitation of Victorian science in Darwin’s reading notebooks.

Murdock J, Allen C, and DeDeo S


Search in an environment with an uncertain distribution of resources involves a trade-off between exploitation of past discoveries and further exploration. This extends to information foraging, where a knowledge-seeker shifts between reading in depth and studying new domains. To study this decision-making process, we examine the reading choices made by one of the most celebrated scientists of the modern era: Charles Darwin. From the full-text of books listed in his chronologically-organized reading journals, we generate topic models to quantify his local (text-to-text) and global (text-to-past) reading decisions using Kullback-Liebler Divergence, a cognitively-validated, information-theoretic measure of relative surprise. Rather than a pattern of surprise-minimization, corresponding to a pure exploitation strategy, Darwin’s behavior shifts from early exploitation to later exploration, seeking unusually high levels of cognitive surprise relative to previous eras. These shifts, detected by an unsupervised Bayesian model, correlate with major intellectual epochs of his career as identified both by qualitative scholarship and Darwin’s own self-commentary. Our methods allow us to compare his consumption of texts with their publication order. We find Darwin’s consumption more exploratory than the culture’s production, suggesting that underneath gradual societal changes are the explorations of individual synthesis and discovery. Our quantitative methods advance the study of cognitive search through a framework for testing interactions between individual and collective behavior and between short- and long-term consumption choices. This novel application of topic modeling to characterize individual reading complements widespread studies of collective scientific behavior.

1 Ray Lopez December 15, 2016 at 1:07 am

Say what? Something about going through Darwin’s reading list and finding he was more adventurous than the average Victorian? Plain English please…

2 prior_test2 December 15, 2016 at 1:47 am

Well, now if they can only date the reading to Darwin’s actual explorations, not to mention gauge where Darwin’s own output offer its readers a more exploratory framework than the culture’s production.

Though in all honesty, this extract is almost gibberish – hard to imagine that a seminal thinker at the forefront of a major scientific revolution was not typical in how they approached their reading, isn’t it? And since the number of people who have had the influence of Darwin in the last 500 years can probably be considered somewhere in the low double digits, it is pretty hard to make judgments about such a small group. Or to put it differently – how did Galileo’s reading list stack up compared to the culture’s production? That is not a trick question, though the answer is profoundly obvious when one looks at what happened to Galileo Galilei’s own writing.

3 Axa December 15, 2016 at 3:04 am

This is not about Darwin. Imagine you are guiding PhD students, coding research software or designing a research program. These results provide insight on the discovery process, something more useful than describing discovery as “hard work” or “genius”.

4 Ray Lopez December 15, 2016 at 7:01 am

So Axa, seems you are in favor or Ray Lopez’s Better Patent Laws Lead To Increased Innovation Hypothesis (RLBPLLTIIH™), where invention can be taught and ordinary people respond to incentives? Good, good, as you are in the minority. Up until about 60 years ago one test for whether something was patentable was the infamous “flash of genius” test (Google this, the eponymous movie bombed at the box office:

5 Axa December 15, 2016 at 8:04 am

Non-obviousness…..I’m learning this today, thanks

6 dearieme December 15, 2016 at 3:22 am

“one of the most celebrated scientists of the modern era”: as opposed to the celebrated scientists of the Dark Ages or the Bronze Age I suppose.

7 Roy LC December 15, 2016 at 6:27 am

Archimedes, Galen, Roger Bacon, Jean Buridan… were all scientists.

I am leaving out the mathematicians and inventors of statistics.

8 dearieme December 15, 2016 at 6:56 am

Indeed, if you like. But you’ve still not explained what the devil “of the modern era” is doing there. Isn’t Darwin simply one of the most celebrated of scientists? My sally is aimed at the horrible writing of their abstract by pointing at a particular example of thoughtless, unintelligent verbiage.

9 Roy LC December 15, 2016 at 2:17 pm

It isn’t completely useless verbiage, “modern” means something and it distinguishes him as a scientist from other scientists who are say premodern, or even early modern.

If we take say Galen, Bacon, Conrad Gessner, Hooke, Darwin, and Watson/Crick the sort of reading material they have, how knowledge is disseminated is very different. The last 3 have the idea of published papers, formal organizations, and journals. The first three do not. So their reading habits will be entirely different, and thus incomparable.

10 dearieme December 15, 2016 at 2:51 pm

But everyone knows who bloody Darwin is, for God’s sake. “‘modern’ means something”: no, not really. It’s a term that’s so vague that it has no business being there.

11 Alan December 15, 2016 at 6:09 am

First he read more conservatively and learned his subject matter, then he set about searching for answers to the questions that generated in his mind. Good advice.

12 Will Carrington December 15, 2016 at 8:55 am

FWIW, I highly recommend Randal Keynes’ “Darwin, His Daughter, and Human Evolution,” which approaches Darwin’s intellectual development in the 1840s and 1850s from a quite different perspective.

13 Reduction December 15, 2016 at 9:18 am

Darwin got “evolution” wrong. A caution to anyone who believes in “climate change.”

14 Todd December 15, 2016 at 9:57 am

At an early adult age Darwin was on the cutting edge, and knew he was on the cutting edge, of a major field(s) of thought and science. I suppose this analysis of data could prove useful to individuals in a newly emerging field.

Darwin was also among the Victorian era’s great correspondents. He identified other notable thinkers through letter writing and engaged and probed subjects with them through letters, often for decades. Wonder if the paper finds he profited from a global network of reading recommendations from scientific pen pals.

15 chuck martel December 15, 2016 at 10:22 am

Darwin’s most important reading was probably stuff by Alfred Russel Wallace.

16 Hadur December 15, 2016 at 11:30 am

Darwin had the advantage of most of the stuff he read being written in English, unlike the OP here.

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