The personality traits of the ultimate heterodox scholar.
Posted August 8, 2018
Think about what Darwin did. In articulating and advancing the concept of natural selection as the ultimate engine that shapes the nature of living things, he challenged the entirety of how human beings understand the world and our place in it. His theory was a game-changer. He truly changed, dramatically and permanently, the paradigm that scientists use to understand the living world.
When you think about it, Darwin’s success included not one, but two extraordinary achievements. First, he had to figure out the details and understand the broad applicability of natural selection. No small feat. However, as is always true in science, there was also a marketing component to what Darwin did. If others did not buy his ideas, then they would have never gone anywhere. What is just as impressive as the fact that he figured out the details of natural selection is the concomitant fact that Darwin the marketer convinced millions of other people, well into the future and across the world, of the validity of natural selection.
I just finished participating in an amazing conference out in Southern California. This event, organized by Richard Redding of Chapman University, was titled Heterodox Workshop in Psychology. In this context, heterodoxy is an idea that focuses on allowing for multiple orthodoxies to exist concurrently. More simply, it is the idea that it is important to allow multiple viewpoints to be expressed, particularly beyond any prevailing narratives.
The point of this event was to bring together scholars and students in the behavioral sciences who conduct work that is not always consistent with prevailing narratives. In other words, people at this conference ask research questions that are not always very popular. For instance, I was asked to join because my work focuses on evolutionary psychology—a field that I think the world of, but one that is not universally popular among academics.
One thought that emerged to me during the conference was this: Charles Darwin may well have been the ultimate heterodox scholar. A heterodox scholar is essentially someone whose work challenges prevailing narratives or ideas in the field. (History has some other great examples: Think Copernicus and Galileo.) Darwin’s work put humans on equal footing with the entirety of life and changed forever how we would come to understand life in general.
In his book Evolution for Everyone, renowned evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson (2007) spends some time discussing Darwin as a person, painting a portrait of a hard-working, family-oriented man with little in the way of arrogance or pretense. Darwin’s success may well lie not just in his unique kind of creative and integrative intelligence, but also in the nature of his character. After all, changing the world in a substantial way requires a particular set of attributes that are conducive to convincing others that their deeply held beliefs about something are completely incorrect. That is no small undertaking.
A Big Five Analysis of Charles Darwin
Based on biographies of Darwin (e.g., Eldredge, 2005; Desmond & Morris, 2014), we can weave together a portrait of the kind of man that he was. In the field of personality psychology, we often think of someone’s character, or set of dispositional features, as boiling down to where that person scores on the Big Five personality traits—five superordinate traits that, in combination, encompass all personality traits that one has (see John, 1990).
Here, based on various summaries of Darwin’s life and work, is my attempt to think about how Charles Darwin, the ultimate heterodox scholar, would have scored on a measure of the Big Five. Importantly, note that this analysis includes my best estimates and simply uses the Big Five framework as a way to think about how Darwin was able to change the playing field of ideas in regard to the nature of life.
The Big Five personality trait dimensions are just that—continuous dimensions with scores ranging from extremely high on one end to extremely low on the other end. The Big Five trait dimensions are:
- Extraversion: the tendency to be highly social and interested in exciting activities
- Emotional stability: the tendency to experience relatively few changes in mood and to experience relatively positive emotions
- Openness to experience: the tendency to be open-minded and interested in learning new things
- Agreeableness: the tendency to be easy to work with and relatively kind in social interactions
- Conscientiousness: the tendency to be meticulous, reliable, and dependable
Each of these dimensions has a high end and a low end. So with extraversion, for instance, we can imagine someone who scores very high on a measure of extraversion (and who likes social interactions and exciting situations) versus someone who scores very low in extraversion (and who is wary of social interactions and of risky situations). We might call someone who scores very low on a measure of extraversion an introvert.
So how would Charles Darwin have scored on a measure of the Big Five personality traits? Here are my estimates:
- Extraversion: Slightly below average. Darwin was something of an explorer, it’s true. But he was also a bit of a bookworm and he became highly consumed with such non-social tasks as breeding pigeons. He was famously solitary for many years of his life. Like so many of us, Darwin seemed to display a combination of introverted and extraverted behaviors.
- Emotional stability: Slightly below average. Darwin certainly had sufficient levels of emotional stability to allow him to interact effectively with others and to grow a family. However, Darwin was known to have insomnia at times (claiming that the evolutionary puzzle of the peacock’s tail “kept him up at night”). And he famously experienced deep levels of depression for years after the untimely death of his daughter.
- Openness to experience: Considerably above average. It seems that this dimension may serve as a clue as to Darwin’s great success. He was interested in pretty much everything! He was a voracious scholar and prolific writer. Further, he was famously interested in making connections among seemingly disparate phenomena. In his lifetime, he spent extensive amounts of time asking questions about fossils, invertebrates, insects, finches, art, turtles, plant toxins, emotional systems in animals, worms, the inter-relationships among peoples from different parts of the world, the origins of antlers in some animals, the nature of aggressive displays, and on and on. Without question, Charles Darwin was open to experience and eager to understand and learn on just about any topic.
- Agreeableness: Above average. Some people think that Darwin was an out-and-out rabble-rouser. In a sense, obviously, he was just that. He made a point of telling the entire world that they were wrong about where we come from. Yeah, I guess that is pretty bold. But Darwin famously sat on the ideas related to natural selection for decades. He was a church-going man whose family had deep connections within the broader community. He was a conspicuously humble person. And it is well known that he held off on publishing his ideas for decades—largely because he did not want to rock the boat. Personal accounts of Darwin consistently paint him as kind and gentle. I’d argue that this feature of his personality may have been just as instrumental in advancing his ideas as was his high level of openness. You get more bees with honey. Darwin seemed to understand this.
- Conscientiousness: Extremely high. One word that emerges in pretty much all biographies of Darwin is this: “detail.” Darwin was an exceedingly diligent scholar, paying great attention to detail in all of his work and in other areas of his life. Darwin was thorough and methodical across situations. In the parlance of personality psychology, Charles Darwin seemed to have been highly conscientious.
Putting it All Together
A heterodox researcher is, by definition, not a normal researcher. A researcher described as heterodox is someone who is doing work that cuts across the grain—work that is inconsistent with prevailing narratives or intellectual orthodoxies. As the person who is most responsible for advancing the theory of natural selection as an explanation of life, Charles Darwin is a model for thinking about what character traits are associated with success as a heterodox researcher. That is, what personality attributes can help a heterodox researcher succeed in changing the prevailing narrative.
Importantly, this personality-trait-based analysis of Darwin, connected with his famous successes, is consistent with the results found in Michael Shermer's (2002) analysis along the same lines (which focuses on Alfred Russell Wallace and includes data based on reports of multiple biographers of Darwin).
Granted, there is a bit of guesswork going on in the analysis presented here, so it needs to be taken with a grain of salt. This said, based on the reasoning employed here, it seems that Darwin’s successes may largely be attributable to the fact that he was particularly strong (or high) on the dimensions of open-mindedness, agreeableness, and conscientiousness (and likely close to average on extraversion and emotional stability).
Want to change the world for the better? Want to change the prevailing narrative in a way that allows for new ways of thinking? Then I say to try to emulate Darwin’s character:
- Keep an open mind.
- Be kind to and respectful of others.
- Be conscientious in your work.
Darwin, C. (1859). On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life (1st ed.). London: John Murray.
Desmond, A., & Moore, (2014). Darwin’s Sacred Cause: How a Hatred of Slavery Shaped Darwin’s Views on Human Evolution. New York:: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Eldredge, N. (2005). Darwin: Discovering the Tree of Life. New York: Norton.
John, O. P. (1990). The "Big Five" factor taxonomy: Dimensions of personality in the natural language and in questionnaires. In L. A. Pervin (Ed.), Handbook of personality: Theory and research (pp. 66-100). New York: Guilford.
Shermer, M. (2002). In Darwin’s Shadow: The Life and Science of Alfred Russel Wallace. New York: Oxford University Press.
Wilson, D. S. (2007). Evolution for everyone. New York: Delacorte Press.