On The Origin Of Pigeons

“Pigeons indeed,” huffed Charles Darwin, his brow furrowed as he read to the end of a letter and laid it down on his desk.

The letter contained feedback from his publisher John Murray on a draft of what would become On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection. Murray had farmed out copies of the manuscript to a couple of his trusted advisers. One of them, a rural vicar and literary editor by the name of Whitwell Elwin, had not liked it all. “At every page, I was tantalized by the absence of the proofs,” Elwin had written to Murray on 3 May 1859. In contrast to the Journal of Researches (later known as Voyage of the Beagle), which Elwin had found “one of the most charming books”, Darwin had written this new work in a “much harder & drier style”.

Although opposed to the publication of what he saw as “a wild and foolish piece of imagination”, Elwin hadn’t advised Murray to reject the manuscript outright. Instead, he had sought the advice of the geologist Charles Lyell. It was Lyell who said that the book should focus on Darwin’s observations of pigeons “accompanied with a brief statement of his general principles” on natural selection. …

It is worth taking a moment to reflect on what might have been On the Origin of Pigeons. Such a volume would, Elwin had suggested, “be reviewed in every journal in the kingdom & would soon be on every table”. He was probably right. Breeding ‘fancy’ pigeons was an extraordinarily popular pastime in Victorian Britain, with enthusiasts spanning the entire social spectrum, from the poorest weavers in London’s Spitalfields to Queen Victoria herself.  But how effective would On the Origin of Pigeons have been as a vehicle for Darwin’s ideas on evolution by natural selection?

That is from Nature.  One of my best papers started out in my PhD Thesis as a general model of rational paternalism.  For publication the editor insisted that it appear as a model of paternalism in drug bans only, even though the math applied just as well to most other paternalism.

I think the general rule is that little people should only have little ideas; big ideas are reserved for big people.  That makes little sense for an academia designed to achieve intellectual progress, but more sense for an academia designed to let people affiliate with credentialed impressiveness.

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  • I think the general rule is that little people should only have little ideas; big ideas are reserved for big people.

    This certainly rings true in my field (accounting/business), but it may be more of a US rule. Anthony Hopwood, just stepping down as editor of a very eclectic journal, argues that only a handful of researchers in the US have “a license to innovate” and that the rest are forced by editors and peer reviewers merely to tweak. European journals usually look more innovative to me, but are less respected in by US researchers.

    Hopwood doesn’t argue that academic is “designed to let people affiliate with credentialed impressiveness,” although he might agree. Instead, he argues that accountants suffer particularly from “an audit culture,” with editors far more concerned about accepting something that might be wrong than rejecting something that might be pathbreaking.

    The audit culture is hardly restricted to accounting research. A main lesson every PhD student needs to learn is to narrow their work enough that they can be absolutely sure what they are saying is correct. In the case of Darwin, an editor of an academic journal today wouldn’t ask Darwin to search-and-replace “species” with “pigeon.” Taking your own experience as example, I am betting your editor didn’t ask you to simply refer to drugs everywhere (instead of a more general term) without changing your model.

    Instead, you probably reworked your model so that it pertained very clearly to drug bans, in a setting that captured some aspect most would agree was essential to understanding drug bans, but arguably applies less well to other forms of paternalism. Is paternalism that prohibits behavior different from paternalism that requires it (wearing a seat belt)? Probably. Did you have the ability to capture both cases and clarify your reasoning in the course of an ordinary length paper?

    You were forced to innovate less, but provided a more auditable product that was far more relevant to people who care about one specific topic (drug bans). You can write another paper on seat belts. Is that such a bad thing?

    • Alan

      In my field (biology) I believe it is generally accepted that funding agencies are much more conservative in Europe than the US. For example a friend of mine was turned down for a grant from the EU for proposing a project that was “too ambitious”. The same project was funded by the NIH, provided she *increased* the scope. I’m not so sure if the difference holds up in journals too, there is very little distinction in my mind between US and European journals – the geographical location is irrelevant (I’m not even sure if I know the correct locations of many of the journals in my field).

  • david

    An academia that allowed little people to publish big ideas would soon drown in big ideas of dubious merit. Think of the mechanism outlined in Yudkowsky’s “well-kept gardens“; the wilder the idea, the more spurs you need to have won to be worth listening to. The physicist with the Nobel can publicly speculate on the second law of thermodynamics; everyone else can sit down and shut up, or we’ll never get anything done.

  • Robert, actually in my the model was exactly the same.

    david, if all we had to evaluate an idea was the publication record of the author, yes we’d only believe a priori unlikely ideas from the well-published. If however, we could actually, read their paper, we might have more to go on.

  • david

    But publishing papers has a nonzero cost, so publishing everything is a no-go. There are only so many reviewers, never mind the cost to readers to dig through the piles of crud to find the occasional gold nugget. Journal editors are supposed to be the gatekeepers.

    arXiv can shelve every weird paper in General Mathematics; Nature, not so much.

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  • Steve

    I amazed that you wrote this post without pausing to mention, or mock, the law reviews, where the phenomenon you describe exists in its purest form. The comparison is imperfect, however, due to law reviews’ being student edited and not peer reviewed. I also think philosophy counts as something of an exception. While young people are often encouraged to go deep into the weeds, sometimes young philosophers publish big idea work, though I suppose youth is relative. Nozick was something like 36 when he published Anarchy, State, and Utopia.

  • Generally this pattern is correct. People have to start “small” and become famous before they can get taken seriously doing “big.” There are some exceptions, but they involve people who sort of manage to make themselves “big” from the get go by getting into the right place and personally impressing the right people, with in economics, Paul Samuelson perhaps being such an example. After all, his Ph.D. thesis at Harvard was called, _Foundations of Economic Analysis_, and it did have a huge impact (and at his defense, one of the professors supposedly asked him, “did we pass?”).

    Regarding Darwin, this is an amusing story, but in fact he was already big, a well known quantity, as the vicar’s citation of his famous Voyage of the Beagle from nearly three decades earlier (and his grandfather had already been out front as a sort of proto-evolutionist). The real issue with Darwin and “big,” is how it was that he was able to overwhelm the “small” Alfred Russel Wallace, even though there was this officially joint presentation at the Royal Society. Wallace did not have the earlier famous pubs, much less the famous relatives.

    • Eric Johnson

      Well, the joint presentation at the Royal Society isn’t the whole story. People also knew that Darwin had already done it many years before, without Wallace’s help. He hadn’t published it but he had communicated it to people privately. It’s true that being big may have helped him get the credit, but the fact that he deserved it is not really ambiguous.

  • Doug S.

    Little people with big ideas are far more likely to be like the Time Cube guy than the next Einstein.

  • A paper concentrating on a specific application of a general rule is easier for people to grasp than a fully general one – and once you’ve internalized the model for one case, you can then apply it to others, so nothing is necessarily lost.

    Of course, that doesn’t explain why you couldn’t start with first applying the paper to a single case and then generalizing from there. It is good to at least be able to point out some of the ways in which it also applies to other cases, in case it isn’t obvious, after all.

  • Duncan

    Of course, Steven Pinker would have loved to write a book called On The Origin Of Pidgins, if that were a marketable pun.

  • Perhaps this is why I have such problems getting a job. I’m a big idea guy, as evidenced by my book “Diaphysics.” As a creative writer, I understand that universality comes out of details, but in academic work, too often a narrow focus blinds everyone to the universal aspects of it.

  • Jake

    Good article,except the last part about only big people having big ideas.