Lessons for success from Darwin's life

For nerds, scientists and Charles Darwin fans, the year 2009 is a bumper year. It is both the 200th year of his birth, and the 150th year of the publication of The Origin of Species. Through the summer, I spent many a fascinating afternoon in Down House, where Darwin lived with his family after returning from his five year voyage on HMS Beagle.

Spending time poring over the artefacts and manuscripts, and indeed re-reading The Voyage of The Beagle, I find that Darwin’s life has much to teach entrepreneurs, business people and other human beings.

Disciplinary walls constrain thinking; an open mind plus a multidisciplinary approach may catalyse serendipity and insight.

During his time at university, Darwin had read medicine, natural history, geology, natural philosophy, logic and reasoning. As part of his preparation to becoming an Anglican parson, he had also studied William Paley’s Natural Theology which argued for divine design. He also had developed several skills – collecting, classifying, dissecting and above all, critical thinking.

What others saw as fruitless pursuits and digressions during Darwin’s time at university, including hobbies such as beetle-collecting, were his first steps to becoming a naturalist. The interest in collecting and classifying was crucial in his time on the Beagle where he kept copious notes and collected specimens that led to one of the most influential works of our time.

Ample examples exist in business, and in life, of how breakthroughs come from non-traditional thinking about problems. From 3M’s innovations such as Post-It(R) to Pfizer’s Viagra. Are you being walled in by linear thinking or the NIH syndrome?

It’s not only what you know, but whom you know that can shape your success.

The Origin of Species was published to a stormy reception. Defending Darwin and arguing for him were his friends: lawyer and geologist Charles Lyell, botanist and explorer Joseph Hooker, botanist Asa Gray and zoologist and comparative anatomist Thomas Henry Huxley. Huxley called himself “Darwin’s bulldog”. His 1860 debate with Bishop Samuel Wilberforce is seen as a turning point in the acceptance of evolutionary theory. Wilberforce reportedly asked Huxley if it was through his grandmother or his grandfather that Huxley considered himself descended from a monkey. Huxley responded that he was not ashamed to have a monkey for his ancestor; but he would be ashamed to be connected with a man who used great gifts to obscure the truth.

For a business, its best advocates are happy customers. Do you know who they are, how to find them and how to engage with them meaningfully?

In any success, luck is under-rated.

Darwin was born with good fortune. His father was wealthy and his paternal grandfather was a slavery abolitionist, champion of women’s education and inventor. On his mother’s side, he was related to the Wedgewood family and his maternal grandfather was not only a creative genius and entrepreneur, but also an abolitionist and a pioneer of many marketing tricks that endure today.

Darwin’s father tolerated his inability to focus on the structured work at University and yet bank-rolled his voyage on the Beagle. Upon his return, Darwin was able to buy Down House with its (then) 21 varieties of orchids and a kitchen garden big enough to feed his family with 10 children and several domestic staff all year round. His wife was a devout Christian but remained his faithful companion despite their differences.

Do you recognise what your sources of fortune are? It is wise not to over-attribute the successes  in business and life to individual decisions; it is wiser rather to be aware of the multitude and complexity of factors that make that success happen.

Related reading:

Janet Browne’s excellent piece on Darwin’s friends who defended him.

Lost in Translation

Beyond Privilege: Managing Information Asymmetries

Learning to Love – And Solve – Multivariate Problems

John Kay’s Sept 30th column on why Evolution is the real hidden hand in business (FT may require registration)

Admirable women-in-technology: Ada Lovelace Day 2009

Today is Ada Lovelace Day 2009, an international day to celebrate women excelling in technology. “Who was Ada?”, you may well ask. The answer is here.

I signed a pledge to write today about a woman – or women –  in technology that I admire. I interpret the brief loosely. I believe technology is not possible  without science, and the benefits of science and technology would not reach many without individual enterprise and leadership.

This pledge post particularly draws attention to the leadership of Indian women in science and technology.

When I was a girl growing up in India, an early text book introduced me to Madame Curie but not to any Indian woman scientist. In my extended family, there were several female cousins who were doctors, but only male cousins seemed to be engineers or scientists. Indeed one of those male cousins – and a chapter in my Hindi text book in Year 4 of school – inspired me to study engineering. But when I was a student of engineering, we had only one woman teacher.

Outside too, every once in a while a brilliant mathematical mind, such as Shakuntala Devi or Mangala Narlikar, would be mentioned in the press but these were the exceptions rather than commonplace appearances. Indeed while Mangala Narlikar’s husband Jayant has an entry on Wikipedia, she herself gets few mentions!

Women are under-represented and not very visible as scientists and technologists.

Women are under-represented in science and technology in India, as they are everywhere else. They are also not very visible. A recent book titled ‘Lilavati’s Daughters: The Women Scientists of India‘ attempts to change that.

Why Lilavati’s daughters? Lilavati was the daughter of renowned Indian mathematician and astronomer Bhāskara II (1114-1185 A.D.). In his treatise on arithmetics, Lilavati, named after his intelligent daughter, he proposed the modern mathematical convention that when a finite number is divided by zero, the result is infinity.

India still confounds many through its selective modernity. But worth celebrating are both quiet determination and bold leadership in women who on first glance may appear traditional. In particular, I want to pay tribute to two inspiring women who bring the wonders of science and technology to the public, combining their love of science and technology with their leadership and enterprise.

On Ada Lovelace Day 2009, I pay tribute to Dr Kiran Mazumdar Shaw and Neelam Dhawan, two of India’s admirable women leaders, in technology areas in which I work.

Dr Kiran Mazumdar Shaw is India’s leading biotechnology entrepreneur, and the founder of Biocon Limited in Bangalore. Although she trained as a master brewer, she has built Biocon as a healthcare focused company, which is driven by original research. The company is the world’s 7th largest biotechnology employer.

She is also a vociferous, if not always popular, civic activist who is an advocate for better municipal governance in her home town. Personally, her ability to keep alive her wider interests, beyond just work, interests me greatly because I believe that a well-lived life is a well-rounded life. She is not known to be a wall-flower and I admire her for living life on her own terms.

Neelam Dhawan is my other choice of an aspiring technology industry leader in India. As it happens, I knew her when I first joined HCL in India in 1994. She was then the head of marketing in HCL-HP, a joint venture between HCL and Hewlett-Packard. She was on my very first performance review panel where I experienced her firm-with-fair and direct way of managing people. Her team – all young male professionals – respected her immensely. But above all, they liked her. She neither put up with unreasonable demands nor subjected her team to them.

Although I had no reporting relationship with her, there was no template in HCL then for a high-achieving female manager. Apart from Neelam. I benefited greatly from several short and long conversations with her, on various matters related to professional growth and conduct. She was amazingly calm and had a great sense of humour, and a perfect mentor.

Neelam is now the head of HP in India. Her commitment to customers, change and innovation – for which HCL gives its employees plenty of practice – continues to stand her in good stead. She is especially inspiring because she has balanced her career with a marriage and bringing up her children. Perhaps Sylvia Ann Hewlett would like to interview her next to unlock some of the secrets!

Who are the women scientists and technologists you admire? If you haven’t acknowledged their influence on you publicly, today’s is a good day! (Please tag the posts ‘ALD09post‘ so others can find your contribution too, thanks.)

Related reading:

A review of a translated version of ‘Lilavati’ can be found here (PDF).

My review of Dick Teresi’s ‘Lost Discoveries: The Multicultural Roots of Modern Science from the Babylonians to the Maya’.

Art or Science?

Is management an art or a science? This is the direction in which the conversation in the comments section of an earlier post on Recession-proofing Your Career veered. The answer, just as with other questions in life, is not clear cut, nor all-pleasing at all times.

But to me, the question should be different. Are art and science really so different, so different as to be used as antonyms of some sort? I do not think so. The Wellcome Trust, the UK’s largest medical research charity, also seems to consider art inspired by science a cause worthy of some £5.5M since 2002.

The beauty of science and mathematics, in my mind, is better than, if not at least akin to the best of art. As some of you may know from my past writings, I am no philistine, a term which is a shame to use as a derogation, when the early history of Philistines shows them to be quite a cultured people. But I digress.

My attention was recently drawn, by a friend and fellow PhD student on a train ride from Cambridge to London, to a beautiful example of art converging with science and the merged entity being thrown in the midst of the community’s quotidian life.

Alongside the train track runs a cycle track and footpath. And on that footpath have been laid some 10,000 colour stripes. These stripes represent the genetic code for a vital human gene: the BRCA2, which was sequenced at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute in Cambridge. BRCA2 (pronounced “Bracker Two”) is, as some of you may know, is a human gene, alterations or mutations in which may be involved in some cases of breast and ovarian cancer.

Here is a picture of the said pattern of BRCA2 made of coloured stripes, that I took from the moving train.


(c) Picture taken by me, on Nokia N95, February 2008: The BRCA2 gene map on the cycle path from Shelford to Addenbrooke’s, Cambridge

Art or science? What do you think?

Me? I think there is no separation between the two. Science is the art of explanation; art is the science of making more than the literal sense of the explanation in a broader, richer, more complex context.

Other genetics-related readings on this blog:

The genetic research gold rush


Maybe baby?

At this time, I know two women and know of another woman, who are all undergoing the prolonged physical and mental agony of a battery of treatments to have a child. It has led to many interesting conversations with the former two about identity, the role of children and the reasons behind why they are willing to bear all this pain even before an actual child comes along, if one comes along at all. One is prepared and the other is not, for adoption as a possibility.

Two or three make not a statistically significant sample. But the route is familiar. In all cases, the husbands’ turn to be checked comes up very late. The presumption is that something must be wrong with the woman.

Those around me, who have children – careers or no careers – have never been able to tell me why they had them. Perhaps I am a wide-eyed ingénue and ask all sorts of wrong questions of people. But I have in the process heard some interesting ones.

Some of my educated friends have told me that one can never love somebody else’s children as their own. I find it laughable (I have a step mother!) because it is theoretical for them to spout such nonsense.

I think it is all about the capability to love. Period. If a woman could find a man some 25 years into their lives and love him as much as she claims to, then a small, helpless baby or child should surely be more easy to love. No? Especially for someone claiming to be maternal and all that.

Yet another conversation was quite amazing. The woman in question said to me:

Those adults, who want children but are finding it hard to conceive, can try modern technological options such as IVF. But those children, who want parents and are finding life hard without them, have no such technical options open to them”.

Point to ponder, indeed.

Nita has written an interesting post on the surge in the so-far unregulated business of surrogacy in India.

She discusses the estimated size of the business in India (~ £250 M) and the dangers of keeping it unregulated or self-regulated, as the current provision in the form of guidelines would suggest.

She writes:

There are some who feel that if surrogate motherhood becomes a legal ‘business’ then soon educated working women will start hiring wombs to prevent a break in their career!

This, I think, is an understandable fear which may not come to pass.

Yes, it is indeed true that many career women face the conflict between career and children. Sylvia Ann Hewlett’s research found that fully 42% of professional women in corporate America were childless at age 40 and only 14% of them had planned life without children. Her research also found that these women blamed a variety of factors for their “enforced” childlessness, including long working weeks, rigid career structures, unsympathetic bosses and needy partners. Her more recent work discusses how employers put women with children on a sort of career off-ramp.

So the fear that this will become some sort of baby-making outsourcing – perhaps BMO instead of BPO? – is understandable but it may not come to pass. Here is why.

Educated women the world over have fewer children than their uneducated or non-career-oriented counterparts. It is not just about the rationality towards their career, but the gender empowerment that makes that career possible and is in turn, reinforced by career women’s presence. There is the additional factor to consider – the economics of having many children, when even relatively wealthy parents may prefer to divvy up their money and attention amongst fewer children, giving them better opportunities than amongst many, affording them relatively less.

Additionally, here is my hypothesis. Another reason, why despite adoption being a feasible and socially acceptable option – Angelina Jolie has her social utility after all – most people prefer to make their own children, is “genetic vanity“. I wonder if surrogacy – especially with a poor woman serving as the host womb – is something genetically vain people (educated, career-oriented, in a relationship so presumably attractive to someone, so, much to be understandably vain about) would consider with gusto.

Then again, as chance would have it, I came across Ben’s post about a new book. Titled “Why beautiful people have more daughters“, it is two evolutionary psychologists’ explanation of some of the curiosities of life.

An extraordinary view of poverty is expressed by Ryan Holiday in the comments section:

Poor families tend to have more daughters because having a daughter (often an economic asset) helps them move up in status.

In many patriarchal cultures in poor countries, including India, the custom is that marrying a daughter off costs a lot of money (in the form of dowry). On the other hand, keeping her unmarried to contribute economically is a stigma and poor people may not have much, but they have their pride and they care an awful lot about social stigma.

Sons in the same cultures bring dowry in, stay with parents – unlike the daughter who goes to live with or serve the in-laws – and inherit the assets, keeping the wealth in the family. Their sons also carry the family name whereas the woman is often forced to take the husband’s family name. Indeed in some communities in India, the woman’s first name is changed too, so she effectively brings nothing – but her dowry – from her parents’ house. Sons are therefore considered immensely preferable to daughters.

So the argument – if at all there is one – is the other way round. Families do not want daughters because they are seen as harbingers of poverty.

Ben’s post first made me laugh, then quickly look for the book and order it. Then I called my father, a father of well-educated professional girls, who found their own husbands, where applicable, without dowry, to congratulate him on his looks.

Then I began to wonder how wider knowledge of such an evolutionary link might pan out in an illegal abortion clinic in India:

“Oh, doctor, so you think it is a girl?”


“And that means I am beautiful?”

“Well, yes, so evolutionary theorists would say”.

“Ok, thanks for the compliment. Now can you hurry up and complete the abortion?”

End of.

Several million female foetuses and infants are killed every year in India. Indeed Asians, as people from the sub-continent are referred to in the UK, are so notorious for their attitudes in the matter, that in some parts of Britain, the doctor would just not tell the parents the gender of the child. Now if only this argument of vanity could help change some of those attitudes!

This female foeticide and infanticide, of course, carries on in spite of regulatory controls, that have been around a while now.

So what price children then?

I do not think as a society, we have any answers. Baroness Mary Warnock, well-known British philosopher, has argued that people have a right to try to have children, but not an actual right to have children.

Then there is the lure of all that science has seemingly made possible – from egg freezing to sperm-donation to IVF. All this, Hewlett argues lulls women into a false sense of security and into putting off trying to have children till it is too late.

I cannot claim to know the answer of course, and all the discourses with several educated, professional women, both with and without children, provide no wisdom.

If there is a fundamental right to try to have a child, perhaps surrogacy should come out of the shadows, as Nita suggests.

But then again, perhaps adoption should be made easier too so people do not have to go to other countries – richer or poorer – with relatively simpler regulations to find the missing pieces of their family.

And in all this, it is the child, whose rights, to be treated with dignity and compassion from conception to birth and beyond, should be supreme.

Additional Reading: Late additions/ editions:

Interesting discussion at Ben Casnocha’s blog on Child Free by Choice

Penelope’s controversial advice on Effective Ways to Wrestle your Biological Clock

99PPP’s exhaustive argument for A Case Against Having Any Or More Children


Yes, I know that post title should have been followed by ‘sic‘ in brackets. I can spell fine but before ‘pharming‘ was cruelly hijacked by ‘phishers’, it used to imply a combination of the agricultural methods with advanced biotechnology. This involves insertion, into plants and animals, of genetic material that would code for useful drug products, which can then either be purified or just consumed directly.

A well-known example of such GE* food products is of course Golden Rice. Golden Rice is created to deliver Vitamin A, the deficiency of which causes night blindness, common in developing countries. Its health benefits notwithstanding, Golden Rice has attracted a lot of criticism from anti-globalisation and environmental activists. If the science were to be considered, separate from the argument surrounding private profits and patent ownerships, or political will, it is a good illustration of what can be achieved with technology.

The promise of the technology made way for European funding to explore the development of vaccines and drugs for HIV, rabies and tuberculosis.

Today it is reported that Sembiosys, a Canadian firm, has developed a safflower variety, with human genetic material added, that can deliver insulin. Unlike bacterially-produced insulin, these plants needn’t be kept in sealed areas but can be grown in open spaces. Trial planting has been done in Chile, the US and Canada.

Although the number of Type-I or insulin-dependent diabetics is smaller (5-15% of all diabetics) than those with Type-II or non-insulin-dependent diabetes, the market is still considerable. The incidence of Type-I was commonly associated with age but in recent years, a huge growth has been seen in children. Much as this is no cause for joy as a society, it still means that demand for insulin will grow.

The regulatory loop of bio-equivalence to human insulin of course yet needs to be cleared, if the firm is to have hopes of large scale commercialisation, and large scale profits.

As block-buster drugs become more elusive, new methods of production and delivery of drugs will gain importance. Since food is essential, what can be better to deliver essential drugs and ensure enhanced compliance?

* GE (genetically engineered) is technically the correct term for what we commonly call GM (genetically modified) in food context.