10 May 2020

They say fortune favours the prepared mind. When I say ‘they’, I apparently mean Louis Pasteur (thanks, Google)—although he would presumably have said it in French. In a similar vein, I like to joke that, when you’re a self-confessed ‘Darwin groupie’, everything has a Darwin connection. So, when you’re a self-confessed Darwin groupie writing a book inspired by your hero, your mind should in theory be well and truly prepared for fortuitous inspirational happenstances.

It doesn’t quite work that way, of course. Writing books is hard. Especially non-fiction books, where you can’t just make the stuff up. But, in the last week, two signals blipped across my radar that turned out to be exactly the sort of inspiration my prepared mind was looking for.

I’d decided I needed to write a short chapter about instinct. Darwin dedicated an entire chapter to the same subject in On the Origin of Species. I realised I needed to write about a particular instinct, but had hit something of a brick wall trying to decide which one. Darwin wrote mainly about bees’ instincts to make honeycombs, but I had learnt my lesson and wanted to pick a less dangerous example. Then the following retweeted observation zipped by in my Twitter stream:

This was exactly the inspiration I was looking for: of course my chapter should be about the nesting instinct of birds! It was so obvious! Thank you Prof. Cobb! I don’t think we’d ever crossed paths before, but I’m certainly following you now!

Of course, what Pasteur really meant was we make our own luck. I’m into Darwin, so I also tend to follow a lot of ‘nature’ and ‘science’ people on social media. So it’s hardly surprising that, once in a while, I’ll encounter an inspirational tweet blending science and nature like this. This tweet wasn’t written for me, but it was certainly made for me.

The second piece of good fortune my prepared mind encountered this week came in the early hours of this morning. I’d been in a deep sleep, but was suddenly wide awake. I found myself mulling over the chapter I’d been struggling with about the genetics of bees’ eyes. I must have spent a good 15 minutes, heading off on tangential dead-ends, then looping back and heading off on another fruitless quest, before I had a sudden, startling realisation… I am not working on a chapter about the genetics of bees’ eyes—it was all a stupid dream!

Somehow, in my dream, I seem to have conflated my recent reading of Darwin on bees with a vague notion I’d had a long time ago to write about colour vision. And, as I mulled this over some more, I came up with a potential new angle for approaching the old, vague idea. An angle which has nothing whatsoever to do with bees.

To be honest, I have no idea whether this new angle really has legs, or will ever make it into my book, but my stupid dream has at least given my prepared mind something more to conjure with.

Richard Carter

Richard Carter is a writer and photo­grapher living in Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire. He is currently working on a book about looking at the world through Darwin’s eyes.Website · Newsletter · Mastodon · Facebook

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