A Rare Breed – Darwin on Selling Innovative Ideas

We Homo sapiens descended from chimpanzees. There is (relatively) little controversy about that statement today, thanks to Englishman Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution through natural selection. During his life, however, Darwin’s ideas threatened the authority of the most powerful institution – the church. Indeed, Darwin published his book On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection in 1859 after delaying nearly twenty years, for fear of religious backlash. Still, Darwin was compelled to share his views.

Influential and successful products or ideas present a new world view; truly innovative products or ideas, however, market and sell a new world view to the masses. Darwin weighed the risks associated with spreading his theory against the potential benefits to science and humanity – we are grateful he decided to sell his innovation.

As is often the case in science and business, Darwin did not independently invent his revolutionary idea; Alfred Russel Wallace was actually among the first to advance a theory that all life evolved from earlier ancestors by way of inheriting useful traits from parents who survived to pass on genes – in fact, Wallace influenced Darwin’s own writings and they even collaborated together. Why don’t we celebrate Wallace the way we venerate Darwin?

Darwin was a master salesman and marketer. He was able to package a truly radical idea – that humans were not ‘Created’ in the religious sense but had simply evolved the same way all other species on Earth had – in a consumable format for the masses. Indeed, London bookstores couldn’t keep On the Origin of Species in stock. Darwin managed to unlock another market for his book in America – he leveraged his connections in Boston to print the book there and expand his readership.

The modern business landscape is littered with the remnants of good ideas, good intentions, and burnt out entrepreneurs – just because a business leader has a good idea doesn’t mean it will be successful. Executing a strategy is essential, but if you can’t sell a good idea to a wide audience, it isn’t innovative. Darwin’s theory of evolution was a resounding commercial success and is remembered as a major innovation because he connected with many people on a deeply intimate level to help answer a question we all struggle with: where do we come from?

Of course, innovative ideas or products threaten the major incumbents in a market. In Darwin’s case, this meant facing down the most established provider of human meaning around – the church. Darwin had to withstand intense criticism, especially from close pious friends. But, in the end, even the Church of England pardoned Darwin 150 years after he published On the Origin of Species.

To make the leap from a good idea to an innovative one, a business must sell a new world view to the largest audience. Only then does a market evolve.

Adam F. Caplan is the product leader at a rapidly growing digital healthcare IT company.