Darwin Was A Framer

The following is a guest post from FrameWorks Institute President, Susan Nall Bales:  

According to David Quammen’s excellent biography (The Relucant Mr. Darwin, W.W. Norton, 2006), Charles Darwin gave considerable thought to the order of narrative in composing The Origin of Species.  His thought process should be familiar to all would-be framers who preflight their communications and use framing strategy to navigate the swamp of cultural models in mind.

Thinking of potential receptivity to his argument, he knew he was up against some considerably calcified opinion in the scientific thinking of this time.  The idea of species transmutation had been around for some time – debated, rejected, discounted.  Darwin feared that an enumeration of examples of natural selection in species would be swallowed up by this familiar terrain.

And so he landed on what Quammen describes as his “peculiar sequence” in making the pitch for natural selection.  He explained mechanism before presenting his evidence.

“He [Darwin] works first to persuade readers about natural selection – that it can happen and must happen, given variation and the struggle for existence. Only afterward does he offer evidence showing that evolution itself, by whatever mechanism has happened” (emphasis in the original).

This “peculiar sequence” is what science communicators do every day when they explain early child development. They do this by first establishing how Brain Architecture is built over time in the course of Serve and Return experiences with the child’s caregivers and environments, sometimes disrupted and weakened by exposure to Toxic Stress.  And THEN come the examples – neglect, extreme poverty, family dislocation.  All organized strategically to avoid the peril of baldly contesting the Family Bubble of insular causality. (For more on communicating about ECD, see our framing toolkit here.)

When you teach people how something works, their minds are engaged in the childlike fascination of exploring a process —  take it apart, put it together again, wind it up and see it go!  When the exemplars arrive, the explanatory mechanism maps on to them and animates them – unlike the litany of lists which are largely forgotten (see Perry, Rick), the equation of mechanism + phenomena inspires curiosity, breaks our “guessing machines” and supplants them with new ways to regard the world.

Darwin knew that.




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