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Darwin's Mentor

Business intelligence is helping to extract meaningful information from centuries-old data – and rewriting history in the process

The library of Cory Lodge, deep within Cambridge University’s botanic garden,
is an unlikely destination for a business intelligence breakthrough. Its dusty
shelves are home to centuries-old volumes of botanical knowledge. Academics mill
around. A tea lady straight out of the sixties wheels in a tray of tea and

Hi-tech it certainly isn’t. Yet less than 12 months prior to this unlikely
gathering taking place, business intelligence had provided the same academics
with the highlight of their long, research-dedicated careers. It also allowed
the same academics to re-write history and prove that Charles Darwin did not
come up with the theory of evolution alone, as previously thought.

Professor of Botany at the university, John Parker, is also director of the
Botanic Garden. On a large wooden table in the library he and his team has laid
out a sample of what they have been researching – an ancient “database” compiled
by one of his predecessors, professor John Henslow in the nineteenth century.
Each piece of paper laid out on the table contains several plants – all of which
are designed to show variety within a species.

Some time earlier, Gina Murrell, assistant curator of the herbarium at the
university, had noted Henslow’s tendency to attach several variations of the
same species on the same piece of paper for comparison purposes – a practice not
observed by Henslow’s fellow botanists of the era.

The hypothesis? That Henslow had, in fact, been studying variation – the
prime factor behind Darwin’s theory of evolution – decades before Darwin
himself. Therefore, Darwin could not have come up with the theory alone.

By entering all the data contained on the samples – such as date collected,
collector, type of plant, dimensions and so on – into a simple Microsoft SQL
database the team was able to carry out the type of research previously
unimaginable. By using the business intelligence capabilities of SQL, the team w
as able to ask questions that would previously have been too time consuming and
potentially too damaging to plant samples that are around 180 years old.
Research that would have taken weeks was now being carried out in minutes.

Technology, and in particular business intelligence, was being used to
extract meaningful and enlightening information from data literally

There is no doubt that Henslow had some influence over Darwin’s career
because he was his tutor during Darwin’s spell at the university. Henslow also
had no doubt in his own mind about the brilliance of his pupil and because of
this arranged a berth for him on HMS Beagle for its famous voyage to the
Galapagos Islands in 1831.

It was during this voyage that Darwin finalised his theory of evolution – but
it was as many as 20 years earlier than this that Henslow was laying the
foundations for the theory.

Inquiring mind

In a three-page feature published in Nature magazine, the scientists and
researchers involved – David Kohn, Gina Murrell, John Parker and Mark Whitehorn
– spelled out the results of their research. “We have analysed all 10,172 plants
on these sheets and infer that he [Henslow] intentionally organised his
dried-plant collection to serve as the tool for an inquiry into species and
their limits,” the article claims. “Darwin’s exposure to his mentor’s thinking
was part of the exciting intellectual framework that he took with him on the

In scientific circles, these are bold claims. Previously, Darwin alone had
been credited for his evolutionary theories, which, for the first time, strayed
away from the Creationist views put forward by Christianity. Business
intelligence technology had provided the scientists with the means to prove
their hypothesis.

As Whitehorn, the database and business intelligence expert who worked on the
project, says: “We realised that the data we were collecting was perfect for
dimensional analysis – there are 17 dimensional factors for each sheet [of
Henslow’s research] alone.” The research provides an excellent example of just
what business intelligence is designed to do – provide insight from data that is
enormously difficult to understand.

The article in Nature provides an insight into how important the technology
could prove to history. “Henslow had launched Darwin’s voyage when he helped to
secure a berth for him on the Beagle. But, more significantly, during Darwin’s
undergraduate career, Henslow had also launched his mind on an intellectual
voyage that led from species stability to On the Origin of Species.”

Business intelligence had allowed the team to ask more questions and gain
more insight from existing data. And exactly the same philosophy should be used
by business: companies hold vast amounts of data; harnessing that data is the
key to competitive advantage.

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