Museum Passes Halfway Point in Digitizing Darwin’s Evolution Writings

Monday, the 24th of November is the 155th anniversary of the publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, and the American Museum of Natural History is making publicly available more than half of all of Darwin’s manuscripts on the theory of evolution—side-by-side with  transcriptions that make sense of the famous naturalist’s handwriting. By June 2015, the Museum’s Darwin Manuscripts Project will host a coherent set of Darwin’s more than 30,000 digitized documents written between 1835 and 1882. 

“These notebooks, marginalia, portfolios, and abstracts were the basis for eight of Darwin’s books, beyond the Origin, that set down, enlarged, and defended the theory of evolution by natural selection,” said Darwin Manuscripts Project Director David Kohn. “In these writings, you can see Darwin as a thinker, a keen-eyed collector, an inspired observer, and a determined experimenter.”

The Darwin Manuscripts Project has been  publishing Darwin’s writings since 2007, but the publication and interpretation of the entire corpus, which include high-resolution and color images of manuscript pages, drawings, book abstracts, and other writings, will make it possible for visitors to trace the gradual gestation and long maturation of Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection. The project is being conducted simultaneously with the Cambridge Digital Library’s Charles Darwin’s Evolution Manuscripts in collaboration with the Darwin Correspondence Project.

The first 12,000 of these documents, accessible on the site now, cover the 25-year period in which Darwin became convinced of evolution; discovered natural selection; developed explanations of adaptation, speciation, and a branching tree of life; and wrote the Origin.

 “Darwin’s work in creating the Origin of Species encompassed much more than just setting pen to paper and writing the epochal book,” Kohn said. “The Origin was the mature fruit of a prolonged process of scientific exploration and creativity that began toward the end of his Beagle voyage, which first kindled Darwin’s interest in evolution, and that continued to expand in range and deepen in conceptual rigor through numerous well-marked stages.”

The launch in June of the remainder of the manuscripts will pick up in the year the Origin was published—1859—and will include the full record of Darwin’s massive experimental research program to substantiate the power of natural selection until his death in 1882. 

Work on the Darwin Manuscripts Project is supported by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, Transcription and the National Science Foundation.