Celebrating The 150th Anniversary Of On The Origin Of Species


When Charles Darwin labored over word choice while writing On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, he could not have known that one day any student of the humanities and sciences could peer over his shoulder to see him pen the words, "difficulty of highly perfect organs." On November 24, 2009, to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Origin's publication, Darwin is going digital. Over the coming months, the Darwin Manuscripts Project will place online about 10,000 high-quality images of Darwin's scientific manuscripts and notes. These pages include 34 of the 36 known and located draft leaves of Origin, gathered together for the first time since Darwin wrote his seminal book.


"These rare manuscript leaves from Origin are the crown jewels of our project and show Darwin in the process of writing," says David Kohn, Director and General Editor of the Darwin Manuscripts Project at the American Museum of Natural History. Kohn has been editing Darwin for decades, beginning with Darwin's correspondence and now continuing with the other half of his archive, his scientific papers. This project began in 2005. "I've sat in the Cambridge University Library since 1974, touching these documents, but this is the first time that anyone can do thisonline in this quantity and with this quality." His co-editor for the Origin leaves is Randal Keynes, great-great-grandson of Charles Darwin. 

The Darwin Manuscripts Project is a digital scholarly edition of Darwin's scientific manuscripts based at the Museum and is carried out in collaboration with Cambridge University Library and the Biodiversity Heritage Library, represented by the Natural History Museum in London. The rare draft sheets from Origin are owned by a number of institutions, including the Smithsonian Institution, the American Philosophical Society, and Cambridge University Library. The Museum also owns one sheet from Chapter 6 of Origin that Kohn finds particularly interesting because this is "where Darwin deals with the difficulties of the theory."

In addition to the rare Origin drafts, the Darwin Manuscripts Project will also put online about 10,000 additional images of Darwin's material. Notebooks and scientific writing from the Beagle period through the Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex, published in 1871, will be available with transcriptions and curatorial notations. Examples include the notebooks that chronicle Darwin's discovery of natural selection, the only extant fair copy sheet of Origin, and drafts from his botanical books, among other items.

The Darwin Manuscripts Project also includes a key to all things Darwin. This is DARBASE (Darwin Union Manuscripts Catalogue), a new, massive, searchable database that tracks the network of knowledge about Darwin's scientific papers. Developed together with Cambridge University Library, whose collection is the backbone of the database, this new tool will also include the Darwin holdings from all other libraries in the world. Over 60,000 Darwin items and closely-related Darwin material are described in the database in accurate detail. 

"This is an extraordinary resource," says Michael Novacek, Provost of Science at the Museum. "The Darwin Manuscripts Project takes advantage of new technology to bring the fruits of Darwin's extraordinary mind to a much broader audience, much like the Museum's 2005 exhibition on Darwin that brought his theory, life, and science to the general public."

Future projects for the Darwin Manuscripts Project include compiling and digitizing additional Darwin manuscripts as well as reconstructing his library. Darwin was famous for reading widely on a variety of subjects ranging from insect-eating plants to pigeon breeding to the immorality of slavery. He would fill margins and inside covers of his books with copious annotations and passionate marks. For example, he wrote on the margin of one of Charles Lyell's books, in which Lyell proposes that species don't change beyond a definite limit, "if this be true, adios theory." Over 700 of his most heavily annotated books are held at Cambridge University Library and will now be reproduced as high-resolution images, and his transcribed marginalia will be digitally available.

"The extensive marginalia preserved in his library reveals Darwin as not simply a curious reader, but an active interrogator, questioning and commenting on the works of Humboldt, Lyell, Spencer, and Agassiz," says Kohn. "Now with this digitalization project, readers can follow the conversational thread that changed our thinking on the origins of species and gave birth to modern evolutionary science."

The Darwin Manuscripts Project is funded by two grants from the National Science Foundation, and a new grant from JISC/NEH Transatlantic Digitization Collaboration program will fund the work to digitally reconstruct Darwin's working library as it stood at the time of his death in 1882.

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