Digitizing Darwin’s Work

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There was a time when people who wanted to read Charles Darwin’s scientific papers—the portfolios of notes, observations, essays, and more that would help the great naturalist articulate his radical idea of natural selection in On the Origin of Species—had to travel to England and visit a reading room at Cambridge University.

Since 2006, a wealth of primary materials has been digitized and brought online, available to anyone with an interest and an internet connection. The Museum’s Darwin Manuscripts Project, working closely with Cambridge University Library, has made available some 26,000 pages written between 1835 and 1882. The documents, posted as high-resolution, full-color images, form an intimate record of a scientist at work.

A note penned by Darwin following an earthquake he experienced in Chile. 
© Cambridge University Library

“You can watch him in his father’s garden making great discoveries, sailing the voyage of the Beagle and reacting to an earthquake in the Andes, formulating his most important theories,” says David Kohn, director of the Darwin Manuscripts Project, which is hosted at the Museum’s Research Library. “It’s possible to follow his revisions, every crossed-out line, every deletion, how he underlines for emphasis. He underlines all the time, and when you see three or four underlinings, you know he’s excited.” 

In addition to instant access to thousands of pages, the Darwin Manuscripts Project also provides casual readers with a way to decipher Darwin’s famously confounding handwriting. Under Kohn’s direction, trained volunteers have transcribed much of the material. Kohn, who consulted on the Museum’s 2005 exhibition Darwin, came to the subject early: Before embarking on a 25-year career teaching the history of science at Drew University, he was tapped by a mentor while a doctoral candidate in botany to help edit Darwin’s letters. He and the late Frederick Burkhardt worked on the first three volumes of The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, covering letters written by the naturalist from age 12 to his return in 1836 from his five-year voyage on the Beagle.

Beagle cross-sections
AMNH Special Collections

The voyage, of course, was instrumental in providing Darwin with insights that ultimately led him to develop his theory. For decades, Darwin grappled with the implications of revealing his groundbreaking theory, discussing it only with a few trusted friends. At the time, most geologists had abandoned a Bible-based calculation that Earth was only 6,000 years old, but they still believed that its flora and fauna were divinely created and immutable.

Also, while evolutionary ideas had been explored by natural philosophers for generations—including by Darwin’s grandfather Erasmus Darwin, a physician—the conventional thinkers of the day held that humans were ordained by their Creator to be above and apart from the rest of the natural world and couldn’t possibly have descended from other animals. The idea of evolution was heresy—and Darwin knew it.  On January 11, 1844, he wrote to botanist Joseph Hooker that to be convinced that species are not immutable was “like confessing a murder.”

Darwin used even the inside of this notebook cover to capture his thoughts.
Reproduced with the permission of the Syndics of Cambridge University Library and William Huxley Darwin

The Hooker letter, and some 15,000 others, are part of a sister digitization project, The Darwin Correspondence Project. Taken together with the Darwin Manuscripts Project, these digital collections put at our fingertips all the drama and dogged pursuit of scientific proof that ensured Darwin’s legacy as the founder of evolutionary biology.

“These are highly unusual collaborations, and they are only possible because of the power of the internet,” says Tom Baione, the Museum’s Harold Boeschenstein Director of Library Services. “Not only does technology now allow scientists to work together across oceans, it allows anyone anywhere with a computer or a phone to read Darwin’s thoughts in his own hand.”

Take Darwin’s pocket diary from 1838 to 1881, which includes the telling, clipped entry “interrupted” on June 14, 1858. The note was prompted by receipt of a manuscript from a young naturalist, Alfred Russel Wallace, proposing his own theory of evolution. At the urging of his friends, Hooker and the geologist Charles Lyell, Darwin realized he must accelerate publication of his theory. After a break in his diary, on July 20, he writes, “begin abstract, book on species.”

House by Francis Darwin, verso of Origin Ms p. 555
Reproduced with the permission of the Syndics of Cambridge University Library and William Huxley Darwin

And then there are the more intimate items, which offer a glimpse into Darwin’s daily life: for example, the Darwin Manuscripts Project includes dozens of colorful drawings made by Darwin’s children on the backs of loose leaf pages, some with their father’s writing on the other side. The sketches, which range from fanciful battles between vegetables to an imagined family crest, likely helped preserve manuscript pages for posterity, says Kohn.

“You also see in these drawings how thin the line of separation was between Darwin at work and home and family,” says Kohn.

In addition to Cambridge University Library, which houses the bulk of Darwin’s papers, the Darwin Manuscripts Project has made available, online, books from Charles Darwin’s scientific library, many of which bear his notes in the margins.

The Darwin Manuscripts Project has been supported by grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Science Foundation, and the Higher Education Funding Council for England.

A version of this story originally appeared in the Summer issue of the Member magazine Rotunda.