How to Experiment Like Darwin

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The Museum's library is part of the Darwin Manuscripts Project, which aims to digitize the papers, manuscripts, and correspondence of Charles Darwin. Among these are papers detailing experiments Darwin conducted, as well as their results. You can even recreate some of these experiments at home!

Darwin famously held back from publishing his theories on evolution for decades. It wasn’t just his religious scruples that kept Darwin from publishing the details of his ideas about natural selection, though. He needed that time to establish his reputation as a scientist and do the necessary work on his selection theory, developing evidence and preparing to face the objections of critics. To test his theories, Darwin bred pigeons, dissected orchids, and skeletonized rabbits. He spent so much time studying barnacles that his children thought that was just what fathers did; one of the boys reportedly asked a friend, “Where does your father do his barnacles?”

Darwin Experimental Book - Crop
A page from Darwin's "Experimental Book" detailing the results of an experiment in his garden.
Reproduced with the permission of the Syndics of Cambridge University Library and William Huxley Darwin

After publication of On the Origin of Species, Darwin’s days at the family home, Down House, were filled with experiments, often using no more sophisticated equipment than a microscope or a magnifying glass. His notebooks are a wonderful record of the scientific method in practice—raising questions based on his theory and then testing them. The index page shown here, from Darwin’s “Experimental Book” begun in 1855, hints at the breadth of his explorations, dealing with everything from snails to sweet peas, wild cabbages to frog spawn.

Tracking the growth of weeds like dandelions can help students understand Darwin's work by replicating it.
Courtesy of Pavlofox via Pixabay

Notable for their simplicity, some of his experiments are ideal science lessons for children—for example, his weed plot experiment, which aims to seed what species of weeds, like the dandelions above, are the hardiest. Another looks at the viability of plant seeds that have been soaked in salt water. Detailed instructions for carrying out these experiments, as well as a third on insect-eating plants, can be found in the Schools section of The Darwin Correspondence Project.

Learn about Darwin’s family life in Darwin at Home. For more about the origin of the Darwin Manuscripts Project, read Digitizing Darwin’s Work.

A version of this story originally appeared in the Summer 2015 issue of the Member magazine Rotunda