Digitization of Charles Darwin's Manuscripts Underway main content.

Digitization of Charles Darwin's Manuscripts Underway 

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When the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) announced the awards of grants for over 200 initiatives this spring, the Darwin Manuscripts Project at the American Museum of Natural History received special mention for its work to digitize the entirety of Charles Darwin's Evolution Manuscripts— some 30,000 pages of manuscripts and letters held by Cambridge University Library.


The project, a collaboration between the Cambridge Digital Library, the Cambridge-based Darwin Correspondence Project, and the American Museum of Natural History's Darwin Manuscripts Project, is now underway with NEH support and will make publicly accessible the world's largest collection of full-color, high-resolution scans of Charles Darwin's manuscripts. Together with the 1,100 letters that became part of Darwin's scientific papers, the Evolution Manuscripts will be made available to the broadest possible audience, with each of the partners distributing the materials through their own channels. The Darwin Manuscripts Project will play a pivotal role through its ongoing transcription work—a critical effort to detect and clearly record the layers of writing in Darwin's manuscripts, which were frequently amended and reused.

The Evolution Manuscripts consist of two parts, Creation of the Origin and Darwin's Evidence, which together represent the main span of Darwin's career and offer what Darwin Manuscripts Project Director David Kohn calls "a documentary treasure house of Darwin's science," revealing two different but complimentary processes. The 10,000 pages that comprise Creation of the Origin provide a portrait of Darwin the theorist actively developing his ideas. The 20,000 pages of manuscripts in Darwin's Evidence, on the other hand—15,300 to support his evolutionary botany work, and 4,700 for human evolution—show a rigorous scientist and observer at work.  

Creation of the Origin encompasses all the documents Darwin produced while actively developing his theory of descent by natural selection, dating back to the initial thoughts aboard the Beagle. Through these notes and drafts, it is possible to trace the development of Darwin's ideas to the publication of On the Origin of Species in 1859 and through another five editions as he fine-tuned his argument. These documents map the progression not only of a significant phase in the 200-year history of evolutionary theory but also the thought processes of the scientist who first conceived of natural selection and then set out to persuade the world.  

The second set, Darwin's Evidence, documents Darwin's empirical research on plant and human evolution. These observations and experiments, dating from 1837 until his death in 1882, constitute the main body of evidence used in Darwin's six botanical works and two on human evolution, Descent of Man and Expression of Emotions. While Darwin incorporated the research of others, these records contain mostly ideas of his own design: well-formed examples of his theories as they developed and evidentiary proofs of natural selection, many formulated to defend the On the Origin of Species. His inquiries ranged from the evolutionary significance of flowers and the responses of plants to their environment to the power and consequences of sexual selection and the expression of emotion in humans.

The National Endowment for the Humanities grant will carry this digitization project through June 2015. Previous work of the Darwin Manuscripts project has also been supported by other grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Science Foundation.