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Happy Birthday, Charles Darwin!

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How to celebrate Darwin Day, 2013? Readers around the world can digitally peruse scientific manuscripts Charles Darwin wrote, thanks to the Darwin Manuscripts Project at the American Museum of Natural History.

Darwin portrait boy
One of six children, young Darwin is painted here with his sister Catherine.
Darwin Heirloom's Trust  © English Heritage Photo Library


Born February 12, 1809, in Shrewsbury, England, Charles Darwin, who became one of the most influential scientists that has ever lived, barely needs an introduction.

In 1859, Darwin published a book about an idea he had been developing, privately, for decades: the theory of evolution by natural selection. That work, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, would transform the way  people saw and experienced the world.

Directed by David Kohn, the Darwin Manuscripts Project—a collaboration with Cambridge University Library—has scanned about 16,000 individual pages of Darwin's scientific writings. The writings include notes, notebooks, marginalia, article drafts, and drafts of books. 

The Museum's own page of the Origin is included in the scanned collection.

Museum Origin of Species
The Museum houses one of 36 known leaves of the original manuscript of Darwin's On the Origin of Species.
AMNH Library Rare Books Collection, RF-18-H

Kohn and his colleagues have transcribed about 10,000 handwritten pages of Darwin's writings so far. “I love his handwriting,” says David Kohn, “To me, it’s very humane, but, for sure, it’s very variable…”

Nonetheless, his notes and manuscripts, sometimes written in notebooks like the one below, provide exhilarating you-are-there glimpses into Darwin's early insights.

Notebook D Darwin London
While living in London, Darwin made scientific notes in this leather notebook.
Darwin Manuscripts Project/ Notebook D Front Cover [1838.07.15]

In 1838, while living in London, Darwin read the work of Thomas Malthus on population. In response, he made the first formulation of the theory of adaptation by natural selection on the page shown below. (For more, see David Kohn's writing on the topic.)

75168 Notebook D page Darwin Malthus
In 1838, at the age of nearly 30, Darwin wrote this page, which is considered to contain the first formulation of adaptation by natural selection. 
Notebook D: 101,102, 133-136 (excised pages) D 135e 1838.09.28

In all there are probably about 100,000 pages of Darwin’s scientific manuscripts. The project, says Kohn, who has been studying Darwin's manuscripts since graduate school in the 1970s, aims eventually to publish them all. “I feel a real responsibility,” he adds, “to present these works in a way that’s beautiful—and is a sophisticated scholarly tool.”