Charles Darwin notebooks from first attempt at theory of evolution released online

By Ben Miller | 25 November 2014

Pencil sketch in which Darwin first coined term Natural Selection released in "really significant" high-quality online collection

A black and white photo of a 19th century scientist in profile wearing a suit and jacket
Charles Darwin (circa 1855). The evolutionary theorist's earliest formulations have been released online to coincide with the 155th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species© Cambridge University Library
Cambridge University Library says its release of more than 12,000 high-resolution images relating to Charles Darwin, accompanied by transcriptions and detailed notes, represents the “most important” collection for visitors seeking to understand how he developed the theory of evolution on the 155th anniversary of its publication.

A photo of an ancient page from a book full of black ink scribbles and crossings out
Pencil Sketch, heavily revised (1842)© Cambridge University Library
The latest stage in the Digital Library’s own evolution, launched in 2011 with £1.5 million in funding, includes unseen, groundbreaking works such as Darwin’s Transmutation and Metaphysical notebooks of the 1830s, as well as the Pencil Sketch, from 1842, in which he first used the immortal term “natural selection”.

Transmutation Notebook B contains Darwin’s first attempt to formulate a full theory of evolution. Books D and E see the idea taking form, in late 1838 and early 1839, before three experiment notebooks, from the late 1830s and mid-1850s, and a large mass of previously unpublished notes, in which he organised portfolios paralleling the chapters of the Origin.

“These documents truly constitute the surviving seedbed of the Origin,” says Professor David Kohn, the Director of the Darwin Manuscripts Project based at the American Museum of Natural History.

“In them, Darwin hammered out natural selection and the structure of concepts he used to support natural selection.

“It was here also that he developed his evolutionary narrative and where he experimented privately with arguments and strategies of presentation that he either rejected or that eventually saw the light of day with the Origin’s publication on November 24, 1859.”

Pictures of nearly 300 of Darwin’s letters have been annotated by the Darwin Correspondence Project, an Anglo-American research alliance in Cambridge. A further release is planned for June 2015, covering the notes and drafts of his eight post-Origin books.

“The information Darwin received, and the discussions he conducted in these letters, played a crucial role in the development of his thinking,” says Dr Alison Pearn, an Associate Director on the project.

“It is a really significant step that now for the first time they can be studied and searched in the context of the scientific papers of which they are an integral part.”

The library’s impressive Sanskrit Collections have been concurrently catalogued online. More than 1,600 manuscripts are included, with 500 Vedic, Hindu, Buddhist, Jainist and South Asian religious texts fully digitised, including “secular topics” such as poetry, drama, philosophy, mathematics, astronomy and eroticism.

Anne Jarvis, the university Librarian, says the initial ambition of researchers was to create a “digital library for the world”, opening up the collections to “anyone, anywhere on the planet”.

“After millions of visits to the Digital Library website, we bookend our first phase of development with the launch of Charles Darwin’s papers and our Sanskrit collection,” she reflects.

“These now sit alongside Newton’s scientific works and a wealth of other material, including the Board of Longitude papers and, most recently, our Siegfried Sassoon archive.”

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

A photo of a page from a notebook with lines of black ink and the words natural selection
The birth of 'Natural Selection' as a scientific term, as a heading in Darwin's 1842 Pencil Sketch© Cambridge University Library
A photo of the red front of a book with the letter D in black in the centre
The cover of Darwin's Experiment Book© Cambridge University Library
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