Darwin's treasure trove

Darwin’s treasure trove

Why in the world would you preserve Darwin’s original manuscript to On the Origin of Species? A few bitter antievolutionists would probably say that you should not. But scientists of evolution, Darwin enthusiasts, archivists, and collectors all over the world would have no doubt in their minds.

Darwin’s original manuscript is priceless. Here you can follow the creation of one of the most influential books in world history. Today, only about 30 pages exist. Most of them are kept at the Cambridge University Library. But it was not thanks to Darwin that the pages were saved 150 years ago.

The initial notes on the evolution of species

In May 2009, my research group from Aarhus University visited Cambridge. Alison Pearn of the unequalled Darwin Correspondence Project had invited us on a special visit to the most secure room in the back of the manuscript department. Along with her colleagues Shelley Innes and Paul White, she gave us an experience that has only been bestowed on a select few.

On two large tables they had created a very special display of the most amazing treasures from the university’s Darwin collection. Here was practically anything you could ever imagine or wish for. We saw diaries and notebooks from Darwin’s voyage on the HSM Beagle, we studied his own and very meticulous geological notes and maps from South America and we all lingered at the passage from the Galapagos Islands where he wrote that it was worthwhile studying the islands’ wildlife more closely because it could “undermine the perception of the stability of the species”.

With the field notes in our hands, we stood face to face with one of the classic and pivotal passages in the history of science where Darwin in 1835 collected his observations in thoughts which over the following years became the theory of evolution familiar to us. For a historian and evolutionary scholar  it does not get much better. However, the adventure in the archive continued.

Victorian “cut and paste”

We were amused by the notes where Darwin pondered whether or not he should get married. As in all of life’s questions, he took a scientific approach and listed the pros and cons several times. However, he did end up concluding that after all, a wife was better than a dog and subsequently proposed to his cousin Emma Wedgwood. There was no doubt however as to Darwin’s love and devotion which lasted throughout his life. His feelings were reciprocated. It was Emma who saved all of Darwin’s private notes including those describing his proposal.

We witnessed examples of his extensive correspondence with natural scientists and all sorts of other people who could provide him with information on animals, plants, geological formations, soil conditions, ways of expressing emotion, mating behaviour, seeds, flatfish, and fossils in a never ending sea of details and facts concerning earth and all life on it.

Here, we were able to see how Darwin used the information from his correspondents as scientific notes by cutting out and pasting small passages in amongst his own notes in a giant scientific mosaic which after many years of long, meticulous studies finally found its way into his articles and books.

Children’s drawings

But among all of the many Darwin treasures, the manuscript to On the Origin of Species received the most attention, not least due to the particularly moving story of its history. Darwin’s drafts were nothing more than drafts. We all know how it is. If it is not anything special, we toss it or reuse it in a different context. And that was exactly what happened to Darwin’s manuscript to the On the Origin of Species.

The busy father only wrote on one side of the paper and left the other side blank and perfect to draw on for the children. Therefore, all existing pages of the manuscript have children’s drawings on the back. So, at the Darwin house you did not save the pages because of father’s scientific work but because of the children’s drawings. In fact, none of the pages without drawings have managed to survive.

One of the impressive ones is the meticulously designed crest by his son Horace under the natural headline for an 8 year-old more occupied with tales of knights than evolution: “Sir Horace Darwin”.  The great twist to this story is that Horace in time actually became Sir Horace; however, he did not end up living in the castle found on one of the other pages of the manuscript.

Peter C. Kjærgaard

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