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Darwin’s writ­ings being digi­tised: already 12,000 papers online

pub­lished 29 Novem­ber 2014 | mod­i­fied 29 Novem­ber 2014

The ori­gins of Darwin’s the­ory of evo­lu­tion – includ­ing the pages where he first coins and com­mits to paper the term ‘nat­ural selec­tion’ – have been made freely avail­able online on 24 Novem­ber in one of the most sig­nif­i­cant releases of Dar­win mate­r­ial in history.

Charles DarwinIn total, Cam­bridge Dig­i­tal Library is releas­ing more than 12,000 hi-​resolution images, along­side tran­scrip­tions and detailed notes as a result of an inter­na­tional col­lab­o­ra­tion with the Dar­win Man­u­script Project, based at the Amer­i­can Museum of Nat­ural His­tory. These papers chart the evo­lu­tion of Darwin’s jour­ney, from early the­o­ret­i­cal reflec­tions while on board HMS Bea­gle, to the pub­li­ca­tion of On the Ori­gin of Species – 155 years ago today.

Cam­bridge Uni­ver­sity Library holds almost the entire col­lec­tion of Darwin’s work­ing sci­en­tific papers and the ones being released today are the most impor­tant for under­stand­ing the devel­op­ment of his evo­lu­tion­ary the­ory. They are being pub­lished simul­ta­ne­ously on the Cam­bridge Dig­i­tal Library and Dar­win Man­u­scripts Project web­sites, with a fur­ther release 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.
Dr Ali­son Pearn, Asso­ciate Direc­tor, Uni­ver­sity of Cambridge »

None of the Dar­win doc­u­ments avail­able from today have hith­erto been digi­tised to the present high stan­dard of full colour and high res­o­lu­tion, and many have never been tran­scribed or edited before now.

Pro­fes­sor David Kohn, Direc­tor of the Dar­win Man­u­scripts Project, said: “These doc­u­ments truly con­sti­tute the sur­viv­ing seedbed of the Ori­gin. 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.”

The cur­rent release includes impor­tant doc­u­ments such as the “Trans­mu­ta­tion” and “Meta­phys­i­cal” note­books of the 1830s and the 1842 “Pen­cil Sketch” which sees Darwin’s first use of the term “nat­ural selection”.

Darwin's notebook D natural selection
It was in Trans­mu­ta­tion Note­book B, that Dar­win first attempted to for­mu­late a full the­ory of evo­lu­tion and it was in Note­books D and E that nat­ural selec­tion began to take form in late 1838 and early 1839. The fur­ther mat­u­ra­tion of Darwin’s the­ory is found in the three exper­i­ment note­books he began in the late 1830s and mid 1850s, and above all in a large mass of pre­vi­ously unpub­lished loose notes, pri­mar­ily from the 1830s-​1850s, which Dar­win organ­ised into port­fo­lios that gen­er­ally par­al­lel the chap­ters of the Origin.

Also included will be images of nearly 300 of Darwin’s let­ters with tran­scrip­tions and notes pro­vided by the Dar­win Cor­re­spon­dence Project, an Anglo-​American research group also based in Cam­bridge University.

Asso­ciate Direc­tor, Dr Ali­son Pearn, said: “The infor­ma­tion Dar­win received, and the dis­cus­sions he con­ducted in these let­ters played a cru­cial role in the devel­op­ment of his think­ing. 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 Cam­bridge Dig­i­tal Library was launched in 2011 with Isaac Newton’s papers. It is the ambi­tion of Cam­bridge Uni­ver­sity with this dig­i­tal library to open up their col­lec­tions to any­one, any­where on the planet with access to the Inter­net. With the launch of Charles Darwin’s papers another mile­stone has been reached in the devel­op­ment of the dig­i­tal library, and it also marks the end of the first phase of fund­ing for Cambridge’s Dig­i­tal Library.

(Source: Uni­ver­sity of Cam­bridge news release, 24.11.2014)

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