World of Wonders

When we see things that aren’t, we miss the wonderful things that are.

The Darwin Correspondence Project and other online Darwin resources

Just a post about some online archival resources I’ve found relating to Charles Darwin and The Origin of Species:

The first is the Darwin Correspondence Project, a fascinating website that lets you “read and search the full texts of more than 6000 of Darwin’s letters.” These include letters to and from his grandfather Eramus, Beagle captain Robert Fitzroy, Charles Lyell, T.H. Huxley, John Gould, Alfred Russell Wallace, and many others. Access to the letters is through a well-designed, interactive time-line that lets you browse through years of correspondence or search by name.

Darwin Correspondence ProjectFor example, in a letter to Charles Lyell, dated June 25, 1858, Darwin expresses his anguish at receiving Wallace’s manuscript describing the Welshman’s own thoughts on evolution. Can Darwin in all good conscience publish his “sketch” now that he has seen the other naturalist’s work? He writes, “I would far rather burn my whole book than that he or any man shd. think that I had behaved in a paltry spirit.”

In addition to shining a light on Darwin, his thoughts, and his collaborative professional relationships, the correspondence illuminates other facets of the naturalist. For example, in a letter to W.D. Fox, he reveals his views on homeopathy and clairvoyance:

“You speak about Homœopathy; which is a subject which makes me more wrath, even than does Clair-voyance: clairvoyance so transcends belief, that one’s ordinary faculties are put out of question, but in Homœopathy common sense & common observation come into play, & both these must go to the Dogs, if the infinetesimal doses have any effect whatever.”

Today’s adherents of pseudo-scientific ideas like homeopathy would do well to read Darwin—and not just for the evolution.

In addition to the Correspondence Project, there are a number of websites that let you view (or download) virtually all of Darwin’s published works and notebooks:

The National Library of Australia’s digital copy of a first edition On the Origin of Species includes the penciled annotations made by the book’s first owner, a clergyman named William Woolls, who lived in Parramatta, NSW.

A PDF of Origin can be downloaded from Project Gutenberg, along with other publications such as The Voyage of the Beagle. You can even listen to MP3 versions of Origin (although the automated voice synthesizer doesn’t make for a particularly enjoyable experience).

The New York Times provides an interesting annotated version of Origin with notes provided by an array of scientists and historians of science. For example, Richard Lenski of Michigan State University, and Helena Cronin, Co-Director of the Centre for Philosophy of Natural and Social Science, London School of Economics, both expand on Darwin’s examination of “Organs of extreme perfection and complication”, in particular, the eye. Again, today’s proponents of Intelligent Design and its concept of irreducible complexity could learn much from the 150 year old book.

DarwinFinally, there is The Complete Work of Charles Darwin Online which includes Origin, The Voyage of the Beagle, The Descent of Man, Zoology of the Beagle, as well as private papers and manuscripts that include the Beagle notebooks and journals.

(The vast archive reminds me that my Galapagos travel companion, Darwin scholar Frank Sulloway, used the collection of Beagle voyage notebooks to date the previously undated writing of Darwin’s Ornithological Notes. By analyzing the naturalist’s spelling mistakes and corrections throughout the voyage notebooks, and using them as a geologist would use strata to date fossils, Sulloway concluded that the Ornithological Notes were written between June 18 and July 19, 1836.)

This is by no means a definitive list of resources—it’s merely my list. I hope you find it useful and enjoyable.

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Filed under: darwin, evolution, Galapagos

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