Rough Draft Of Darwin’s Origin Of Species Goes Online


On the 164th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s Origin of species, the Darwin Online project at the National University of Singapore (NUS) will launch all the surviving draft pages of one of the most influential scientific books in history. After his book was published, the unsentimental Darwin discarded the hundreds of pages of the original handwritten draft of his epoch-making book into the Darwin family’s scrap paper pile. His children used some sheets for drawings and others were torn in half by one of Darwin’s son who used the blank back sides for mathematical exercises.

In the end, almost all of the draft pages were destroyed. Towards the end of Darwin’s life, his theory of evolution was more widely accepted and there was intense interest in the original draft of Origin of Species. Some were rescued from the piles of scrap paper and old notes and, over decades, many were given away as gifts especially by his children after his death. These draft pages are now dispersed around the world and some have probably been lost forever.

Discovering Darwin’s manuscripts

Today, the rough drafts of Darwin’s Origin of species are some of the most precious and valuable pieces of paper in the history of science worth almost a million dollars each. The last one to sell at auction, in 2018, went for £490,000 (approximately USD$ 600,000). The United Kingdom’s Minister for Arts, Heritage and Tourism placed an export bar on Darwin’s manuscript, due to its cultural and national significance, in hopes of keeping it in the country.

So far, about 50 sheets were known to survive. This launch of the drafts by Darwin scholar, Dr John van Wyhe from the NUS Department of Biological Sciences, includes seven draft pages not found in previous lists with three draft pages recently rediscovered – bringing the total to 59. This collection of draft pages includes unprecedented details about each sheet and its history. For example, one was donated by Darwin’s daughter Henrietta Litchfield to a Red Cross auction during WWI for the war wounded. It was purchased anonymously by cotton merchant and aviation pioneer Sir Alfred Paton who donated it to his old school, Clifton College. It was later sold at auction in 1999 for £39,500 to an anonymous buyer “in the Americas” and has never been seen again. Fortunately, it was photocopied by Clifton College and a photograph was printed in the auction catalogue.

Uncovering the mysteries behind Darwin’s drafts

Darwin’s handwriting is notoriously difficult to read. All of the drafts have been transcribed and edited showing where the text appears in the published book so they may be compared. The drafts make it possible to see in detail how Darwin originally composed and revised many of his arguments. The drafts total 11,700 words (7.7% of Origin of species) and contain many sentences that were never published, offering fascinating insights into Darwin’s thinking as he composed the book that changed the world. What would have happened if he had published the original version of some of his arguments? In one crossed out sentence, Darwin wrote that “An instinct may almost be called an empty trick.”

In a famous passage of the Origin of species, Darwin argued that natural selection could gradually transform an animal like a bear into something like a whale. He was mocked and criticised by reviewers so severely that he deleted the passage from all later editions. What would have happened if he had published the passage as originally written?

In one of the drafts, this never-printed paragraph was revealed as follows:

“In N. America a bear has been seen swimming for hours with widely open mouth, thus catching the minute crustaceans swimming on the surface. Even in so extreme a case as this, if the supply of minute crustaceans were constant, & there did not in the region exist better adapted competitors, I can see no difficulty in a race of Bears being rendered by natural selection more & more aquatic in habits & structure, with larger & larger mouth, till a creature was produced as monstrous in size & structure as a whale though feeding on prey so minute.”

Darwin later made very extensive corrections to the first and second proofs which makes the text of the first draft differ even more from the published book. His son Francis recalled that “my mother looked over the proofs of the ‘Origin.'”

The drafts can be viewed for free via a detailed illustrated introduction here.

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