The Darwin Manuscripts at Cambridge Digital Library

17:47 Monday 24th November 2014
BBC Radio Cambridgeshire

CHRIS MANN: Images of Charles Darwin’s original papers where he came up with the theory of evolution are being made freely available online today. The Cambridge Digital Library is releasing more than 12,000 images, which chart everything from his early reflections while on board HMS Beagle, to the publication of On the Origin of Species, which happened 155 years ago today, I can report. I’m joined now by Alison Pearn from the Darwin Correspondence Project at Cambridge University. Alison, hello.
CHRIS MANN: 155 years eh?
CHRIS MANN: Extraordinary. And such a bit of history.
ALISON PEARN: Yes it really is. And now anybody can go and look at actually how that history was made, in amazing detail.
CHRIS MANN: And such a Cambridge man of course, Charles Darwin, and his antecedents afterwards.

ALISON PEARN: Yes. So he was at Christ’s as a student, and it’s because he was at Christ’s as a student that he ended up going off on his world tour on HMS Beagle. And then his children came to Cambridge as well. So yes.
CHRIS MANN: Now where are all the originals kept?
ALISON PEARN: This collection is in the University Library in Cambridge, and that is where the largest collection of Darwin’s working papers are. The letters which I work on particularly are a major part of that working collection. But this is now the broader context. This is the enormous amount of material that went into the making of On the Origin of Species.
CHRIS MANN: So you as a daily habit handle his letters, do you?
ALISON PEARN: Yes. I’m so lucky. (LAUGHS)
CHRIS MANN: Do you have to wear white gloves and all the rest of it?
ALISON PEARN: We actually don’t, amazingly enough. 19th century paper is pretty good stuff. In the period we’re dealing with it’s pretty tough actually.
CHRIS MANN: What was his handwriting like?
ALISON PEARN: Appalling. (THEY LAUGH) One of the great things about this resource that’s going online today is that it’s accompanied by an enormous amount of transcription. So you’ll get the fantastic experience of seeing these really high definition images of the manuscripts, see Darwin’s thought processes, the crossings out and changing his mind in different coloured pencils and crayons. But you’ll also have some help actually reading what he says.
CHRIS MANN: Yes. Did he doodle?
ALISON PEARN: He was rubbish at drawing. He didn’t really .. occasionally and there’s one or two famous ones. So there’s the Tree of Life type, diagrams of branching of evolution. But not a lot else. Some of the people who wrote to him did though. They drew beautifully.
CHRIS MANN: And did he have a Eureka moment? Can you trace it in his writings?
ALISON PEARN: No. And I think that’s one of the things that is really important about this collection, that it shows just how long a period Darwin was working on this and thinking about it. So much of the ideas, much of his ideas really were already there as early as 1842, stretching back even earlier than that. So twenty years really before he went public. But he was amassing masses of information he was discussing with people. He was refining his ideas. And he was also making sure he got his ducks in a row, that he could actually support what he was saying. He really wanted to make sure that these ideas were accepted.
CHRIS MANN: With good reason, because obviously it was likely to, and it did, provoke a storm of protest the other way.
ALISON PEARN: It did. I think it provoked a storm of interest, and indeed, from certain quarters, protest. And of course a lot of that protest still continues. But he did what he could to make sure that it was .. that the ideas were accepted by not just the scientific establishment, but to make it popular. He was a good popular writer.
CHRIS MANN: And clearly he died long before you could ever meet him, but you must in a sense feel that you’ve got to know him almost as a person from being that close.
ALISON PEARN: Yes. It’s a bit of an occupational hazard, because as historians we’re not really supposed to get personally involved with your subjects, but yes, I think he’s someone I would have enjoyed meeting. And his papers show his family context as well. I think we meet, not just Darwin but his wife and his children, and some nieces who helped with his work. So he does come out through these papers in a very strong human dimension.
CHRIS MANN: Wonderful stuff. How can people see it?
ALISON PEARN: It’s online at the Cambridge University Digital Library. And you can find the link there to Darwin manuscripts. And there’s another link there to some particular correspondence he had with his best friend Joseph Hooker. And they’re all up there now, and I hope people will enjoy looking at them, exploring them. We haven’t made any selections. All the classes that are involved, all the classes of material involved in the creation of Origin are now there. So you can go and research.
CHRIS MANN: Fascinating stuff. Alison, thank you so much for sparing the time. Alison Pearn there from the Darwin Correspondence Project at Cambridge University.