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Darwin Correspondence Project

Darwin and ecological science

The word ‘ecology’ did not exist until 1867, and was not used in an English publication until 1876; Darwin himself never used it, yet it was his work on the complex interactions of organisms and habitats that inspired the word’s creation and he is often cited as the ‘father of ecology’.   

Between 2006 and Darwin's bicentenary in 2009, with support from the British Ecological Society’s ‘Ecological Opportunites’ fund, the Darwin Correspondence Project created a series of web resources on ‘Darwin & Ecology’ which continue to form the core of the 'Natural sciences' pages on this website.  Two volumes of the Correspondence were also published during the life of the grant, 

‘Was Darwin an ecologist?’, explores how the word ‘ecology’ came into being and what it meant in the nineteenth century, and looks at Darwin’s spectacular prediction of co-adaptation in the orchid Angraecum sesquipedale and its moth pollinator.

‘Beauty and the seed’ explores a puzzle that Darwin never solved – why some plants produce seeds that are not good for birds to eat yet are still bright and attractive to look at – and features the work of a modern ecologist who cracked it.

‘The evolution of honeycomb’ follows Darwin’s experiments and observations on hive-making bees, and his explanation of the apparently engineered regularity of the wax cells in honeycomb.

‘Darwin and Down’ explores Darwin’s use of his own garden, in particular his hothouse, and his local environment in the village of Down (now ‘Downe’) in rural Kent in his research into a whole range of questions on plants, insects, animals, and their habitats.   Down House and the village of Downe were nominated for World Heritage Site status in 2009; the Correspondence Project collaborated with the WHS bid consortium in researching evidence from the letters used in the bid.