“Darwin’s letters are vitally important in showing how science is done, with the constant gathering of new data, and the testing and questioning of theories and ideas.”
The project mapping Charles Darwin’s life and work in the 15,000 letters he wrote or received during his extraordinary lifetime will be completed after a £5 million funding package was announced.
The awards, announced on 4 May 2011 by Cambridge University Library and the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS), will ensure the full completion of the definitive, award-winning edition of The Correspondence of Charles Darwin.
More than 15,000 currently known letters written by or to Darwin will be published, in full, by 2022. The edition is the work of the Darwin Correspondence Project, widely acknowledged as the greatest editorial project in the history of science, and one of the major international scholarly projects of the past half-century.
It is jointly managed by the University Library and ACLS. By the time the edition is complete, locating, researching, and editing the letters will have taken several teams of scholars more than forty years. Summaries of all known letters are freely available to the public through the Project’s website www.darwinproject.ac.uk
The letters, exchanged with around 2000 correspondents, take in every stage of Darwin’s life from school and student days, through the voyage of HMS Beagle, the publication of On the Origin of Species and the controversies that followed, his later publications on the implications of his theories for humans, right up to his death. They offer unparalleled, intimate insight into every aspect both of Darwin’s scientific work and of his personal life – including his thoughts on marriage – and also into the lives and work of many of his contemporaries.
Project Director Dr Jim Secord said: “Darwin’s conclusions about how all living things have evolved and are interconnected are among the most important ever made. Unlike his published works, Darwin’s letters are vitally important in showing how science is done, with the constant gathering of new data, and the testing and questioning of theories and ideas.”
The funding has been given in recognition of the potential that the completed edition of Darwin’s letters will have – not only as a foundation and catalyst for further scholarship, but for education in all aspects of evolution and its history, at all levels. The lead gift to the University Library of £2.5 million from the newly established Evolution Education Trust is matched by generous grants from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, and the Isaac Newton Trust.
Added Secord: “We are deeply grateful for this visionary support. The greatest threat to long running projects in the Arts and Humanities is that it’s almost impossible to secure long term funds, and so much project time is taken up in applying for and managing short term grants. Now we can concentrate on finishing the job.”
Dr Alison Pearn, of the Darwin Correspondence Project, on how the money will be spent:
“The crucial point is that the Project team are not just scanning documents, nor is there a coherent archive just waiting to be scanned in the first place.
We are providing a researched and edited – and therefore intelligible and searchable – set of complete transcripts.
Speaking historically, we first had to locate the material. Although about half of Darwin’s known correspondence is in Cambridge, the rest is scattered across the globe. More than 100 previously unknown letters were found this last year.
Then we have to accurately transcribe not only Darwin’s difficult handwriting but also the handwriting of the hundreds of correspondents he exchanged letters with throughout his lifetime.
We research the content of the letters so that we can establish the threads of the conversations, identify all the people, all the organisms and publications – and all the places.
If we only provided scans, or only provided transcripts, the audience who could really make sense of this material would be severely limited. What we do is make it possible to use the material as the basis for education at all levels, and for informed research by the general public.
As an example of the research we do, fewer than half the letters have the date written on them, so we have to establish that before they can be put in the context of other material of the time. Context is crucial to our understanding of what was going on at the time the letters were written.”
With an award such as this, the money we have very kindly been given goes towards the painstaking academic work which requires a team of people with a diverse variety of skills and knowledge.
Darwin is very easily misunderstood; a single phrase or a single letter out of context can become a minefield.