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Darwin Correspondence Project

Darwin and the experimental life

Experimental Notebook.png

Darwin's experimental notebook
Darwin's experimental notebook
DAR 206
Cambridge University Library

These webpages explore the central role of experimentation in Darwin’s work. They examine how Darwin’s experimental approach evolved. They attend to the breadth of contemporary meanings and uses of experimentation, looking at Darwin’s provocative array of ‘fools experiments’, and some of his most innovative methods for investigating elusive phenomena, such as the fleeting expression of emotions. Darwin’s work is located within the changing professional and institutional contexts of Victorian science, in which laboratories played an increasingly dominant role. He responded to these developments actively, by enrolling laboratory-based practitioners and building new experimental designs and devices to rival those of leading universities and institutes. Certain kinds of experiments, especially those on live animals, raised difficult ethical questions. Though he did not perform such experiments himself, Darwin was sympathetic to the charges of cruelty that were brought against physiologists and medical researchers, and yet defended the importance of animal experimentation for scientific progress. The pages are divided into the following sections:

What is an experiment?

From morphology to movement

Fool’s experiments

Experimenting with emotions

Animals, ethics, and the progress of science