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Darwin Correspondence Project

Evolutionary views of human nature

From April 2010 until 31 March 2013, the Darwin Correspondendence Project ran an major international research project 'Exploring Evolutionary Views of Human Nature through Darwin’s Correspondence'.  The resources created form the basis of the 'Human Nature' section of this website.

Funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, the National Science Foundation, and the John Templeton Foundation, the project explored the wide-ranging and controversial work of Darwin and his contemporaries in developing an evolutionary theory of human nature in the period 1870 to 1873. These were the crucial years that saw the publication of Darwin's long anticipated books, Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex (1871), and Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872).

Three volumes of The Correspondence of Charles Darwin (vols. 18-20), covering the years 1870 to 1872, were published during the lifetime of the grants. Letters played a central role in Darwin's research, as he expanded his network of correspondents to gather information on human behaviour and sexual selection across the globe. Letters were also a vital medium of debate, as Darwin discussed the implications of his theory for the origins of language and emotional expression, the operation of the moral sense, and the progress of human civilization with scientists, clergymen, philosophers, and other members of the reading public.

An additional feature of the Human Nature project was the creation of web resources to make the volumes of Darwin's Correspondence more accessible, and to make the most important letters in those volumes available online in advance of publication. These resources included letter sets on the themes of ethics, progress, language, and emotion. Other aspects of Darwin's research on human nature received special attention: his observations of children, his global survey of emotional expression, and his experiment on emotional recognition.

Project staff presented their findings at international conferences and, with funding from a related initiative, the Project hosted a major international conference on Darwin and Human Nature, inviting scholars in history, history of science, philosophy, English literature, and gender studies to reflect on the legacy of Darwinian frameworks of the 'human' today.

A series of exhibitions and outreach events were organised, presenting aspects of the Human Nature project to diverse audiences, and providing forums for the interface of the project's historical work with current science, philosophy, and the arts. These events included "The Face of Emotion" (Cambridge Festival of Ideas, 2011), "Acts of Kindness" (Cambridge Science Festival, 2012), and the Human Nature Film Series (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge, 2012). Podcasts, audio recordings, and virtual exhibitions have been mounted for each of these events on the Darwin Project website.