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Darwin Correspondence Project

Life sciences

Over the course of his working life Darwin studied a wide range of organisms from coral to worms, dogs to pigeons, orchids to carnivorous plants.  His letters often describe in great detail experiments and observations some of which never made it into print.


Biodiversity and its histories

The Darwin Correspondence Project was co-sponsor of Biodiversity and its Histories, which brought together scholars and researchers in ecology, politics, geography, anthropology, cultural history, and history and philosophy of science, to explore how aesthetic, economic, and moral value came to be attached to the diversity of life on earth.  The conference included a session on 'Darwin and evolutionary theory' involving past and present members of the Project. 

We are grateful to the speakers for permission to make their talks available here.

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“Mr. Arthrobalanus” a barnacle observed by Darwin on board the Beagle
http://cudl.lib.cam.ac.uk/view/MS-DAR-00029-00003/272
“Mr. Arthrobalanus” a barnacle observed by Darwin on board the Beagle
CUL DAR 29.3: 72
Cambridge University Library

Darwin and barnacles

In a letter to Henslow in March 1835 Darwin remarked that he had done ‘very little’ in zoology; the ‘only two novelties’ he added, almost as an afterthought, were a new mollusc and a ‘genus in the family Balanidæ’ – a barnacle – but it was an oddity. Who, he wondered ‘would recognise a young Balanus in this ill-formed little monster?’ Darwin put his specimens away for over a decade, and when he returned to the puzzling little creature in October 1846, he planned only to write a paper on the anomalous ‘Mr Arthrobalanus’, as it was now known to him.  The work took him eight years. 

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Frances Power Cobbe
http://wellcomeimages.org/
Frances Power Cobbe, Fom: Life of Frances Power Cobbe by Herself, Published: 1894
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Wellcome Library, London

Darwin and vivisection

Darwin played an important role in the controversy over vivisection that broke out in late 1874. Public debate was sparked when the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals brought an unsuccessful prosecution against a French physiologist who had performed vivisection on dogs.

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Man is but a worm - caricature of Darwin's theory in the Punch almanac for 1882
Man is but a worm - caricature of Darwin's theory in the Punch almanac for 1882
CUL T992.b.1.45
Cambridge University Library

Casting about: Darwin on worms

Earthworms featured in the news announcement in May 2014 that a citizen science project had been launched to map the distribution of earthworms across Britain (BBC Today programme, 26 May 2014).

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Darwins Cirripedia microscope slides
Darwins Cirripedia microscope slides
By kind permission of Cambridge University Museum of Zoology

Getting to know Darwin's science

One of the most exciting aspects of Charles Darwin’s correspondence is the opportunity it gives to researchers to ‘get to know’ Darwin as an individual. The letters not only reveal the scientific processes behind Darwin’s publications, they give insight into his personal life–the world of his family, his circle of friends and his community. This set of resource modules has been designed with the hopes of sharing some of the knowledge gained from our work on Darwin’s correspondence with university students.  

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Down House hothouse
Down House hothouse, engraving from Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine, Jan. 1883
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Cambridge University Library

Darwin’s hothouse and lists of hothouse plants

Towards the end of 1862, Darwin resolved to build a small hothouse at Down House, for ‘experimental purposes’ (see Correspondence vol. 10, letter to J. D. Hooker, 24 December [1862], and volume 10, letter to Thomas Rivers, 15 January 1863). The decision was evidently prompted by his growing engagement in botanical experimentation, and the building of the hothouse early in 1863 marked something of a milestone in Darwin’s botanical work, since it greatly increased the range of plants that he could keep for scientific investigations.

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Darwin and Down

Charles and Emma Darwin, with their first two children, settled at Down House in the village of Down (later ‘Downe’) in Kent, as a young family in 1842.   The house came with eighteen acres of land, and a fifteen acre meadow.  The village combined the benefits of rural surroundings, where Darwin could make observations and undertake experiments in natural history, with reasonable ease of access to London, and was the environment within which Darwin’s work over the last forty years of his life was almost exclusively conducted.

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George Douglas Campbell, 8th Duke of Argyll
http://www.npg.org.uk/collections/search/portrait/mw00170/George-Douglas-Campbell-8th-Duke-of-Argyll?
George Douglas Campbell, 8th Duke of Argyll, by George Frederic Watts, oil on panel, circa 1860, NPG 1263
mw00170
© National Portrait Gallery, London

Beauty and the seed

One of the real pleasures afforded in reading Charles Darwin’s correspondence is the discovery of areas of research on which he never published, but which interested him deeply. We can gain many insights about Darwin’s research methods by following these ‘letter trails’ and observing how correspondence served as a vital research tool for him.

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Tree bee (Bombus hypnorum)
https://www.flickr.com/photos/insectman/4800233058/
Tree bee (Bombus hypnorum), showing unique colour pattern
Nigel Jones

A tale of two bees

Darwinian evolution theory fundamentally changed the way we understand the environment and even led to the coining of the word 'ecology'. Darwin was fascinated by bees: he devised experiments to study the comb-building technique of honey bees and used his children to observe the flight paths of bumblebees around their home.

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Hypothetical sphinx moth
Hypothetical sphinx moth, illustration by T. W. Wood, Quarterly Journal of Science 4 (1867)
Q340:1.c.7.4
Cambridge University Library

Was Darwin an ecologist?

One of the most fascinating aspects of Charles Darwin’s correspondence is the extent to which the experiments he performed at his home in Down, in the English county of Kent, seem to prefigure modern scientific work in ecology.

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