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Darwin Correspondence Project

natural selection

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Cover sheet of Darwin's 1842 Pencil Sketch, in which he first uses the term 'Natural Selection'
http://cudl.lib.cam.ac.uk/view/MS-DAR-00006/5
Cover sheet of Darwin's 1842 Pencil Sketch, in which he first uses the term 'Natural Selection'
CUL DAR 6: 1
Cambridge University Library

Natural selection

How do new species arise?  This was the ancient question that Charles Darwin tackled soon after returning to England from the Beagle voyage in October 1836. Darwin realised a crucial (and cruel) fact: far more individuals of each species were born than could possibly survive.

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William Bernhard Tegetmeier
William Bernhard Tegetmeier
CUL DAR 193: 22
Cambridge University Library

Darwin in letters, 1856-1857: the 'Big Book'

In May 1856, Darwin began writing up his 'species sketch’ in earnest. During this period, his working life was completely dominated by the preparation of his 'Big Book', which was to be called Natural selection. Using letters are the main source for much of his research he amassed data, carried out breeding experiments, and struggled with statistical analysis. Several of his experiments: seeds would not germinate; beans failed to cross; newly-hatched molluscs refused to do what he hoped.  Most significant in terms of Darwin’s future, however, was the beginning of his correspondence with Alfred Russel Wallace.

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Darwin family at Caerdeon
Darwin family at Caerdeon, 1869 (from left, Henrietta, Francis, Leonard, Horace, Elizabeth)
CUL DAR 225: 72
Cambridge University Library

Darwin in letters, 1869: Forward on all fronts

At the start of 1869, Darwin was hard at work making changes and additions for a fifth edition of  Origin. He may have resented the interruption to his work on sexual selection and human evolution, but he spent forty-six days on the task. Much of the remainder of the year was spent researching and revising chapters for  Descent, and gathering additional material on emotional expression. Yet the scope of Darwin’s interests remained extremely broad, many letters throughout the year touching on subjects such as South American geology, barnacle morphology, insectivorous plants, and earthworms, subjects that had exercised Darwin for decades.

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George Howard Darwin
George Howard Darwin
CUL DAR 225: 45
Cambridge University Library

Darwin in letters, 1868: Studying sex

The quantity of Darwin’s correspondence increased dramatically in 1868 due largely to his ever-widening research on human evolution and sexual selection.Darwin’s theory of sexual selection as applied to human descent led him to investigate aspects of the structure and behaviour of other animals more extensively, and to further this programme, he re-established links with specialists who had provided assistance. Considerable correspondence was generated by the long-awaited publication of Variation in animals and plants under domestication. Having been advertised by the publisher John Murray as early as 1865, the two-volume work appeared in January 1868.

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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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Alfred Russel Wallace
http://www.npg.org.uk/collections/search/portrait/mw178180/FF-Geach-Alfred-Russel-Wallace?
F.F. Geach; Alfred Russel Wallace by Unknown photographer bromide copy print, (1862) NPG x5110
mw178180
© National Portrait Gallery, London

Darwin in letters, 1858-1859: Origin

The years 1858 and 1859 were, without doubt, the most momentous of Darwin’s life. From a quiet rural existence filled with steady work on his ‘big book’ on species, he was jolted into action by the arrival of an unexpected letter from Alfred Russel Wallace. This letter led to the first announcement of Darwin’s and Wallace’s respective theories of organic change at the Linnean Society of London in July 1858 and prompted the composition and publication, in November 1859, of Darwin’s major treatise On the origin of species by means of natural selection.

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