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Darwin Correspondence Project

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Charles Robert Darwin at various ages
Charles Robert Darwin at various ages
Cambridge University Library

Darwin's life in letters

For all his working life, Darwin used letters as a way both of discussing ideas and gathering the ‘great quantities of facts’ that he used in developing and supporting his theories. They form a fascinating collection from many hundreds of correspondents, containing diagrams and drawings, personal observations, photographs, and even specimens.

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Mary Everest Boole
Mary Everest Boole
CUL 300:2.c.95.12
Cambridge University Library

What did Darwin believe?

What did Darwin really believe about God? the Christian revelation? the implications of his theory of evolution for religious faith? These questions were asked again and again in the years following the publication of Origin of species (1859). They are still asked today by scholars, scientists, students, and religious believers.

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Charles Darwin on his horse, Tommy
Charles Darwin on his horse, Tommy
CUL DAR 225: 116
Cambridge University Library

Darwin’s Photographic Portraits

Darwin was a photography enthusiast. This is evident not only in his use of photography for the study of Expression and Emotions in Man and Animal, but can be witnessed in his many photographic portraits and in the extensive portrait correspondence that Darwin undertook throughout his lifetime. His close friend and botanist Joseph Dalton Hooker would come to call Darwin’s epistolary exchange of photographic images as his “carte correspondence”.

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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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Anne Elizabeth (Annie) Darwin
Anne Elizabeth (Annie) Darwin
CUL DAR 225: 165
Cambridge University Library

Darwin in letters, 1851-1855: Death of a daughter

The letters from these years reveal the main preoccupations of Darwin’s life with a new intensity. The period opens with a family tragedy in the death of Darwin’s oldest and favourite daughter, Anne, and it shows how, weary and mourning his dead child, Darwin persevered with his scientific work, single-mindedly committed to the completion of his barnacle research.  His four-volume study was finally published after eight years of work. Darwin's professional circle was enlarged both by new friendships with noted scientists such as the physiologist Thomas Henry Huxley, and the American botanist Asa Gray, but also by contact with a network of animal breeders, nurserymen, and pigeon-fanciers.

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Joseph Dalton Hooker
Joseph Dalton Hooker
CUL DAR 257: 114
Cambridge University Library

Darwin in letters, 1847-1850: Microscopes and barnacles

Darwin's study of barnacles, begun in 1844, took him eight years to complete. The correspondence reveals how his interest in a species found during the Beagle voyage developed into an investigation of the comparative anatomy of other cirripedes and finally a comprehensive taxonomical study of the entire group. Despite struggling with a recurrent illness, he continued to write on geologicy, and published notes on the use of microscopes.  Three more children, Elizabeth, Francis, and Leonard, were born during this period, but the death of Darwin's father in 1848 left the family well-provided for.  

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Joseph Dalton Hooker
Joseph Dalton Hooker, from the portrait by George Richmond, 1855
CUL 456.c.91.891
Cambridge University Library

Darwin in letters, 1844–1846: Building a scientific network

The scientific results of the Beagle voyage still dominated Darwin's working life, but he broadened his continuing investigations into the nature and origin of species. Far from being a recluse, Darwin was at the heart of British scientific society, travelling often to London and elsewhere to attend meetings and confer with colleagues, including the man who was to become his closest friend, Joseph Dalton Hooker. Down House was altered and extended to accommodate Darwin’s growing family; and, with his father’s advice, Darwin began a series of judicious financial investments to ensure a comfortable future for all those under his care.

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Emma Darwin
Emma Darwin with Leonard Darwin as a child
CUL DAR 225: 93
Cambridge University Library

Darwin in letters, 1837–1843: The London years to 'natural selection'

The seven-year period following Darwin's return to England from the Beagle voyage was one of extraordinary activity and productivity in which he became recognised as a naturalist of outstanding ability, as an author and editor, and as a professional man with official responsibilities in several scientific organisations. They are also the years in which he married, started a family, and moved to Down House, Kent, his home for the rest of his life. By 1842 he was ready to write an outline of his species theory, the so-called 'pencil sketch', based on a principle that he called ‘natural selection’. 

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Erasmus Alvey Darwin with Charles Darwin's sons
Erasmus Alvey Darwin with Charles Darwin's sons
CUL DAR 225: 40
Cambridge University Library

Darwin in letters,1870: Human evolution

The year 1870 is aptly summarised by the brief entry Darwin made in his journal: ‘The whole of the year at work on the Descent of Man & Selection in relation to Sex’.  Descent was the culmination of over three decades of observations and reflections on human ancestry, including the origin of language, mind, morals, and religious temperament. The year was otherwise coloured by controversies, including vigorous objections to the application of natural selection to humans from Wallace and St George Jackson Mivart.

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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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