Teaching Resources: introduction

Correspondence as a primary source

Charles Darwin is most familiar to us as the author of books. For many, the Origin of species (1859) is the first point of entry into Darwin’s science. But if one wants to understand how Darwin arrived at his conclusions, and the impact that his work had on the wider world, a more revealing source is his correspondence. After moving to the semi-rural seclusion of Down House in the early 1840s, Darwin used his correspondence as a research tool, and it quickly became indispensable. Through his letters, Darwin was able to keep up with the latest discoveries, gather information from the furthest corners of the globe, and debate the consequences of his theories with friends and enemies alike. Not only does the correspondence give a rich sense of Darwin’s scientific work; it also opens a window into the intellectual and social world in which he lived, and illuminates the central role played by communication networks in science.

Using Darwin’s correspondence in seminar discussions and essay writing provides students with an accessible and provocative source with which to develop a more comprehensive picture of Darwin’s life and work. The letters allow students to place Darwin’s published writings and notebooks within a broader social context, as well to explore the vital role of communication networks in science.

The teaching resources on this site include those originally developed for final-year undergraduates in the Department of History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Cambridge.

Transcripts of all the letters used in these teaching materials, together with some images, are freely available on this website, and are also available in the published volumes of The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, F. Burkhardt et al., eds. (Cambridge University Press, 1985-).