Moving Darwin Into The Digital World

The University of Cambridge in England is working to put all of Charles Darwin's scientific work online. You can already see thousands of letters, and an online version of the first edition of "The Origin of Species".

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Today is Charles Darwin's 200th Birthday. He is, of course, known for coming up with the theory of evolution through natural selection, but his research covered topics ranging from human emotions to earthworms. The world is becoming more familiar with the scope of Darwin's work through a project known as Darwin Online. It's a collection of all Darwin's published works, plus 20,000 private papers, all viewable over the Internet. NPR's Joe Palca has more.

JOE PALCA: Darwin's bicentenary means it's been a busy time for John van Wyhe. He's the director of Darwin Online.

Dr. JOHN VAN WYHE (Director, Darwin Online): We're getting requests from almost every country in the world to reproduce things in magazines, newspapers, broadcasts, and it's very difficult for us to keep up with them. I mean, just today, we've had requests from Malaysia, New Zealand, Australia, South America, the United States and Italy.

PALCA: Van Wyhe works out of a tiny office on the campus of the University of Cambridge in England, which is where I met with him. By training, he's a historian of science. After earning his Ph.D., Van Wyhe went to the National University of Singapore for a research fellowship. It was there that he decided to shift his research to Darwin.

Dr. VAN WYHE: Unfortunately, their library only had one Darwin book from the 19th century, which was his book on earthworms, and that didn't get me very far. So, I thought, well, I'll just go and, of course, somewhere I'll find all of Darwin's works on the Internet.

PALCA: Only he didn't. Sure, there was some stuff, but was there was poorly annotated and totally incomplete.

Dr. VAN WYHE: And it occurred to me almost immediately, gosh, we really need this and I could do this.

PALCA: So, on his own, van Wyhe started tracking down all the works of Darwin that had already been digitized. He catalogued them and started putting them into an online archive.

Dr. VAN WYHE: The first things to go up were Darwin's books, because they're things that are easiest to get access to for anyone, even - especially for me.

PALCA: The published manuscripts and papers were harder.

Dr. VAN WYHE: No library possesses all of these items. So, they had to be gathered from all over the place and put together in one. So, this Darwin Online is the first ever complete collection of Darwin's writings.

PALCA: He's still gathering materials, although his shoestring budget doesn't give him resources to scan in documents himself. He has to rely on the kindness of document owners willing to the share their materials. As we're talking, someone comes to the door.

Dr. SEAN CARROLL (Evolutionary Developmental Biology, University of Wisconsin; Author, "The Making of the Fittest: DNA and the Ultimate Forensic Record of Evolution"): Hi, it's good to meet you.

Dr. VAN WYHE: Nice to meet you.

PALCA: Sean Carroll is an American biologist and teacher at the University of Wisconsin. He's also written three popular books about Darwin and evolution. He's in Cambridge to give some lectures, and he wanted some meet van Wyhe because he's made extensive of use of the materials in Darwin Online. Carroll explained why it's useful to see the original documents.

Dr. CARROLL: Well, you're trying reconstruct how the big ideas came together. So, that means going back into field diaries, notebooks, correspondence, drafts, and this gives you a much richer picture of what was going on in his mind, what was happening in parallel, how are the dots being connected. It's a totally different feel than just looking at the finished product.

PALCA: Carroll is convinced that materials in Darwin Online will also be a unique teaching tool. Van Wyhe says anyone who browses through the Darwin Online table of contents is bound to be impressed by what Darwin accomplished.

Dr. VAN WYHE: He was an unbelievably complex, competent and wide-ranging scientist, who published on a range of things that is simply mindboggling. I don't know of anyone, before or since, who had such wide range of competence, who made so many profound discoveries in so many different areas of science, from geology, botany and, most famously of all, evolution.

PALCA: Is van Wyhe guilty of exaggerating a bit? I guess you can go online and decide for yourself. Joe Palca, NPR News.

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