Darwin's Notes and Thoughts Go Online Studying Charles Darwin's documents has evolved from visiting the library at Cambridge University to visiting a Web site. The British university has just made a trove of about 20,000 papers from Darwin's life and studies accessible online.
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Darwin's Notes and Thoughts Go Online

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Darwin's Notes and Thoughts Go Online

Darwin's Notes and Thoughts Go Online

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You can imagine the side effects you might get from Emma Darwin's heavy Victorian puddings. Her recipe is just one of the 20,000 items taken from the life of Charles Darwin. The University of Cambridge has now put them all on the Internet.

John van Wyhe is the director of the Darwin Online Project, and we called him to find out more.

Welcome to the program.

Mr. JOHN VAN WYHE (Director, Darwin Online Project): Thank you.

MONTAGNE: This is a pretty exciting moment, opening up this collection.

Mr. VAN WYHE: It is, indeed. It's really unprecedented that so much new material by and about Charles Darwin is suddenly made available to the public. The material has been accessible only to scholars. What we've done is taken much of that material and made it available for free to the whole world, ranging from tiny scraps of paper with a note by Darwin to things the size of entire books and pamphlets.

MONTAGNE: I'm in the Web site right now, and just as quick exploration, I've gotten myself to the first pencil sketch of the species theory.

Mr. VAN WYHE: Yes. That's right. I mean, the text of that is known, but this is the first time that people have been able to see the whole manuscript themselves - I mean, one of the most important documents in the history of science.

MONTAGNE: Pick out for us a couple of examples that, if you could call them your favorites, might be your favorites.

Mr. WYHE: Well, perhaps one of the most exciting items are Darwin's bird notes from the voyage of the Beagle. And in this document occurs Darwin's first recorded doubts that species are permanent.

And the passage is something like this: When I see these islands in sight of each other and possess but a scanty stock of animals, tenanted by these birds but slightly differing in structure and filling the same place in nature, I must suspect they are only varieties. If there is the slightest foundation for these remarks, the zoology of archipelagos will be well worth examining, for such facts would undermine the stability of species.

MONTAGNE: And you're reading that in his handwriting.

Mr. WYHE: Yes, that's right. I mean, the handwriting is legible to some of us.

MONTAGNE: Tell us some of what we can find out about Darwin himself.

Mr. WYHE: Well, one of the things included are some of Darwin's notes about whether or not to get married. And he made a list of pros and cons. He writes, you know, one of the advantages would be an object to be beloved and played with - better than a dog, anyhow, he says.

MONTAGNE: What a romantic.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WYHE: And then he says, and also charms of music and female chit-chat. These things, good for one's health.

On the not marry column, he has not forced to visit relatives and to bend in every trifle, perhaps quarreling, loss of time, fatness and idleness, less money for books, etc.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MONTAGNE: Tell us about some of the images that are on there. Photographs, I know that.

Mr. WYHE: Right. It's not just pieces of paper written on by Charles Darwin. It's also things sent to Darwin - notes by other scientists, news clippings. And then there are things like family photographs and the caricatures of Darwin as a monkey with a tail and that sort of thing - Darwin thought this was quite funny, and he had a very nice collection - and book reviews and articles about Darwin's theories and the Victorian responses to Darwinism when it first appeared.

MONTAGNE: People did ask him if it was possible to believe both in evolution and God. What was his response?

Mr. WYHE: Well, there was a lot of discussion, obviously, about the implications of Darwin's theory and whether or not you could believe in both God and evolution. And Darwin was always adamant that, yes, of course, you can. And he would back that up by pointing out many people who actually did. And it's odd that this is still discussed today, because it was true in Darwin's day and it still is true that you can believe in both because many people actually do.

MONTAGNE: Including Darwin?

Mr. WYHE: Darwin himself was no atheist. He'd lost his faith in Christianity, but I think he always retained a belief or a suspicion that some intelligent thing had started off the laws of nature in the first place.

MONTAGNE: This Web site has been available for just a week now. What have you heard back from viewers?

Mr. WYHE: On the day we launched it, the site crashed several times. We had seven million hits on the first day. I mean, the servers were absolutely smoking. So, for example, 14,000 copies of "The Origin of Species" were downloaded as a PDF file. I think that's not bad for 149-year-old book.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MONTAGNE: Not bad at all.

Thank you very much for joining us.

Mr. WYHE: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: John van Wyhe is the director of the Darwin Online Project. Get a look at some handwritten documents at npr.org, where you'll also find a link to the entire collection.

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