Today, scientists from the Darwin Online Project put Charles Darwin's entire private library online. The collection of the founder of the theory of evolution now includes 7,400 titles and 13,000 volumes. The project presentation comes ahead of the 215th anniversary of Darwin's birth, on February 12.
For many years, the Darwin Library appeared to consist of only 1,480 titles, based on two collections at Cambridge University and Down House. Many titles have now been added. The collected works contain 300 pages index.
The project is the brainchild of British historian of science John van Wehe, who worked on it for eighteen years. He wrote a special introduction to the library.
This is what the library looks like in Darwin's Down House:
“Beautiful, very special,” responds Redmond O’Hanlon, writer and presenter of the TV series. Beagle, following in Darwin's footsteps. “The size of the library and the focus and care with which Von Wyhe brought everything together – through catalogs and auctions – is truly extraordinary. With attention to the smallest things, like brochures and magazines.”
O'Hanlon has known Van Wehe since the two sailed for the TV show on a replica of the Beagle, the ship on which Darwin discovered the world and made observations that later led to his theory of evolution. “A quiet guy who actually started this project and spent a lot of time in libraries,” O'Hanlon says of Van Wehe. “He gave us a treasure.”
O'Hanlon explains that the books in the library clearly show the development that Darwin went through in his thinking. For example, in his younger years, Darwin read William Paley's Natural Theology. This book suggested to Darwin that God created everything, and therefore the study of nature is the same as the study of God. “There was nothing too small for us to study, even ants, because God created them.”
He later read Charles Lyell's Principles of Geology. This book studied the different layers of the Earth and explained to Darwin that the Earth must be very old. “This book led to Darwin's slow fall from faith,” O'Hanlon says. After all, the Bible showed that the Earth could only be a few thousand years old.
Most of the library consists of scientific books, mainly related to biology and geology. But topics such as philosophy, religion, art and travel reports can also be found. In addition to many English titles, the library contains a few Dutch, Spanish and Italian books.
The library shows that Darwin was not an isolated genius, asserts science historian Van Wehe, who led the project. He knew exactly what was known in his time, and relied on the knowledge and studies of thousands of people.
However, he did not know everything. Darwin's library also contained a book by the monk Gregor Mendel, who discovered the principle of heredity by hybridizing plants. Mendel is called the father of genetics. “But Darwin never read Mendel's book because it was written in a language he didn't understand,” O'Hanlon says.
Therefore, the father of the theory of evolution discovered that species evolved thanks to natural selection. He didn't know exactly how that worked. While he could have simply found the mechanism in his own library.
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