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For decades available only to scholars at Cambridge University Library, the private papers of Charles Darwin, one of the most influential scientists in history, can now be seen by anyone online and free of charge.This is the largest ever publication of Darwin papers and manuscripts, totalling about 20,000 items in over 100,000 electronic images.Indeed, he did not publish his now-famous volume, may never have been written, let alone published, if it had not been for Alfred Russel Wallace, another British naturalist who independently proposed a strikingly similar theory in 1858.
All existing creatures, he argued, descended from a small number of original or progenitor species.
Darwin compared the history of life to a great tree, its trunk representing these few common ancestors and an extensive system of branches and twigs symbolizing the great variety of life that has evolved from them.
Darwin, who called these differences “variations,” understood their effect but not their cause; the idea of genetic mutation, and indeed the scientific study of genetics, would not arise fully until the early 20th century.
The second factor, Darwin argued, is that although variations are random, some of them convey distinct advantages – superior camouflage, a heartier constitution or greater speed, for example – that better equip a creature to survive in its environment.
After the returned to England in October 1836, Darwin began reflecting on his observations and experiences, and over the next two years developed the basic outline of his groundbreaking theory of evolution through natural selection.
But beyond sharing his ideas with a close circle of scientist friends, Darwin told no one of his views on the origin and development of life.
Beside the original papers there were copies of a large number of letters to Darwin, collections of press-cuttings, etc.
These online images are scans from copies of early black and white microfilms produced by the Cambridge University Library Imaging Service, mostly in the 1990s.
But transmutation also had early champions, including Darwin’s grandfather, the famed Birmingham physician Erasmus Darwin.
The younger Darwin’s achievement was to offer a plausible and compelling explanation for how species evolve and to use this explanation to trace the history of life’s development.