Darwin's notebooks and reading lists
During the voyage of the Beagle Darwin recorded his observations in field notebooks. Towards the end of the voyage he also began to use one of them, Red notebook, for theoretical speculations, especially on geology and the formation of coral reefs. Darwin continued to use it after the Beagle returned to England in October 1836. Darwin continued his note taking in his old Edinburgh notebook and his St Helena Model notebook before opening a new series of notebooks for theoretical work, termed notebooks on geology, transmutation of species and metaphysical enquiries by the editors of the definitive edition.1 Darwin simply lettered their covers A, B, C, D etc. The inventor William Henry Fox Talbot also titled his notebooks in the same way. Darwin had already become convinced of transmutation, or evolution, before opening the new notebooks. These notebooks reveal in detail his research and gradual illumination of the species question - where do species come from? The famous sketch on the right is from Darwin's Notebook B and depicts the branching system of descent with modification which he realized could explain the relationship between different species in the same class or family. The most ancient forms are at the bottom and their descendants branch off irregularly. The lines with a crossed end are existing species or lineages and those without represent extinct species. Pages 134-135 of Notebook D record his famous reading of Malthus in September 1838 which crystallized the notion of natural selection. By 1840 the notebooks were largely finished. There is no evidence that the notebooks or their contents were 'secret' as sometimes claimed. Instead they carry his name and address on the inside covers in case he lost them. Notebooks M and N, however, mostly on expression of the emotions and which record details of family and friends, are labeled 'Private'. After completing the notebooks Darwin adopted a new system of loose notes in separate folders or portfolios. He then cut many of the pages out of his old notebooks and filed them in the portfolios. The number of portfolios seems to have increased over the years of his research before he published his theory of evolution by natural selection in On the origin of species in 1859. Some additional Darwin notebooks and notes that are transcribed on Darwin Online are also listed on this page to help readers find them.
'Old and useless Notes about the moral sense & some metaphysical points' (1837-40). Text & image CUL-DAR91.4-55
Notebook on the Darwin children (1839-56). Text CUL-DAR210.11.37
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1 Barrett, P. H., Gautrey, P. J., Herbert, S., Kohn, D., Smith, S. eds. 1987. Charles Darwin's notebooks, 1836-1844: Geology, transmutation of species, metaphysical enquiries. British Museum (Natural History); Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. (F1817). [Reproduction permission for the inclusion of this work on Darwin Online unfortunately could not be obtained.]