Darwin's notebooks and reading lists

An introduction by John van Wyhe

A page from Darwin's Notebook B showing the first evolutionary tree diagram. During the voyage of the Beagle Darwin recorded his observations in field notebooks. Shortly after the end of the voyage he began to use one of them, the Red notebook, for theoretical speculations, especially on geology and the formation of coral reefs. His note taking continued 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 species questions - where do species come from? How are they related and how do they become adapted? 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 kept in numbered portfolios. He then cut many of the pages out of his old notebooks and filed them in the portfolios. The number of portfolios changed over the years of his research before he published his theory of evolution by natural selection in On the origin of species in 1859 and for use in subsequent projects. Some additional Darwin notebooks and notes in Darwin Online are also listed below to help readers find them.

Edinburgh diary for 1826. Text Text & image CUL-DAR129.-

Edinburgh notebook (1827-9; 1837-9) Text Text & image CUL-DAR118.-

Beagle field notebooks (including Galapagos notebook)

Red notebook Text Image PDF F1583e Click   to see illustrations

Notebook A: Geology (1837-9). Text Text & image CUL-DAR127.-

Glen Roy notebook (1838). Text Text & image CUL-DAR130.-

Notebook B: Transmutation (1837-8). Text Text & image CUL-DAR121.-

Notebook C: Transmutation (1838). Text Text & image CUL-DAR122.-

Notebook D: Transmutation (1838). Text Text & image CUL-DAR123.-

Notebook E: Transmutation (1838-9). Text Text & image CUL-DAR124.-

Torn Apart notebook (1839-41). Text Text & image CUL-DAR

Notebook M: Metaphysics on morals & expression (1838). Text Text & image CUL-DAR125.-

Notebook N: Metaphysics & expression (1838-9). Text Text & image CUL-DAR126.-

'Old and useless Notes about the moral sense & some metaphysical points' (1837-40). Text & image CUL-DAR91.4-55

Personal 'Journal' (1838-81). CUL-DAR158.1-76. Text & image

Questions & experiments (1839-44). Text Text & image CUL-DAR206.1

Experiment Book (1855-67). Text & image PDF CUL-DAR157a.1-84

Down House notebook 1.1 (1874-80?). Text & image EH88202321

Notebook on the Darwin children (1839-56). Text CUL-DAR210.11.37

'Books to be read / Books Read' (1838-51). Text Text & image CUL-DAR119.-

'Books Read / Books to be Read' (1852-60). Text Text & image CUL-DAR128.-

'Books [read]' (1838-58). Text Text & image CUL-DAR120.-

NOTE: The images are copyright Cambridge University Library and may not be reproduced, transmitted, or displayed without the consent of the copyright holders. Reproduced with the permission of the Syndics of Cambridge University Library and William Huxley Darwin. Thanks to Adam Perkins and Gordon Chancellor for lending copies of the colour microfilm reel.

Requests to reproduce manuscripts must be sent to the owner of the manuscript, not to Darwin Online. For those belonging to Cambridge University Library contact Imaging Services).

1 Barrett et al. 1987. Charles Darwin's notebooks, 1836-1844: Geology, transmutation of species, metaphysical enquiries. British Museum (Natural History); Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. (F1817). Reproduction permission to include this work in Darwin Online was gratefully received from all living editors (except for one) and families of deceased edtors and the institutions which own the manuscripts and William Huxley Darwin.


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