How the naturalist’s scribbling children accidentally saved a priceless historical artifact
On a page from Charles Darwin’s original manuscript of On the Origin of Species, two mounted swordsmen face off—one’s steed a mighty galloping carrot while the other, wearing a plumed yellow turban, approaches on a menacing-looking, four-legged eggplant. No, this isn’t an early, discarded theory, in which the English naturalist hypothesized a vegetable origin for equine life, but instead, a series of doodles created by his children on the backs of his handwritten manuscript pages. After the book’s publication, Darwin gave his kids these pages, covered on one side with the notes and scrawls that would eventually become one of the most influential scientific works in history, as drawing paper. And it’s a good thing he did; out of the almost 600 pages of Darwin’s original work, only 45 remain and at least four of these are likely to have been preserved only as sentimental mementos of his progeny’s childhood fancies.
These, and many other original documents that illuminate the professional and personal lives of the pioneering naturalist are now being made available through the American Museum of Natural History’s Darwin Manuscripts Project, which aims to have some 30,000 pages of materials catalogued and online by June 2015. The children’s drawings, among other familial papers and unpublished notes compiled by the project are considered key to understanding Darwin as an individual, as well as his (ahem) evolution as a thinker. As the director of the D.M.P., David Kohn told the Washington Post: “We’re really interested in the intellectual development of Darwin, how his way of explaining things changed, how his approach to scientific problems develops over time. And you can see it all right there in the manuscripts when you compare them to the published version.”
And in the New Yorker, writer McKenna Stayner (who also spoke to Kohn), remarks on what these pages say—not just about Charles Darwin, great scientific mind—but about Charles Darwin, the man:
Part of the joy of these images, of course, is what they imply about Darwin—not the stereotype of a tortured, isolated great thinker but the abettor of scientific curiosity in others as much as in himself. Indeed, he often put his children to work on his research. “The kids were used as volunteers—to collect butterflies, insects, and moths, and to make observations on plants in the fields around town,” Kohn said.