You now have your chance to explore most of Charles Darwin’s personal writing. The University of Cambridge has published all of the evolutionary scientist’s surviving correspondence online, including 400 letters that have either surfaced or are newly “reinterpreted.” The searchable collection now covers over 15,000 letters written between 1822 and 1882, ranging from his influential time aboard the HMS Beagle to On the Origin of Species and end-of-life reflections.
The internet archive may even be the only way to see a fuller picture of Darwin’s life. The university notes that the final print edition, due in early 2023, doesn’t include letters that arrived too late to reach physical copies. Many writings include footnotes and bibliographies to put sayings in context.
This last batch of correspondence illustrates how attitudes toward evolution changed in the researcher’s lifetime. By 1882, Darwin observed that natural selection had largely been established as fact among younger scientists — a sharp contrast to the initial hostility to On the Origin of Species upon its initial release in 1859. The letters also illustrate how Darwin was still experimenting months before his death.
This won’t be the same as holding the physical letters in your hands. However, it’s a classic demonstration of the internet’s value to academics, not to mention anyone who’s curious. As with other archival projects, you can get a sense of history without traveling to an archive and putting on some cotton gloves.