Darwin's work undergoes digital evolution

October 31, 2006

Brussels, 30 October 2006

The largest collection ever assembled of Charles Darwin's work is now available online free of charge. Evolution buffs now have unlimited access to writings and drawings of one of the most influential and most recognised scientists in history. The project is the brainchild of Cambridge Professor Dr John van Wyhe, hosted by the Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences, and Humanities at the University of Cambridge, and received its funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council of the UK.

The unprecedented collection includes numerous rare and hard to find documents retrieved from all corners of the globe, as well as some never before published work by the great scholar. The project was born out of a desire to give the general public the widest access possible to such key historical documents.

"The idea is to make these important works as accessible as possible; some people can only get at Darwin that way," Dr van Wyhe is quoted as saying by the BBC.

The collection is the culmination of a three-year-long search Dr van Wyhe conducted tracking down as many works by and about Charles Darwin as he could find. In addition to original writing, the online database includes the largest Darwin bibliography ever compiled.

In total, Darwin Online includes over 50 000 pages of text and more than 40 000 images of published and transcribed texts - all searchable by anyone with an internet connection. The collection also includes audio available for download as MP3 files.

All of Darwin's most influential writings are available, some for the first time in a digitised form, including the first edition of the Journal of Researches (1839) (or Voyage of the Beagle), The descent of Man (1871), The Zoology of the Voyage of H.M.S. Beagle (1838-43) and the 2nd, 3rd, 4th and 5th editions of the Origin of species.

One of the highlights of the collection is a transcribed edition of the personal journal Darwin used to jot down his immediate impressions during his time on the Galapagos Islands. It was from these notes that he later developed his theory of natural selection. The original diary was stolen in the early 1980s and has never been recovered, but a microfilm copy had been made several years earlier.

"It is astonishing to see the notebook that Darwin had in his pocket as he walked around the Galapagos - the scribbled notes that he took as he clambered over the lava," Randal Keynes, the great-great-grandson of Charles Darwin, told the BBC.

Dr van Wyhe developed the idea after he had difficulties conducting his own research on Darwin, the BBC reports.

"I wrote to lots of people all over the world to get hold of the texts for the project and I got a really positive reaction because they all liked the idea of there being one big collection," he said.

Despite the enormous amount of information available, only about 50 percent of the collection has as yet been put online. Dr van Wyhe hopes to make the remaining documents available by 2009, the 200th anniversary of Darwin's birth and 150th of the publication of the Origin of species.

DG Research
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