A look into Darwin’s unseen manuscripts

The American Museum of Natural History is working to digitize Charles Darwin’s manuscripts and make them available to the public electronically. David Kohn, Director of the Darwin manuscript project at the American Museum of Natural History joins Hari Sreenivasan.


Charles Darwin, English naturalist and biologist, dedicated his life to the study of natural sciences -- most famously, evolution.

Many of Darwin's theories have been published, though a substantial number of his original documents have been out of the public eye in an archive.

Now the American Museum of Natural History is working to digitize these Darwin documents and, for the first time, make them available to the public electronically.

David Kohn, Director of the Darwin Manuscript Project at the American Museum of Natural History, joins me now.

How many materials -- How many documents are we talking about here?

We estimate about 96,000.

We've done about 25,000, but we have a plan for doing the whole lot.

This is a prolific individual.

Oh, absolutely.

I mean we don't, you and I, it would take us a lot of time to generate 96,000 pieces of anything, right?

Absolutely, but we're talking about a lifetime of scientific endeavor.

Give us a range of some of the things that you've seen that you didn't know kind of existed.

I mean, you are somebody who studies this closely.

You've done this for years and years.

When you saw this collection...

I first saw this collection in 1974, and I was looking for one particular thing.

I was a graduate student.

And I had no idea of the breadth of the collection.

And at that point, it was fairly un-catalogued and certainly digitization was out of the question.

And it was a sea of paper.

And chaotic.

And I just felt like I was hearing the sea pounding, and it's just a terrific opportunity to study the intellectual development of this intellectual giant.

So you kind of see that process as you go through time.

We do.

So how does he form an idea about, you know, something that now we take for granted, but that was really one of the first people to start to log and document this idea's creation?

I mean, there are so many of those in his archive.

But, of course, the big issue would be, how did he discover natural selection?

And we have an almost day-by-day account of his thinking, first becoming convinced of evolution as a fact, and then seeking to apply it and compare, looking at different subjects like comparative anatomy or geology and geographic distribution and saying, 'Well, if you make the assumption of evolution, how does that comport with what we do know, and how does it change?

How can I translate that into an evolutionary perspective?'

He's laying the foundations of evolutionary biology.

Anything surprise you?

I mean in the last 40-something years, whether it was the quality of the artwork, or...?

The artwork is pretty bad.


I mean he's not -- I mean, I love what he does, all right?

But he's not a good draftsman.


Some of it is pretty horrible and very impressionistic.

And he'd, you know, just catch an idea and then have a child -- one of his sons -- redraw it or be the original drawer or draftsmen, and they were pretty good.

Is there a subject matter that you connected with?

I mean, I started out as a botanist, as a terrestrial plant ecologist.

And Darwin is sort of the core of modern evolutionary botany.

And one dimension of that is his discovery of what I call the meaning of flowers.

What is the function, or evolutionary function, of flowers?

If you think of a flower, there are hermaphrodites, they have male and female in the same -- typically in the same flower -- and you would think that the function would be reproduction, but that's only half the story.

They really are structured, he comes to understand, to attract pollinators to bring the pollen of one flower to another to distribute variability.

And without genetic variability, evolution would not happen.

We would grind to a halt.

Any of the original documents gonna be on display at the museum?

Yes, yes, the museum actually has two pieces of his 95,000 but they're wonderful.

One is a draft piece of the origin of species.

There are only 31 pieces of the original draft that survived, and we have one.

When you were a young researcher and you found this collection, what are you hoping happens when this full digitized collection goes online?

I think we have the possibility of understanding at a very fine level of detail, his intellectual development.

And one of the things that he does is cut up pieces of manuscript and redistribute them to different parts of the archive, so he is making these connections.

We've actually had a recent development in that, working with some programmers who came from the museum.

There's this phenomenon called a hackathon in the library where we are based.

Gave them a number of challenges.

One was, can you reconstruct these pieces of paper that are scattered?

Give us a means of doing it.

And I used to do this by eye.

Maybe 45 or so or 50 of them have been reconstructed by eye over the last couple of decades.

They found a way, an algorithm for doing this and kind of fully transform them, and they have already found -- what was it? -- 37 by two weeks ago, and they met yesterday again.

All right, David Kohn from the American Museum of Natural History.

Thanks so much.

Thank you.