Charles Darwin has major ‘brand recognition’ yet his ideas are still misunderstood.
Darwin was an acute observer of the natural world. He was also a prolific communicator.
As he explored the environment around him, Darwin continually asked “Why is that so?”. That led him from a young age to experiment with ideas and develop scientific theories to help answer unsolved questions. Darwin was patient, persistent, and endlessly curious.
The Darwin Correspondence Project (DCP) has located letters written by or to Charles Darwin and, through digitisation, has made them available to the public. For the first time, anyone can explore Darwin’s life, times and evolutionary theories and see for themselves how Darwin’s observational scientific approach is central to understanding the natural world today.
With funding from EET, the Library was able to complete the print edition of The Correspondence of Charles Darwin and make the data accessible to researchers and the public. Working with EET has also enabled the project team to move from a reactive model of providing resources to a more evidence-based approach that allowed for development of tailored resources for specific audiences like schools.
Thinking like Darwin
Questions were a cornerstone of Darwin’s work.
In his times, teaching in Victorian England was mainly by rote, with children learning things by simply repeating and memorising what was said by their teachers. There was little room for asking questions.
Darwin disagreed with this concept of education. He argued vigorously in favour of enquiry and evidence-based learning. His correspondence and notebooks are filled with accounts of small-scale experiments, an approach which he encouraged in others. Each inference he drew or observation he made added to or changed his thinking. He sought to move people away from just thinking about “what”, to thinking about “why?”: the true basis of scientific inquiry.
“The long-term, visionary support of the EET has transformed our understanding of Charles Darwin and the global networks of correspondence that made his work possible.”
Jim Secord, Director of the Darwin Correspondence Project 2006 – 2022
Darwin and science education today
If Darwin himself were to come to a science class today, he would be delighted to see genetics, critical to understanding the mechanics of evolution, being taught at a younger age. He would be happy to see a stronger emphasis on learning the scientific method.
However, he would also be saddened to see teachers struggling against a restrictive curriculum that puts evolution education overall under such tight time and syllabus constraints. Students are often left insufficiently inspired or equipped to constructively engage with the biological diversity of the natural world around them at a critical time when humanity’s own future depends on it.
To support teachers and schools, the DCP team have developed a wide range of free and accessible resources. These include Exploring Evolution teacher training, ‘For the Curious’ web content for schools, and formal learning resources for students going from ages 7-11, ages 11-14, to universities.
The future of the collection
The original audience for the complete, edited texts of Darwin’s correspondence was scholarly research. That has changed significantly under the leadership of the DCP.
Starting from 2000, the website has attracted a much wider and more general audience. The project team have also contributed to the development of a comprehensive 19th century science letters database, Epsilon, that allows for cross searching of texts and metadata across multiple other correspondence projects.
The DCP team will continue to develop resources in response to changing research and educational priorities. These will be embedded within the digital collections curated by the Cambridge University Library, with funding available not only to transition them into a new library platform, but to ensure continued scholarly and technical curation and expert interpretation.