The New Yorker recently published a story on the recovery of a collection of doodles authored by Charles Darwin’s children. The children drew directly onto the original copy of Darwin’s most famous work On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. And I thought I was cool for sketching surreptitiously on my Dad’s legal pads growing up.
What may seem like sacrilege now—turning the only handwritten copy of a seminal work of science into scratch paper—appears to have been normal then. Once Darwin had sent a fair copy of the manuscript off to his publisher, John Murray, he made the rest of his changes to the book directly on the galley proofs, and evidently he wasn’t precious about the originals. Paper being a hot commodity, the children co-opted the pages for themselves. Kohn doesn’t know for certain which kids were the artists, but he guesses that at least three were involved: Francis, who became a botanist; George, who became an astronomer and mathematician; and Horace, who became an engineer. The drawings are lively and full of color, made in pencil, ink, and watercolor, depicting real and imagined worlds, always with a Darwinian eye for detail. 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.