All surviving drafts, including three rediscovered pages, of Origin of Species revealed

On the 164th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s magnum opus, all known surviving pages of the rough draft of Origin of species have been published online.

Three recently rediscovered pages from Darwin’s draft of Origin of Species have been published for the first time together with all the other known surviving pages in a new online edition. These documents are added to Darwin Online, a scholarly portal dedicated to Charles Darwin and helmed by Dr John van Wyhe, at the NUS Department of Biological Sciences.

Previously, about 50 draft pages were known to survive. The new edition includes seven pages not found in previous collections, bringing the total to 59 draft pages. All are now freely available in Darwin Online, the most comprehensive scholarly site on a figure in the history of science. This edition includes unprecedented details about each draft page and its history.

“Draft pages from the Origin of Species are some of the rarest and most sought-after documents in the history of science because the book is arguably the most influential work in the history of science and the original draft was discarded. Only a fraction of the pages was later found and then scattered as gifts to collectors or descendants. Only 11 pages are known to be in private hands,” said Dr van Wyhe.

The draft pages make it possible to see in detail how Darwin originally composed and revised many of his arguments and expressions. The drafts also contain many sentences that were never published, offering fascinating insights into Darwin's thinking as he composed the book that quite literally changed the world. 

One of the three recently discovered draft pages was acquired from Darwin’s son Francis in the United Kingdom in 1885 by American lawyer, politician and autograph collector Charles Aldrich who was on a special "mission" to acquire autographs – then a new and addictive hobby for thousands of people. The Origin draft sheet was later given, in 1893, along with the rest of Aldrich's large collection, to the Historical Department of Iowa.

Another draft was a gift from Darwin's daughter, Henrietta Litchfield, to the daughter of American physician Christian A. Herter in 1904. Herter’s daughter, Christine, was also collecting autographs so Henrietta sent her one page of her father’s Origin of species draft. She had met the American family in France the year before.

The other manuscript was purchased by Martin Bodmer at Sotheby's in London on 6 November 1951 for £38. Bodmer was a Swiss bibliophile, scholar and collector who left money to establish and maintain a library to preserve the precious historical manuscripts he had collected from around the world.

An insight to Darwin’s mind

Despite Darwin's difficult-to-read handwriting, all of the drafts in Darwin Online have been transcribed and edited to show where the text appears in the published book so they may be compared.

The surviving drafts total 11,700 words (7.7% of Origin of Species) and contain many sentences that Darwin never published, offering fascinating insights into Darwin's thinking as he composed the Origin of Species. It is a tantalising question; how differently would the theory of evolution have been perceived if he had published the original version of some of these sentences? For example, Darwin wrote in one crossed-out sentence that "An instinct may almost be called a complex trick."

In a famous passage in Origin of Species, Darwin argued that natural selection could gradually transform an animal like a bear into something like a whale. Reviewers mocked and criticised him for this idea, which made him remove the passage from all later editions. This begs the question: What would have happened if he had published this original never-printed paragraph?

“In N. America a bear has been seen swimming for hours with widely open mouth, thus catching the minute crustaceans swimming on the surface. Even in so extreme a case as this, if the supply of minute crustaceans were constant, & there did not in the region exist better adapted competitors, I can see no difficulty in a race of Bears being rendered by natural selection more & more aquatic in habits & structure, with larger & larger mouth, till a creature was produced as monstrous in size & structure as a whale though feeding on prey so minute.”

The rare surviving fragments

After his book was published, the unsentimental Darwin discarded the hundreds of pages of the original handwritten draft of his epoch-making book into the family scrap paper pile. His children used some sheets for drawings and others were torn in half by a son who used the blank back sides for mathematical exercises. In the end, almost all of the draft was destroyed. Near the end of Darwin’s life, when his theory of evolution was so widely accepted and Darwin so famous, there was intense interest in the original draft. Some were rescued from the piles of scrap paper and old notes and, over decades, many were given away as gifts especially by his children after his death. These are now scattered around the world and some have probably been lost forever.

Today, the rough drafts of Darwin’s Origin of Species are some of the most precious and valuable pieces of paper in the history of science, each worth almost a million dollars. The last one to be sold at an auction, in 2018, went for £490,000. Because of its cultural and national significance, the manuscript was placed under an export bar by the UK's Minister for Arts, Heritage and Tourism in the hopes of keeping it in the country.

A graphic of surviving pages in the introduction to the drafts reveals which parts of the manuscript are known (in red) and where there are gaps (in grey):

A graphic of surviving pages in the introduction to the drafts reveals which parts of the manuscript are known (in red) and where there are gaps (in grey):



Almost all of the introduction and first five chapters did not survive, presumably consumed by the Darwin family as scrap paper.

This new edition of the drafts in Darwin Online includes unprecedented details about each sheet and its history. For example, one was donated by Darwin’s daughter Henrietta Litchfield to a Red Cross auction during WWI. It was purchased anonymously by cotton merchant and aviation pioneer Sir Alfred Paton who donated it to his old school, Clifton College. After decades in the college library, it was sold at auction in 1999 for £39,500 to an anonymous buyer “in the Americas” and has never been seen again. Fortunately, it was photocopied by Clifton College and a photograph was printed in the auction catalogue.

“These draft pages are now scattered around the world with the largest number in Cambridge University Library along with most of Darwin's papers. Each draft page has had its own journey and has its own story to tell and we are delighted to share these precious documents with the world on Darwin Online,” said Dr van Wyhe.