Famous Journals: Charles Darwin

Charles Darwin was known to have kept many journals about his travels and discoveries as well as keeping private journals too. Charles Darwin introduced the world to the theory of natural selection, and his notebooks allow us a glimpse into how he processed his ideas.

Darwin’s Journal of research, Darwin’s account of his travels around the world on the H.M.S. Beagle was his first published book. While the circumstances of its publication were not shaped by Darwin, however, but by the Beagle’s captain, Robert FitzRoy, who according to custom in the Navy, had the right to decide the use of the materials produced by those on board his ship. The Journal of Researches was a collection in which Darwin’s journal was included as the third volume of the Narrative of the surveying voyages of His Majesty’s Ships Adventure and Beagle, between the years 1826 and 1836. This collection of books described their examination of the southern shores of South America, and the Beagle’s circumnavigation of the globe, with the title Journal and remarks.  However Darwin’s own volume was soon issued separately with the new title: Journal of Researches into the geology and natural history of the various countries visited by H.M.S. Beagle. This soon adapted to be known as: The voyage of the Beagle.

During the voyage of the Beagle Darwin recorded his observations in field notebooks. Shortly after the end of the voyage he began to use one of them, the Red notebook, for theoretical speculations, especially on geology and the formation of coral reefs. His note taking continued in his old Edinburgh notebook and his St Helena Model notebook before opening a new series of notebooks for theoretical work, termed notebooks on geology, transmutation of species and metaphysical enquiries by the editors of the definitive edition.

His zoological and geological discoveries on the voyage resulted in numerous important publications and formed the basis of his theories of evolution. While this was all observed between 1831–1836, during his time on the HMS Beagle, Charles Darwin worked on this theory for more than 20 years before publishing it in his famous On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection (1859). Also found in his journals would be drawings and sketches, much like the concept of a tree of life in the context of the theory of evolution to illustrate that all species on Earth are related and evolved from a common ancestor.

To “file” his notebooks Darwin simply lettered their covers A, B, C, D etc. These notebooks reveal in detail his research and gradual illumination of species questions - where do species come from? How are they related and how do they become adapted? As mentioned above, the famous Tree of life sketch could be found in Darwin's Notebook B. Within Notebook D you could find his famous reading of Malthus in September 1838 which crystallised the notion of natural selection. By 1840 the notebooks were largely finished. Two of his notebooks, Notebooks M and N, were labelled 'Private’. These notebooks mostly included his expression of the emotions and which record details of family and friends. After completing these notebooks, Darwin adopted a new system of loose notes kept in numbered portfolios. He then cut many of the pages out of his old notebooks and filed them into the portfolios.

As well as his diaries and journals Charles Darwin penned many letters to friends and family throughout his lifetime. During his working life, Darwin used letters as a way both of discussing ideas and gathering the ‘great quantities of facts’ that he used in developing and supporting his theories. Darwin had a habit of burning batches of old letters when he ran out of space, keeping only those from close friends and family, or those still useful for his research. 

Charles Darwin’s discoveries and research transformed the way we understand nature and the natural world with ideas and theories that, in his day, were nothing short of revolutionary.

He and his fellow pioneers in the field of biology have given us insight into the fantastic diversity of life on Earth and its origins, including our own as a species.