The secret of a 157-year-old Darwin manuscript


Evolution Day , a day commemorating the publication of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species on 24 November 1859. Darwin’s seminal work is now regarded as the most influential science book in history and inspired countless new disciplines. To mark the 163rd anniversary of the publication of The Origin of Species , the Darwin Online project is releasing one of Darwin’s most outstanding manuscripts still in private hands and recently auctioned by New York’s Sotheby’s auction house. And it is thanks to this circumstance that a little mystery of Darwin is revealed.


Sotheby’s consulted science historian John van Wyhe of the Department of Biological Sciences at NUS (National University of Singapore), and founder and director of Darwin Online, to understand this unique document. What used to be considered a draft page of the Origin of Species has turned out to be much more interesting. It was not a draft page, but a document requested by a man named Hermann Kindt, editor of  Autographicc Mirror magazine , which published handwriting samples of famous people. Kindt wrote to Darwin in 1865 to request a handwritten and signed passage, Darwin took up a passage from his book Origin of Species.

Darwin wrote a passage from the conclusion of the 1861 Origin  of Species , p. 514:

“…It is not a valid objection [to this theory of evolution] that science does not yet throw any light on the far higher problem of the essence or origin of life. Who can explain what is the essence of the attraction of gravity? No one now objects to follow the results resulting from this unknown element of attraction; despite Leibnitz in the past accusing Newton of having introduced ‘occult qualities and miracles into philosophy’”.

Not a draft, but a valid objection

Being a piece of the Origin of Species written in Darwin’s hand and with his rare full signature, it is a rather rare document. But why did Darwin choose this particular passage from the book’s 490 pages? Dr van Wyhe has found the answer.


Shortly after the book’s publication, there were many objections to Darwin’s theory, especially his theory of “natural selection.” Just at that time, Darwin happened to read a biography of Isaac Newton in which one of Newton’s critics argued that his law of gravity was not real, but only imaginary: “occult qualities and miracles” inserted into science. Darwin was repaid in kind. His critics thought that natural selection was an improbable and unrealistic theory .

The same day he finished the biography, Darwin wrote to a fellow scientist, saying he would use this example to respond to critics in the future. Almost immediately he had the opportunity to do so, precisely with the passage sent to the magazine, which he then added to the American reprint of the Origin of Species , using the Newton quote. Subsequently, the passage appeared in the third and all subsequent editions of the book.

Now we understand why Darwin chose this particular passage for Kindt to copy in 1865, considering it a powerful defense of his theory of evolution by natural selection. It was as if Darwin were saying: “They accused Newton’s law of gravity of being false and now it is accepted by the whole world.


Darwin was right: his theory of evolution is today the foundation of all life sciences.

This unique manuscript of Darwin, transcribed with an introduction by Dr van Wyhe, is available on Darwin Online .



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