Houghton Exhibition Examines "The Origin of Species"

Origin of Species

"The Origin of Species," Charles Darwin's revolutionary book which laid out his theory
of evolution. An exhibit opening this month at Houghton Library focuses on the book's publication, and Darwin's repeated revision
of the book through multiple editions.

February 2, 2009 - Though often portrayed as one of the great scientific flashes of insight, Charles Darwin's "On the Origin of Species" was a landmark work of scientific literature years in the making, and one Darwin tinkered with constantly, even after its publication more than 150 years ago.

A new exhibition at Houghton Library will celebrate the anniversary of the publication of Darwin's revolutionary work, as well as the 200th anniversary of his birth. Opening February 2, "There is grandeur in this view of life": The Origin of Species at 150, explores the story of the book's publication, and uses multiple editions from Houghton's collection to trace Darwin's thought process as he refined his revolutionary theory.

"This exhibition focuses on the publication history of the book," said Heather Cole, Assistant Curator at Houghton Library, and curator of the exhibition. "Since we have a page of Darwin's manuscript and the book went through multiple editions, we can track Darwin's thinking about the theory itself and about how it was received."

Though originally intended to be a large, multi-volume work, Darwin was persuaded to publish "The Origin of Species" by friends who discovered another naturalist, Alfred Russel Wallace, was developing his own theory of evolution. Published in 1859, Darwin's book would go through six editions in his lifetime, each of which would see revisions as Darwin continued his studies.

"The first, second, third and fifth edition will be included in the exhibit," Cole said. "In each subsequent edition, Darwin would include a short essay, describing the changes he'd made. There was also a concordance, which listed the page of every change, and what was changed. When you examine the different editions, you can see, the theory stays the same, but he was refining the details."

Other items included in the exhibit include a page from Darwin's original manuscript, which is intriguing for its lack of corrections. Though he was writing quickly, Cole said, Darwin's manuscript shows relatively few changes.  "We know what page this corresponds to in the first edition and it's very close to the text of the book," she said.

The exhibit also includes a letter sent by Darwin to Harvard Zoology and Geology Professor Louis Agassiz, a well-known doubter in the theory of evolution. In the letter, Darwin refers to a copy of "On the Origin of the Species" he sent to Agassiz, asking he acknowledge the theory, no matter how erroneous Agassiz believes it to be.

The exhibit will also include an essay by Asa Gray, a Harvard professor of natural history from 1842 to 1873 and friend of Darwin's who worked to defend his theories in the United States, and an essay written by English botanist Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker after Darwin's death.

The exhibition opens February 2 at Houghton Library in the Amy Lowell Room, and runs through March 28.