Charles Darwin's Portfolios
“Notebook after notebook has been filled with facts...”
I’m going on my first “Noted” supported archive trip next week. I’ll be visiting Octavia Butler’s papers at The Huntington Library in San Marino. I can’t wait! The woman was a rock-star in so many ways—least of which being the 100+ commonplace books she kept. Paid subscribers will get a short-behind the scenes post as a thank you for supporting this visit. My full write-up of Butler’s notes will be free for all.
The more paid subscriptions the more archives I can visit and the more donations to libraries I can make. (In December we donated to the Schomberg Center.) From now until January 31st, subscriptions are 20% off!
If last week’s post (12 Ways to Keep a Diary) didn’t get you to start thinking about your journaling practice, perhaps Darwin might. He would be the first to credit his successful to his rigorous note-taking practice. This post is really just scratching the surface, but you’ll get a general overview of the many varieties of journals he kept.
Charles Darwin (1809-1882) hated to waste time, and he didn’t trust his memory. So, he took notes—a lot of notes. Here is a partial list to give you a sense for the scope of Darwin’s collection:
the field notebooks
the Beagle diary
the zoological diary
the geological diary
catalogues of specimens
books read and books to be read
abstracts of books
catalogue of books
the transmutation notebooks
experiments on worms
‘questions and experiments’
observations on Darwin’s children
You can find a full list of Darwin’s surviving notebooks here.
Taking notes was not just a way of life for Darwin, it was a methodology.
Let the collector’s motto be, ‘Trust nothing to the memory;’ for the memory becomes a fickle guardian when one interesting object is succeeded by another still more interesting.
Darwin valued his notes so much that he felt “that the rest of his life would be miserable if his notes and books were to be destroyed.”
Darwin took notes while assembling evidence in support of his ground-breaking theory of evolution by natural selection. It is difficult to overstate just how revolutionary Darwin’s work was. Because he challenged the Victorian world-view of creation, he had to provide irrefutable evidence.
Darwin found it helpful to organize information from different scientific branches in different notebooks. He had one for zoology and another for geology. He wrote about different specimens on different pages. He also kept his diary separate from his reading notes. He explains,
…notes should be as simple as possible: I kept one set for geology, and another for zoological and all other observations. It is well to endeavour to write upon separate pages remarks on different specimens; for much copying will thus be saved…
Darwin built his theory of evolution by natural selection from carefully assembling facts in his notebooks. It all began when a college professor suggested he continue his naturalist education aboard the HMS Beagle.
Darwin’s Notes at Sea
From 1831-1836, Charles Darwin sailed around the world studying geology, botany, and zoology. Whenever he stepped off the ship, Darwin carried a small notebook. Over the course of the trip, he filled 15 of them, along with a diary that he would publish as The Voyage of the Beagle. Here is one of his small field notebooks:
The notebook’s cover records the locations described within (Cape de Verds / Fernando Noronha / Bahia Abrolhos / Rio de Janeiro City).
Inside, Darwin scribbled messy pencil notes, meant to record everything he saw. He felt this to be an integral part of his process and believed that every naturalist ought to do the same. As he wrote, a geologist
ought to acquire the habit of writing very copious notes, not all for publication, but as a guide for himself…
Among his notes, he interspersed little drawings, like his sketch of lava’s “rugged” imprint on the earth (it’s in the 4th line):
contain much liquid —
Lavas, of two ages, one rugged [drawing] little cemented bits — has been well compared to most boisterous frozen ocean; but with wide cracks — other apparently has had the outer crust weathered
Back onboard the Beagle, Darwin would put away his pencil and take out his pen to write in his journal and compile orderly notes in his zoology and botany notebooks. On the following page of his “Zoology Notes,” Darwin records finding an octopus on St Jago. He marveled at how the creature changed color.
Notice how Darwin writes “Octopus” and then “when in shallow place” in the left margin to index this particular entry.
On the same day, Darwin noted the following in his diary:
28th Collected a great number of curious & beautiful animals from the little pools left by the tide. The colours of the sponges & corallines are extremely vivid & it is curious how all animated nature becomes more gaudy as it approaches the hotter countries. — Birds, fishes, plants, shells are familiar to every one. — but the colours in these marine animals will rival in brilliancy those of the higher classes.
Reading these notebooks —his field notes, zoology notes, geology notes, and diary— offers a kaleidoscopic view of Darwin’s day as he recorded his experiences from different perspectives.
Darwin wouldn’t publish Origin of Species for several decades after this trip, so his careful notes were exceedingly important. As Darwin wrote, shortly after his voyage, he filled his notebooks with “facts” that supported larger theories:
Notebook after notebook has been filled with facts which begin to group themselves clearly under sub-laws.
Notes at Home
Once at home, Darwin began his “transmutation notebooks” which include his most famous sketch. It shows how different species might descend from a single ancestor. He begins with the powerful words, “I think”:
Alongside and below the sketch, Darwin wrote the following:
Case must be that one generation then should be as many living as now. To do this & to have many species in same genus (as is) requires extinction.
Thus between A & B immense gap of relation. C & B the finest gradation, B & D rather greater distinction. Thus genera would be formed. — bearing relation
While Darwin relied on notebooks during his travels, once at home, he engaged a more protracted note-taking system that involved portfolios filed in cabinets that lined his study at Down House. He explained,
I keep from thirty to forty large portfolios, in cabinets with labelled shelves, into which I can at once put a detached reference or memorandum.
The racks for the portfolios appear in the following illustration of Darwin’s study in the recess to the right of the fireplace.
Darwin kept a single diary from 1838-1888. In general, he notes professional events on the left-hand pages, while he reserves the right-hand pages for personal entries.
In 1858, Darwin was working on The Origin of Species. His left-hand notes include: “Began Section V…” or “Finished Instinct Chapter.” On the right side, he notes travels and deaths: “Miriam Parker died in July.”
Darwin’s Reading Notebooks
Darwin kept several notebooks to record “Books to be Read” and “Books Read.” He used one of these notebooks for both purposes: Darwin labelled one cover “Books to be Read” and flipped the notebook over to write “Books Read” on the other cover. In this way, he could write each list from either end.
In a similar fashion, he organized his bookshelves by books read and books to-be-read on different shelves.
Once he read a book, Darwin would note it next to the date he finished it along with a short synopses—often, as simple as stating if the book was “dull” or “good” as he does on the following page:
Darwin would write small notes to himself such as “skimmed” or “abstracted” (meaning, he had written an abstract of the work for his records) or “references at end chiefly on instinct” (meaning that he noted important pages in the back of the book).
Darwin’s Notes on Marriage
Ever the naturalist, Darwin organized observations to arrive at general theories. He did the same thing as he questioned if he should marry. In April of 1838, he listed pros and cons of marriage.
The main reasons for remaining a bachelor, to Darwin’s mind, were work-related. On the left-hand side of this page, he writes:
If not marry
Travel. Europe, yes?
If I travel it must be exclusively geological United States, Mexico Depend upon health & vigour…
On the right-hand side, he considers the shape his married life would take. An introvert, Darwin worried that he would have to spend too much time in society as a married man.
If marry—means limited, Feel duty to work for money. London life, nothing but Society, no country, no tours, no large Zoolog[ical]. Collect[ion]. no books.
On another page, Darwin records more positive views on marriage. Among the perks of marital life, he includes:
Children—(if it Please God) — Constant companion, (& friend in old age) who will feel interested in one,— object to be beloved & played with.— —better than a dog anyhow.
There you have it: a wife, according to Darwin, is better than a dog. And so he proposed to Emma Wedgwood in November of 1838. They were married 2 months later.
Darwin’s Writing Process
We can learn a lot about Darwin’s writing process from a letter he wrote to his wife in 1844 when he finished “my sketch of my species theory.” Darwin knew he was onto something and wanted to ensure his work would be published in the event of his “sudden death.” He asked his wife to devote £400 to its publication by finding a “competent person” to complete his sketch. He hopes Emma will supply this person with his books, which “are either scored or have references at end to the pages.” Of particular interest, Darwin explains he kept many “scraps with copied quotations from various works” organized in 8-10 brown portfolios. You can read the entire letter here.
Notes on Darwin’s Notes
Record your day in different ways: Darwin carried pocket-notebooks to record immediate perceptions of the natural world. Once on board the Beagle, he would synthesize this information into different notebooks. One, covered notes on zoology, another botany, and a third was a diary that recorded his personal experience of the day.
The size of notebooks and the types of writing tools are determined by their uses. Darwin carried small notebooks on his walks. At home or onboard the Beagle, he used larger notebooks. In the 19th century, writing with a pen was a more involved process, so he carried a simple pencil when outdoors.
When in doubt, draw up a pros & cons list. And remember, a wife is better than a dog.
Record references to what you read in the back of books and write out quotations to store in portfolios (you don’t always need to keep notes in a notebook).
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Until next week,
Darwin, Charles. The Works of Charles Darwin: V. 3: Journal of Researches into the Geology and Natural History of the Various Countries Visited by HMS Beagle (1839). Routledge, 2016,, p.598
Darwin, Frances. “Chapter III: Reminiscences of My Father’s Everyday Life.” The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin: Including an Autobiographical Chapter, John Murray, 1888, p. 152.
Darwin, Charles. The Works of Charles Darwin: V. 3: Journal of Researches into the Geology and Natural History of the Various Countries Visited by HMS Beagle (1839). Routledge, 2016, p. 470.
Darwin, “Section VI: Geology.” A Manual of Scientific Enquiry: Prepared for the Use of Her Majesty’s Navy : And Adapted for Travellers in General, J. Murray, 1849.
Darwin, Charles. Chancellor and van Wyhe Eds. Galapagos Notebook. EH1.17 [English Heritage 88202337] (8-11.1835). http://darwin-online.org.uk/content/frameset?itemID=EH88202337&viewtype=side&pageseq=1.
Darwin, Charles. Keynes, R. D. Ed. 2001. Charles Darwin’s Beagle Diary. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. http://darwin-online.org.uk/content/frameset?itemID=F1925&viewtype=text&pageseq=1.
Darwin, C. R. 1837-1838. Notebook B: [Transmutation of species]. CUL-DAR121.- Edited by John van Wyhe (Darwin Online, http://darwin-online.org.uk/), p. 36.
Darwin, Charles. The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin: Including an Autobiographical Chapter. John Murray, 1888, p. 137.
You can read a transcription of these notebooks in Peter J. Vorzimmer’s article “The Darwin Reading Notebooks (1838-1860) on JSTOR. https://www.jstor.org/stable/4330671.
Huh! I keep the exact same set of journals that Darwin maintained except for “Experiments on Worms.” Weird!
Seriously, sometimes I feel overwhelmed by my notes. Too many ideas to follow up on and things to read and stuff to listen to! But at least I have not tasked myself with the job of gathering evidence to refute an entire society’s world view of creation.
Loved “Better than a dog anyhow.” I wonder if he felt the same after he married? Dogs are pretty great!
Fantastic read! I always cite this quote from Darwin to my students:
‘I had, also, during many years, followed a golden rule, namely, that whenever a published fact, a new observation or thought came across me, which was opposed to my general results, to make a memorandum of it without fail and at once; for I had found by experience that such facts and thoughts were far more apt to escape from memory than favourable ones.’
Memories are frail - notes are much better!