Darwin’s Lost Notebooks: A year later, still gone without a clue.

By the time the year 2000 rolled around, a digital apocalypse should have destroyed computers around the world. A software bug, known as the Y2K or millennium bug, had been festering in computers since the 1960s, when computer programmers made the fateful decision to use two digits to refer to the year — rather than the standard four — leaving out the “19”. Maybe subconsciously, Cold War computer programmers never banked on us making it to the new millennium.

While some of the worry revolved around minor matters like websites getting thrown off by confusing 2000 with 1900, there were real concerns about planes dropping out of the sky (Donnie Darko-style) and utility companies shutting down, and wide swaths of 0s and 1s being wiped away like rain on a windshield. Worldwide disruptions and, by extension, social unrest, while far-fetched, remained distinct possibilities. Some people thought we would be driven back to the industrial age.

Fortunately, none of those things came to pass and life went on. January 1, 2000 came and went like other New Years Days during the millennia. For businesses, that meant projects planned prior to New Years could move forward.

One project scheduled for later in the year involved digitizing manuscripts, notebooks, and letters belonging to Charles Darwin that were held in locations around the world. Cambridge University Library, in particular, held scientific Darwin’s paper. In September 2000, some of the most significant notebooks in the history of the civilized world lay in front of a camera lens. One page at a time, the digitization process progressed. Finally, with the job complete, the team prepared the papers to be returned to the strong storage room that protected them.

That was the last time two of the most important notebooks in history, part of a series known as the Transmutation Notebooks, were ever seen.

Charles Darwin’s iconic Tree of Life diagram contained in Transmutation Notebook B. The notebook, along with Transmutation Notebook C, is believed to be stolen.

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Not so long ago, there was a generally accepted belief that when animals first appeared on Earth they assumed their final, perfect form. It was just how God — a perfect organism — had created them. This idea enjoyed support among clergy and, most important for our discussion, among Naturalists of the day. Many men of science strongly believed that Providence provided the mechanism for the creation and destruction of animals. From James Hutton’s Theory of the Earth to Robert Chambers’ Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation God figured prominently within authors’ analytical framework, implicitly and explicitly. They took inspiration from biblical passages such as Genesis, Job 39-41, John 1, Colossians 1, and Hebrews 11.

The influence of religion was so ingrained that during the course of an otherwise rational exegesis, biologists consistently fell back on theology to compensate for inadequacies in their understanding. For example, in this excerpt from Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation (1844) Chambers stresses,

To a reasonable mind the Divine attributes must appear, not diminished or reduced in some way, by supposing a creation by law, but infinitely exalted. It is the narrowest of all views of the Deity, and characteristic of a humble class of intellects, to suppose him acting constantly in particular ways for particular occasions. It, for one thing, greatly detracts from his foresight, the most undeniable of all the attributes of Omnipotence. It lowers him towards the level of our own humble intellects. Much more worthy of him it surely is, to suppose that all things have been commissioned by him from the first, though neither is he absent from a particle of the current of natural affairs in one sense, seeing that the whole system is continually supported by his providence.

Some of the proponents of this line of thinking assumed an even more entrenched stance than Chambers while drawing on similar evidence.

When geologists began examining the many layers of earth and the accompanying fossil record, two things stuck out. They observed that the different strata provided a snapshot of specific times in the past. It allowed them to examine animals that once roamed the Earth but had become extinct. Many of them appeared to bear some relation to existing creatures. At the same time, the fossil record was littered with large gaps that suggested a discontinuous progression from one species to the next. This led many scientists at the time to surmise that the disappearance of species was due to sudden extinction events, such as volcanic eruptions or cataclysmic flooding. This gave rise to a theory known as catastrophism.

Charles Darwin.

One of the theory’s key proponents during the early 19th century was a French Naturalist named George Cuvier. According to his analysis of the fossil record, novel life forms migrated into new areas after major destructive events. Most importantly, his work established, once and for all, that there were species of animals that existed in the past, but no longer did during his time.

Before Cuvier’s seminal research comparing elephant fossils discovered outside Paris with Asian and African elephants, the scientific community did not believe animals went extinct. His work proved otherwise. However, his observations led him to become a vigorous opponent of evolution, particularly as proposed by his contemporary, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck.

While Cuvier avoided attaching religion to his analysis, two Englishmen, William Buckland and Robert Jameson, used his data while adding an unmistakable religious element to catastrophism. They looked to Noah and the Flood as the great species cleansing catastrophe par excellence and did everything in their power to establish its historicity. They interpreted Cuvier’s work and his opposition to the evolution of species as proof of the immutability of species. When a new species appeared, it was because God had replaced imperfect animals with better, fully formed ones. (Never mind the sticky theological implications of a perfect God creating imperfect creatures.) It was a very comfortable position to assume at the time, as it utilized science to validate entrenched religious beliefs.

Enter Darwin.

Charles Darwin’s understanding of evolution shook the foundations of religious belief systems because of its systematic dismantling of the immutable species theory. At the heart of his progression towards On the Origin of Species sits the so-called “Transmutation notebooks” in which Darwin essentially connects the dots among and between species. Rather than new species taking root thanks to massive extinction events, Darwin characterized the process as a gradual flow with traits being passed on and sometimes transformed over generations. Rather than being immutable, species were transmutable, i.e. subject to change. 

Darwin expressed his theory in an elegant diagram in one of his notebooks, his Tree of Life. If one image symbolized the revolution Darwin’s Origin of Species kicked off, it was that one, contained in Notebook B. 

It changed everything.

The world would never be the same.

The Gift

Charles Darwin’s papers essentially fell on Cambridge University’s lap during the early 20th century. Unlike the mad, 21st Century scramble to retain Charles Lyell’s papers in the United Kingdom by the Arts Council and Edinburgh University, it was the Darwin Family that took the initiative and approached Cambridge University, scrambling to get the library to accept the evolutionary Naturalist’s manuscripts, notebooks, and correspondences.

When Darwin died in April 1882, most of his papers were in the possession of his family. At the time, Francis Darwin was actively acquiring most of his father’s correspondences in lieu of publishing “Life and Letters of Charles Darwin” (1887). When Emma Darwin passed away in 1896, a trove of manuscripts and notebooks were found under the staircase in Down House, the family home.

After Charles Darwin’s death, his son, Francis (pictured) possessed many of his papers.

For almost thirty years, Darwin’s papers languished in several locations. Some remained in Down House, a significant portion was with Francis Darwin, and smaller collections were held by institutions like the British Museum. There was little movement to consolidate them and probably very little outside enthusiasm for the endeavor.

One thing that may have hindered any institutional consolidation of Darwin’s papers was evolutionary theory itself. During the decades after the publication of On the Origin of Species, evolution grew in acceptance within the scientific community. Nobody except for the fringes of science believed animals to be immutable. Unfortunately, natural selection as an evolutionary mechanism did not grow in tandem with the rest of the theory. On the contrary, Darwinism met with considerable resistance, if not outright hostility, coming under constant attack from all sides — religious and scientific.

While scientists agreed with the extensive data Darwin collected, they disagreed with his interpretation. By the time of Darwin’s death, natural selection was merely one theory among many explanations for evolution. Things had gotten to the point that in 1903, the German botanist Eberhard Denhert proclaimed “the death of Darwinism” and in 1907, Stanford University Entomologist Vernon Lyman Kellogg stated, “…the fair truth is that the Darwin selection theory, considered with regard to its claimed capacity to be an independently sufficient mechanical explanation of descent, stands today seriously discredited in the biological world.”

It wasn’t until 1908 that interest in Darwin’s papers began to change. That year, a selection of his manuscripts, photographs, portraits and artifacts were put on display at the Linnean Society of London. It was part of a celebration commemorating the 50th anniversary of when the Darwin-Wallace paper was read publicly.

Other similar exhibitions followed in quick succession soon after. In June 1904, Cambridge University celebrated the centenary of Darwin’s birth and 50th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species. The old Library of Christ’s College displayed a selection of his manuscripts. A month later, the exhibition was moved to London and put on display at the British Museum, where it was supplemented by their own Darwin holdings as well as material on loan from the Royal College of Surgeons Museum in Lincoln’s Inn.

At this point, the story of Darwin’s notebooks loosely mirrors the gradual ascendance of natural selection as an explanation for evolution and the inheritance of traits. The emergence of the Modern Synthesis which combined natural selection with Mendelian and population genetics, cemented Darwin’s name in the scientific pantheon. In turn, the consolidation of his papers took on added significance so that they could be studied by academics and also put on display for a casual audience.

In 1942, Sir Alan Barlow approached Cambridge University. He was married to Nora Darwin, Charles Darwin’s granddaughter by way of Horace Darwin, and authorized to represent the interests of the Darwin family. He informed the university that the family had decided to present them with all of Charles Darwin’s work-related papers. The remainder would be held at Down House, the rationale being to allow for popular exhibits to be held in Darwin’s home.

“I think.” Charles Darwin T-shirt. A Scientific Inquirer exclusive.

Barlow’s note to Cambridge University concluded,

We feel all the documents should be in a public library rather than in private ownership & though sale in the U.S.A. would have produced more cash, we would like them to remain in this country.

It would be natural to assume that once Cambridge accepted the gift, that would be the end of the story. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case. With World War II raging, the university showed little interest in actually obtaining the papers. While they formally accepted the gift, they never actually started gathering them. The Librarian indicated that due to staff shortages and rationing of fuel they would not be collecting anything for the foreseeable future. 

After the war, the Darwin family pressed Cambridge to begin collecting the notebooks, letters, and manuscripts so that they could be properly catalogued and made available to researchers. On May 9 1946, Bernard Darwin wrote to the library,

May I remind you that yr Darwin documents are still here awaiting you unblitzed and unburgled so far.

You can hear the growing exasperation in his words. He invited a university representative over for lunch (and presumably to collect the papers). Darwin received a reply to just send the papers over using a courier/moving company called Pickfords, to which Darwin replied: “I am disinclined to send them off by rail or by Pickfords.”

Two years later, Cambridge received a request from Swedish researchers to access Darwin’s papers. The library simply forwarded the request to Bernard Darwin, suggesting he tend to the matter. This prompted a testy reply from Darwin:

I really do think it is time you sent for your property here… I am most anxious to be quit of them and this sort of thing is not very encouraging to those who give. Do please take some step in this matter -- I wish you would.

On October 1948, Cambridge University finally got around to collecting the papers bequeathed to them by the Darwin family. The process was not completed until the 1970s.

Gone without any leads

A plaque on U.S. President Harry Truman’s desk famously declared, “The buck stops here.” If something needed to be done, he bore ultimate responsibility for its execution. As the leader of an organization — in his case a country — he recognized the importance of a president doing his duty and being held accountable should anything go wrong.

For almost 20 years, the custodians of Darwin’s scientific legacy passed the buck, knowing full well that two of his most important notebooks were missing. It wasn’t until November 2020 that Dr. \

Deborah Gardner, the current head librarian at Cambridge Library, came forward to not only publicly admit that they were missing, but to also admit that, in all likelihood, two of Darwin’s Transmutation notebooks had been stolen. The date she provided in a video recording was mindboggling. The notebooks had been missing since January 2001.

At the time of the notebooks’ disappearance, the library was run by Peter Fox who had been Librarian and Archivist at Trinity College, Dublin before taking over at Cambridge Library. The incident occurred about halfway through his tenure. According to Gardner, Fox genuinely believed that the missing notebooks had been misfiled, something quite common in libraries of all sizes.

Fox authorized a handful of searches during the remainder of his time at the library. Each time, library staff efforts came up empty. Just how thorough those searches were remains unclear if you go by the limited information put out by Cambridge. His successor, Anne Jarvis, conducted similar searches and achieved similar results. That said, going by Gardner’s descriptions, the investigations were limited in scope and not as extensive as would be expected, given the significance of the notebooks’ contents. This point is further driven home by Gardner’s admission that it wasn’t until 2019 that a “fingertip” search, that is a detailed and methodical approach, was done. 

Clearly, the university library understood that the longer they went without locating the notebooks, the worse they looked. At first, they informed researchers looking to access the notebooks that they were not available, either because they were being used or digitized. However, being “in use” or digitized for a decade straight was unlikely. According to one researcher, around 2013, she was told that the notebooks were too fragile to take out and were therefore unavailable. The fact that, by this time, a finger-tip search still had not been conducted is a questionable decision.

Deborah Gardner replaced Jarvis as head librarian in 2017. Finally, someone with decision making power decided that enough was enough and that an exhaustive search for Darwin’s notebooks needed to be conducted once and for all. Times have changed in the Rare Books world compared to when they had first gone missing. In the past, an institution like Cambridge would keep the news under wraps. Professional embarrassment was a strong disincentive. Today,  looking for the book publicly is a good thing, allowing the community to leverage their network both as a way to prevent an unwitting purchase of illegal material and also keep the information flowing.

The case of Darwin’s lost notebooks is all the more curious in that Cambridge University maintains that they have no record of people who handled Darwin’s notebooks when they were taken out of the strong room, transported to the temporary onsite portacabin, photographed, and removed from the portacabin to be returned to its proper location back in the strong-room.

Experts pretty much agree that the likelihood of the notebooks being returned are slim to none and the chances of selling them are even less likely. However, there are instances where long-sought after works of art turn up beneath creaky beds or stashed away under wooden floor boards. Because of this, during Gardner’s statement and during interviews with the press, she remained hopeful that Notebook B and C will turn up.

A year on from the announcement and twenty years from the disappearance, there’s still no news regarding Darwin’s missing Transmutation Notebooks.

NOTE: We reached out to Cambridge University Library for comment but they declined to be interviewed.

WORDS: Marc Landas.

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