Charles Darwin

Portrait of Charles Darwin

This exhibition marks the bicentenary of the birth of Charles Darwin (1809-1882), and the 150th anniversary of the publication of his seminal work, On the origin of species. The display includes a number of important works by Darwin from the Cole Library, part of the University of Reading rare book collections, and specimens on loan from the Cole Museum of Zoology

The Origin of species has been described as the most influential book of modern times, and regarded by some scholars as the most important single work in science, bringing man to his true place in nature, and forming the basis of all modern biology.

In the book Darwin discussed the concept of natural selection to explain how life evolved on Earth, and the fact that “as many more individuals of each species are born than can possibly survive, and as, consequently, there is a frequently recurring struggle for existence, it follows that any being, if it vary however slightly in any manner profitable to itself … will have a better chance of surviving, and thus be naturally selected. Title-page of first edition of Darwin's 'On the origin of species'From the strong principle of inheritance, any selected variety will tend to propagate its new and modified form”.

The book was very popular on publication and attracted wide public interest. However, it also met with controversy and satire. The Church of England scientific establishment was particularly opposed to the book, although it was well-received by the younger generation of professional naturalists.

While the Origin of species dominates perceptions of his work, his other works, including The descent of man and The expression of the emotions in man and animals, had considerable impact as well. Darwin also wrote on many other subjects including coral reefs, earthworms and plant life.

List of exhibitsPigeon skulls drawn by Darwin

Charles Darwin. The origin of species by means of natural selection, or the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life. Sixth edition, with additions and corrections ... London : John Murray, 1886. COLE--X234

The Cole Library also contains a copy of the first impression of the first edition of 1250 copies issued in November 24, 1859. This was entitled ‘On the origin of species’, and includes the misprint "speceies" on p. 20, line 11(corrected in the 2nd impression), and on p. 184 the paragraph "I can see no difficulty in a race of bears being rendered, by natural selection, more and more aquatic in their structure and habits, with larger and larger mouths, till a creature was produced as monstrous as a whale" - omitted from the 2nd impression.

The first edition is not on display, but is available to view on request, as are any of the other first editions of Darwin’s works in the Cole Library.

Charles Darwin. The descent of man, and selection in relation to sex. Second edition, revised and augmented. London : John Murray, 1874. COLE--X234

In The descent of man Darwin developed his ideas about the process by which natural selection worked, in sexually reproductive species, as “sexual selection”. He argued that as animals of the same gender competed with each other by trials of fitness and displays of beauty, so the best-adapted of a species were more likely to reproduce and pass on hereditary traits. As part of this investigation, Darwin examined the elaborate plumage ornaments and complex songs of birds, which were central to the development of Darwin’s theory.

The Cole Library contains a copy of the first issue of the first edition published in 1871.

Charles Darwin. The expression of the emotions in man and animals.  Second edition. Edited by Francis Darwin. London : John Murray, 1890. COLE--X234.

In this book, Darwin noted the universal nature of facial expressions: "...the young and the old of widely different races, both with man and animals, express the same state of mind by the same movements." The book included seven heliotype plates, and was one of the first publications to include photographs. The Cole Library contains a copy of the first issue of the first edition published in 1872.

Charles Darwin. A naturalist's voyage : journal of researches into the natural history and geology of the countries visited during the voyage of H.M.S. Beagle round the world, under the command of Capt. FitzRoy, R.N. New edition, with portrait. London : John Murray, 1890. COLE--X234.

Charles Darwin. Geological observations on the volcanic islands and parts of South America visited during the voyage of H.M.S. ‘Beagle’. Second edition. London : Smith, Elder & Co., 1876. COLE--X234.

Charles Darwin. The structure and distribution of coral reefs. Second edition, revised. London : Smith, Elder & Co, 1874. COLE--X234.

Also on display:

Charles Darwin. Journal of researches into the natural history & geology of the countries visited during the voyage of H.M.S. Beagle under the command of Capt. Fitz Roy, R.N. ; engravings by Robert Gibbings; introduction by Gavin de Beer. Cambridge : Printed for the members of the Limited Editions Club [of New York] at the University Press, 1956. GIBBINGS COLLECTION—K067.

A selection of different bird skulls from the collections of the Cole Museum of Zoology.

During his five-year trip aboard the H.M.S. ‘Beagle’, Darwin discovered that each species of finch on the Galapagos Islands had evolved according to its particular food source, and that the size and shape of the beaks of these birds had adapted to the island where they lived and the food that they ate. Darwin's research into the variations between different pigeon breeds featured in another of his works entitled Variation of plants and animals under domestication of 1868 (drawing of pigeon skulls by Darwin shown above).

A fossil of a fish from the collections of the Cole Museum of Zoology.

Darwin's early scientific experience was primarily as a geologist. During his voyage on H.M.S. ‘Beagle’, Darwin collected, recorded, analysed and interpreted numerous geological specimens.

Barnacled rock from the collections of the Cole Museum of Zoology.

Although his later work was mainly concerned with how animal and plant species evolved, geology featured prominently in the Origin of Species, and continued through his later life with his work on fossil barnacles and his final book on the action of the earthworm.

Other specimens from the Cole Museum of Zoology on display include a brain coral and a mushroom coral.

Back to Exhibitions

Page navigation

See also


Search Form

A-Z lists