Read the cryptic note left by an anonymous source on March 9, just outside the Cambridge University Librarian’s office, on the fourth floor of the 17-story tower. Inside an electric-pink gift bag were a bespoke blue box and a rather ordinary brown office envelope addressed to Dr. Jessica Gardner, with the typewritten message:
The contents of the envelope were anything but ordinary, however. With nervous excitement, Dr. Gardner and her colleague unveiled two notebooks bound together back to back in plastic cling wrap. The letters ‘B’ and ‘C’ were visible on either side of the cover pages. These were the very same notebooks filled by Charles Darwin—made infamous after their mysterious disappearance 22 years prior—launching an international investigation and leaving no page unturned.
After notifying the Cambridgeshire Police, they were given permission to open the notebooks an excruciating five days later. Equipped with a pair of blue latex gloves and surgical precision, Jim Bloxham, Head of Conservation and Collection Care at the University Library, delicately unwrapped the notebooks as Dr. Gardner and her colleagues watched in awe and anticipation. Keeper of Manuscripts and Curator of Scientific Collections, Dr. Katrina Dean, assisted Bloxham as they cross-referenced the notebooks against the University Library’s extensive page-by-page digitized records. After scrupulous examination and four rounds of verification from experts in scientific heritage and antiquarian books, the team concluded that the notebooks were kept in a dry place as they were in incredibly good condition, with no obvious signs of significant handling or damage sustained, and all the pages remained intact.
There was one page in particular that Dr. Gardner was most eager to authenticate. On page 36 of Notebook B, sketched in black ink, was Darwin’s unmistakable ‘Tree of Life.’ The illustration, which Darwin composed in the summer of 1837, was the first recording of his theory that different species could have common ancestors.
What was the motive, you may be wondering? Given their unique nature, the value of the notebooks is difficult to determine, but they have an estimated worth of several million dollars. Seeing as the artifacts were not pawned off or sold on the black market, the book burglar has experts stumped. The investigation is ongoing, but it’s safe to say the thief has a sense of humor—as perverse as it may be. The cheeky gift bag…the ironic nod to the Christian holiday commemorating the resurrection of Jesus from the dead…Regardless of the thief’s intent, the notebooks’ revival is a cause for celebration indeed!
Once Upon a Conservation Crime
To better understand the notebooks’ significance, we must begin at Chapter 1.
Long ago—before the existence of CCTV, card-and-pin access, and onsite security teams—the Cambridge University Library was vulnerable to malicious intruders. The fortress was left unguarded in September 2000, when Darwin’s precious notebooks were removed from the climate-controlled Special Collections Strong Rooms—where the rarest and most valuable items are kept—for photography to take place at the Library.
During a subsequent routine check in January 2001, it was discovered that the blue archive box housing the two notebooks had not been returned to its proper place. For many years, Cambridge University faculty and staff believed that the notebooks had been misplaced in the vast storerooms and collections of the Library—which contains 130 miles of shelving lined with millions of books, maps, manuscripts and other historical objects. A complete search would take no fewer than five years to complete.
Disenchanted but determined, Dr. Gardner arranged a comprehensive search—the largest in the Library’s history—at the start of 2020. It was led by an expert team conducting fingertip examinations where necessary and included a complete check of the entire Darwin Archive.
Cambridgeshire Police were informed, and their disappearance was recorded on the Art Loss Register, the world’s largest private database of lost, stolen and looted art, antiques and collectibles—currently listing more than 700,000 items. Many of the cases on which they work are Nazi restitution cases, where their Recovery and Provenance Research teams assist claimants for looted artworks, as well as those subject to forced sales or other losses in the period 1933‒45. Darwin’s missing notebooks were even added to Interpol’s Stolen Works of Art database, which tackles the global trafficking of cultural artifacts and other heritage crimes.
On November 24, 2020, Dr. Gardner made a public appeal for help in locating the notebooks. The launch coincided with ‘Evolution Day,’ which recognizes the anniversary of Darwin’s publication of On the Origin of Species on November 24, 1859, and celebrates the naturalist’s contributions to the history of science. Dr. Gardner’s plea must have stirred something inside the book burglar because 15 months later, the treasures were restored. In response, Dr. Jessica Gardner relayed:
“My sense of relief at the notebooks’ safe return is profound and almost impossible to adequately express. The notebooks can now retake their rightful place alongside the rest of the Darwin Archive at Cambridge, at the heart of the nation’s cultural and scientific heritage, alongside the archives of Sir Isaac Newton and Professor Stephen Hawking.”
The Director of the Darwin Correspondence Project, Professor Jim Secord, shared her solace in the following video. And a spokesman for the Cambridgeshire Police announced: “We share the university’s delight that these priceless notebooks are now back where they belong. Our investigation remains open, and we are following up some lines of inquiry. We also renew our appeal for anyone with information about the case to contact us.” Anyone with information living in the United Kingdom should call 101 and quote reference 35/71468/20. For international assistance, contact the Cambridgeshire Constabulary online.
Notebooks B & C
The Cambridge University Library is the central repository for Darwin’s life’s work and towering intellect—which physically measures more than 300 feet in height. This includes 182 volumes, 189 archive boxes, 170 plans and drawings, more than 8,000 letters and Darwin’s Library of 734 books and 6,000+ periodicals. The collection comprises published and unpublished essays, abstracts, theoretical notes, experimental data, species notebooks, diaries, specimens, maps, photographs, Beagle natural history and geology material, and autobiographical and biographical material.
Darwin’s surviving 46,032 pages are documentary evidence for the maturation of his theory of evolution by means of natural selection. The manuscript content of the two recovered notebooks has previously been digitized and is available in the Cambridge Digital Library. Transcriptions of these notebooks are also available on the Darwin Manuscripts Project (DMP) website. The DMP—which is based in the Research Library of the American Museum of Natural History—is the only site to publish high-resolution color images and renderings of Darwin’s rather difficult-to-read handwriting.
Notebooks B and C are part of a series known as the ‘Transmutation Notebooks’—in reference to Darwin’s theory that species might ‘transmute’ from ancestral to later forms. They were inspired by his explorations in South America, where he observed the geographical distribution of species and made connections regarding the affinities between living and extinct animals. In Notebook B, Darwin explored the idea that species evolution is brought about through sexual reproduction (a view he later rejected in favor of natural, or sexual selection). He used the Galapagos archipelago as a case study for how geographical isolation leads to species diversity. The ‘transmutation’ diagram, more famously known as ‘The Tree of Life,’ is drawn as a branching system of descent to indicate the relationship between existing and extinct species. Darwin reasoned that species that could adapt to their environments would continue their lineage, whereas others would die off.
Darwin only published one tree in his lifetime—a foldout that appears in On The Origin of Species, but he drew many trees, including one for primates (dated April 21, 1868), which was the last one produced. Scholars speculate that Darwin was likely using his trees as a form of thinking out loud.
“I think it was one step beyond doodling,” says paleomammalogist Dr. J. David Archibald, author of Aristotle’s Ladder, Darwin’s Tree: The Evolution of Visual Metaphors for Biological Order. “Darwin was a terrible artist, but a wonderful writer. His work led to an explosion of evolutionary trees. Evolution took over the iconography of trees and the non-evolutionists stopped using them.” Archibald concludes in his book, “Before Darwin’s On The Origin of Species was published in 1859, evolutionary trees of life were a novelty; after Darwin, they were a necessity.” Phylogenetic trees are prominent in science today, although they are far more complex than Darwin imagined.
In Notebook C, Darwin investigated questions relating to hybridity and inheritance. He considered the implication for humans of common descent with other animals and meditated on ideas about death, religion and a material worldview. Notebooks B & C demonstrate Darwin’s scientific thought process before he was influenced by the works of Thomas Malthus. After reading his essay on the Principle of Population in September 1838, Darwin began to formulate the idea of natural selection as a mechanism for evolution.
In Correspondence & Conversation with Charles Darwin
Charles Darwin was a prolific correspondent. He wrote and received more than 15,000 letters in his lifetime and communicated with around 2,000 people all over the world—about 100 of whom were women. The correspondence between Darwin and his wife Emma is the largest surviving one between him and any woman. The next largest collection—around 76 letters—was from women who had read Darwin’s work and made observations that they thought might pique his interest. Around 64 letters were to and from botanists—a popular occupation for women at the time—because it could be learned and practiced from home. During the period of 1871–1876, New Jersey botanist and entomologist Mary Treat exchanged fifteen letters with Darwin—the most of any other woman naturalist.
In his correspondence with women, Darwin was neither dismissive nor patronizing. In fact, he often urged them to publish to establish credibility. He even supported women’s education in physiology, despite its ‘unfeminine’ connotations in society. Though Darwin encouraged women’s intellectual pursuits, he still believed their mental capacities to be inferior to men. Unfortunately, this sentiment was touted for centuries and still remains intact in parts of the world today.
The letters Darwin exchanged with John Stevens Henslow, his professor of Botany and Mineralogy at Cambridge University, were perhaps the most significant. It was a letter from Henslow that ultimately brought Darwin the invitation to sail around the world aboard the HMS Beagle, captained by Robert FitzRoy. And during the voyage, it was Henslow who instructed Darwin on the best methods to preserve and ship the collected specimens back to England. Other key correspondents and notable figures included: leading Victorian naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace; author Charles Lyell; zoologist Thomas Henry Huxley; close friend and botanist Joseph Dalton Hooker; and devout Presbyterian and Harvard botanist Asa Gray.
Throughout history, Darwin has been referred to as a ‘lone theoretician sitting in Down House.’ However, Darwin’s relentless questioning of 2,000 or so correspondents—or, as he said, his tendency to ‘pester them with letters’ reveals him to be a collaborative scientist who invited critical discourse across a breadth of disciplines. Through his letters, Darwin created a global network between the public and the most esteemed scientists of the 19th century. In doing so, he boldly welcomed the frustrations and failures that accompanied these interactions.
In Celebration of the Returned Notebooks
To show gratitude for the global effort to find the missing notebooks, Cambridge University Libraries will be displaying them from July 9 to December 4, 2022, as part of the upcoming exhibition “Darwin in Conversation: The endlessly curious life and letters of Charles Darwin.” Dr. Jessica Gardner proudly proclaimed:
“Everyone at the Library was incredibly touched by the response to our appeal, and to know that so many others felt the same sense of loss we did only reaffirmed our decision to ask the public for their help. We believe that decision has had a direct bearing on the notebooks being returned, and we’d like to take this opportunity to give the public our heartfelt thanks. That’s why we’re also thrilled to be able to put the notebooks on display this summer, to give everyone the opportunity to see these remarkable notebooks in the flesh. They may be tiny, just the size of postcards, but the notebooks’ impact on the history of science, and their importance to our world-class collections here, cannot be overstated.”
The exhibit, which will be open to the public and free to visit, draws on the 40-year mission of the Darwin Correspondence Project, which has transcribed and published every surviving letter that Charles Darwin wrote and received. The 30th and final volume of correspondence marks the end of one of the largest and longest-running humanities projects anywhere in the world.
Follow in the Wake of the HMS Beagle and Explore South America with Natural Habitat Adventures & WWF
On September 15, 1835, while on its return route across the Pacific, the Beagle made a brief stop at the Galapagos Islands. FitzRoy and his officers updated charts of the archipelago, while Darwin collected geological and biological specimens on San Cristóbal (September 17-22), Floreana (September 24-27), Isabela (September 29-October 2) and Santiago (October 8-17). Darwin discovered three distinct species of mockingbirds distributed across the islands. He also took note of isolated populations of finches, which displayed considerable variation in size, vocalization and beak shape. Darwin did not know this at the time, but two million years before his arrival, a group of finches flew 600 miles from South America—as one species—to build their nests on the harsh volcanic landscape. The finches evolved based on particular ecological niches and adapted to the available food sources. Long, pointed beaks enabled the birds to snatch insects inside crevices, while broad, blunt beaks were more suited for cracking seeds and nuts. Named after Charles Darwin, the small land birds belong to the tanager family. Thirteen are endemic to the Galapagos Islands, and the 14th is the Cocos finch, which is found on Cocos Island in Costa Rica. The closest known relative of the Galapagos finches is the dull-colored grassquit, which is native to mainland South America.
Shortly after Darwin’s momentous stay, author Herman Melville visited the Galapagos Islands in 1841 and nicknamed them the “Enchanted Isles”—an apt moniker for a realm that remains otherworldly, even today. As a guest on Nat Hab’s Classic Galapagos trip, you too can follow in the wake of Darwin and his successors aboard luxury catamarans like the S/C Nemo III and the 115-foot Petrel. Snorkel with sea lions, sunbathe with iguanas, scout for whales and overnight in wild tortoise territory at our private camp in the Santa Cruz highlands.
If you wish to shake off your sea legs after your latest seafaring journey, set your sights on Patagonia.
In his published work, The Voyage of the Beagle, Darwin chronicles some of the wildlife in Chile and Argentina with the following journal entry:
“The Puma, or South American Lion, is not uncommon. This animal has a wide geographical range, being found from the equatorial forests throughout the deserts of Patagonia as far south as the damp and cold latitudes (53 to 54 degs.) of Tierra del Fuego. I have seen its footsteps in the Cordillera of central Chile, at an elevation of at least 10,000 feet. In La Plata, the puma preys chiefly on deer, ostriches, bizcacha, and other small quadrupeds…I have seen in Patagonia the skeletons of guanacos, with their necks thus dislocated. The puma, after eating its fill, covers the carcass with many large bushes and lies down to watch it. This habit is often the cause of its being discovered, for the condors wheeling in the air every now and then descend to partake of the feast, and being angrily driven away, rise all together on the wing.”
Accompanied by our expert Expedition Leaders, you can follow in the footsteps of Darwin and track pumas and guanacos from our base at EcoCamp Patagonia, backdropped by the sheer spires of Chile’s Torres del Paine National Park.