Darwin had difficult handwriting

Find out for yourself. Darwin Online has acquired a huge digital collection of Darwin’s papers, everything from book drafts to personal letters, and has them scanned and available on the web. There they are in all their scribbled, crossed out, penciled over, rewritten glory — historians and antiquarians will drool over these, but me, I prefer the neatly typed versions.

The collection of family photos is pretty darned cool, though.


  1. GregV says

    Paper used to be an expensive thing… it was not uncommon at all for people to cross out their mistakes instead of starting over. It makes for… interesting… reading when looking through old documents.

  2. says

    Darwin doesn’t have any pictures of himself doing the nasty with Satan, does he? ‘Cause we can’t afford to give these IDjits any ammunition, ya know.

  3. says

    Ouch. As a child of this Age of the Machine, writing anything longer by hand seems terribly tiring and troublesome. Then thinking that entire books

    My tiny mind boggles. I almost broke my poor little hands in my long-ago Abitur examinations (end of the Finnish “high school”), scribbling sheets and sheets of dead spiders; there was only slight comfort in the fact that the far-away exam-checker probably almost broke his mind trying to decipher those.

    Well, unless he got too agitated by the marks a random nosebleed left on one sheet. Ever since I’ve regretting not completing that sheet with, ahem, “red ink”.

  4. Anon says

    One of my old profs, a historian of science, spent a semester with Darwin’s notebooks. He shared with us the absolute thrill of seeing, via the changes in handwriting, the snippets of sentences being stuck between lines where a better explanation had hit, what must have been Darwin’s excitement at having hit upon this phrase or that. He had a particular fondness (wouldn’t anyone) for finding the original “tree of life” drawing.

  5. Mez says

    And the earlier kind of postal payment system, in the UK at least, also meant that letters were very often compressed a great deal. You get hints about it in some older novels like Jane Austen’s.
    One trick was ‘crossing’, where you filled the page in the normal way, then turned the paper by 90 degrees and wrote across the lines you’d already done. This helps us understand one reason for the high value set on good clear handwriting.

    But when I”m writing things mostly for myself, like drafts of important letters, manuscripts of stories or submissions, shopping lists, or the like, I prefer to have the deletions, additions, variations & so forth on the one page. Then I write (or these days, type) out the ‘fair copy’ for the benefit of others.

  6. Sigmund says

    I don’t like the sound of this one…
    1881 Letter to Mrs Hitler, Austria
    “Dear Frau Hitler, please find enclosed a copy of “Origin of Species” that I have signed especially for your son Adolf, who will be born in eight years time. I would present it myself but as I’m going to die next year I can forsee some practical difficulties.”
    Charles Darwin

  7. John Phillips, FCD says

    @Sigmund :)

    Our Darwinian conspiracy will never succeed with such incompetence. You would have thought the conspiracy’s present day leaders would have weeded out the damaging stuff like that :)

  8. O-dot-O says

    > The collection of [Darwin] family photos is pretty darned cool, though

    Are they all… primates, at least?

  9. Adrian Burd says

    Handwriting is a dying skill. In Darwin’s time, there were of course no gel ink pens or ball points (both of which, to my mind, hinder good handwriting). Instead, he would probably have been using a dip pen – the technology for reliable fountain pens that contained their own reservoir of ink did not come about until the latter part of the 1800s. What is more, the nib that he would have used would have been a flexible nib. In other words, the nib responds to the pressure being applied and you can see this clearly in many of the manuscripts on display. The variation in line thickness comes from the tines of the nib being forced apart as more pressure is applied. Even if you write with a contemporary fountain pen, you will be hard pressed to find one with such a nib and almost all modern nibs are rigid. Writing with a flexible nib is not easy – I would challenge anyone who thinks that they have neat handwriting to try writing with a flex nib and see what they get. The difficulty of writing with such a nib one reason for the plethora of writing manuals and writing masters in years gone by.

    So be gentle with Chuck’s handwriting.

  10. wazza says

    On the other hand, flex nibs allow for a wonderful connection with the writer… you can actually see the bits where they got excited or angry… or uncertain, like with the first evolutionary tree.

  11. raven says

    I like the document where Darwin meets some 21st century time travelers and takes a little trip.

    Who are these people, Cthulhu, PZ, Dawkins, Scott and why did they testify against Jesus at his trial?

    And where did the large amphibious squid get the time machine?

  12. Holbach says

    Yes, you cannot beat legible and fine handwriting, and we wish the great Darwin could have spent more considerable time and effort to imrove his pemanship! But oh, even being illegible most of the time, the contents and portents of that script would influence our current history wether legible or not!
    And on a similiar note, old Henry David Thoreau penned some great nature and personal insights with his illegible screed! Such small matters we are grateful to overlook and excuse, for the results will be forever.

  13. Sigmund says

    In that photo he looks like Rowan Atkinson in one of the later Blackadder series.

  14. Kadath says

    Darwin Online’s poor server appears to be staggering under the Pharyngulite onslaught.

    Or, in other words, I can’t load any of the images, waaah!

  15. says

    Nice one PZ.

    This (subject matter not your blog post)is currently lead item # 3 on the BBC here in the UK.

    Since this is clearly an Open Access related issue, I’ve alerted Open Access News.

  16. Etha Williams says

    Obviously, Darwin made his writing illegible so that people would not be able to see what he was saying, and thus so that he (and Darwinists for years to come) would be able to quell dissent without having to address Tough Questions.

  17. Geral says

    Looking over some documents, you can’t help but wonder what good ideas he had written originally then crossed out because of lack of evidence or just doubtful at the time he wrote them. Rough drafts are a lost art as it is today but you can see how the classic books developed over time.

  18. Sili says

    It looks rairly need and really well-spaced to me.

    Of course I’ve tried (without all that much luck) to read old church record written in gothic handwriting.

    My chickenscratch is certainly a lot less legible than Darwin’s.

  19. skeptic99 says

    That is fairly gruesome, but not the worst I’ve seen. One of the most important founders of the Liberal Party of Canada was also a cabinet minister and later leader of the party. Man named Edward Blake.
    Nobody has ever dared a good biography because his papers, in the Public Archives of Canada, have never been deciphered in a century and a quarter.
    On the other hand, looking at those makes one think fairly highly of the typesetters of the period who managed to make them out.

  20. says

    It’s alright he had bad handwriting. It what comes out of your thoughts and communication that counts. Although the way you express your ideas is important it’s the ideas that matter the most.

  21. KenG says

    The “New Scientist” site is presenting a number of evolutionary myths and misconceptions at:


    Anyone in for a bit of sport may like to take the opportunity to rebut some of the creationists that are there.

  22. Janice H. says

    I’ve always wondered why it was always called a THEORY?!?!?! And as others have asked but no scientist will or can answer is how did life pop out of non-life? Should I be worried about my slippers ‘popping’ to life as I walk down the stairs? Wow, that’s kind of scary… And if Darwin’s Theory is factual, why can’t scientist reproduce it and make life come from non-living materials? And I’ve always wondered, if man evovled from apes, how come there are still apes on the planet? Didn’t ape DNA change into human DNA?

  23. Richard Simons says

    A scientific theory is an explanation for a collection of observations or facts. It enables predictions to be made which can then be tested. If the predictions turn out to be not true it’s back to the drawing board (most likely, the theory is modified). The theory of evolution is one of the most thoroughly tested theories in science. Notice that a theory never grows into a fact, rather a theory is a much larger idea than a simple fact.

    No-one knows how life started but it is being investigated. There is no hard and fast boundary between living and non-living (are viruses and prions alive?) and the whole process probably took many millions of years. If any of the first steps towards life were to arise now, they would be almost instantly broken down or consumed by bacteria or other organisms that have about three billion years of successful evolution behind them.

    You ask why, if man evolved from apes, there are still apes. First, people did not evolve from modern apes, but we, apes and us, evolved from earlier ape-like animals. We have both changed in the process. Many Americans are descendents of Europeans. Why, then, are there still Europeans? If you can answer one question, you can answer the other.

  24. Jim Thomerson says

    Actually one can make something out of the, “Why are there still apes?” question. Our present understanding is that we, various fossils, chimps and bonobos shared a unique common ancestor. Understanding the sequence of events which left us, chimps and bonobos as the living representatives of that lineage is fairly important. What happened in the human lineage which was different from what happened in the chimp + bonobo lineage?