An autographed document could fetch a record price

Darwin leaf

The 1865 document is in excellent condition

A signed piece of paper by Charles Darwin, defending his theory of evolution, will go on sale Friday at Sotheby’s in New York.

The article is likely to be worth more than a million pounds, a world record price for a Darwin manuscript.

He had produced the document so it could be copied in what, in 1865, was a celebrity magazine.

Darwin was not in the habit of archiving his papers and so little original material survives.

If it does, and it’s signed, it’s almost always just with the abbreviation “C Darwin” or “Ch Darwin”.

It is very rare for his name, “Charles Darwin”, to be written in full and in his own hand.

Charles Darwin

Charles Darwin

But the prof. John van Wyhe, who edits the scholarly collection known as Darwin Online, says it’s extra special because of what the great man chose to put on the page alongside his signature.

“It includes a passage that appears in the third edition of On the Origin of Species,” explained the senior lecturer at the National University of Singapore.

“It’s a really favorite passage, because he’s trying to point out that people might find his theory amazing and outlandish, but they said the same about Newton and gravity, and no one doubted the existence of gravity anymore.

“The same, he says, would ultimately be true with evolution and natural selection,” the professor told BBC News.

The document was produced for The Autographic Mirror.

The autograph mirror

Autograph Mirror was something of a celebrity magazine for the time

Its publisher, Hermann Kindt, printed facsimiles of famous people’s handwriting or autographs along with their biographies.

When he asked Darwin if he would contribute, the scientist jumped at the chance. It was an opportunity to answer his doubters.

At the time, six years after the release of the first edition of Origin of Species, it was a common criticism that it could not explain the origin of life itself.

Darwin admitted that this was the case, but that it was irrelevant to his observations of how life on Earth evolved and diversified. As with gravity, the “essence” of him may not be understood, but Newton’s equations certainly worked.

He does not mention Newton by name, but Prof. John van Wyhe said it was known that when he wrote the passage he had recently read Newton’s biography. The 17th-century genius also had to bear the wrath of the establishment when he published his law of universal gravitation.

The Darwin Leaf for sale at Sotheby’s is in excellent condition.

The auction house has set the previous world record for a Darwin manuscript of £400,000 and expects it to be broken easily.

“What is different about this leaf is that Darwin was choosing the passage he wanted associated with himself and his legacy,” said Dr Kalika Sands, Sotheby’s expert on the history of science in the 19th century.

“He wrote it on a large piece of paper. It’s done incredibly clearly, and he signed his name very boldly. In this passage he mentions natural selection, mentions Newton, and discusses the space for higher powers, but at the same time same time says nothing explains these theories.

“It really serves as his definitive, or authorized, statement about his work.”

Sotheby’s Age of Wonder online sale opens on Friday and closes in two weeks on 9 December.

Darwin’s passage reads:

I have now recapitulated the principal facts and considerations, which have thoroughly convinced me that the species have been modified, during a long course of descent, by the conservation or natural selection of many successive slight favorable variations. I cannot believe that a false theory would explain, as the theory of natural selection seems to me to explain, the several great classes of facts specified above. It is not a valid objection that science still does not shed light on the much higher problem of the essence or origin of life. Who can explain what is the essence of the attraction of gravity? No one now objects to following the outcomes resulting from this unknown element of attraction; although Leibnitz has previously accused Newton of introducing “occult qualities and miracles into philosophy”. – Charles Darwin.


Darwin normally abbreviated Charles to simply “C” or “Ch”

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