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Notes That Changed The World

'Charles Darwin' is possibly one of the most famous scientific names in the world. As a young man he embarked upon a gruelling five-year long sea voyage that would completely transform the way we view the natural world, and the place our species holds within it.

As part of our collaboration with the Natural History Museum we were invited to delve into their archives, where we found a wealth of written material in Darwin’s own handwriting. With such a deep connection to the Museum and the sea, we couldn’t resist celebrating his legacy as part of this collaboration.

Charles Darwin's entry in the Natural History Museums guest book alongside the shirt featuring his notes and illustrations

Charles Robert Darwin was born on the 12th of February 1809. The fifth of six children, he was born into relative wealth – his father a prominent society doctor. Throughout his youth he displayed a fascination with the natural world, devouring books on nature and spending much of his free time collecting specimens of plants and insects from the woodlands around his home. At the time, there was no inkling that this child would grow up to be one of the most famous scientists in modern history, developing a theory of evolution that would forever change our understanding of the natural world.

In fact, Darwin’s father first wanted his son to follow in his medical footsteps. However, Charles was less than enthusiastic about these studies and after witnessing surgery on a child whilst studying at the University of Edinburgh, he was horrified. There was little use of anaesthetic at the time and procedures could be brutal. It affected him so deeply that he dropped his studies without finishing the course. Annoyed by his son’s lack of dedication, Darwin’s father sent him to Cambridge University to study theology, with the aim for him to become an Anglican parson.

But still, Darwin’s fascination with the natural world was unrelenting. Throughout his time at Cambridge he showed incredible aptitude in the natural sciences as well as becoming known for his questioning mind and keen eye for detail. He became close friends with one of his professors, John Stevens Henslow, who would later recommend him to a certain captain Robert FitzRoy as a gentleman companion and naturalist to join his expedition, conducting geological surveys and collecting specimens around South America.

The voyage they would embark on together, in the winter of 1831 on HMS Beagle, would last nearly five years. It would circumnavigate the globe and along the way, the seeds of Darwin’s seminal theory would be sown. Seeds that would eventually change the entire direction of Western scientific thought.

Over the course of the half-decade journey, Darwin actually spent most of his time on land; conducting surveys, investigating the geologies of the strange places they visited and collecting specimens of birds, insects, marine invertebrates and other fauna and flora to be transported back to England and appraised. As he continued his voyage on to the Galapagos Islands, situated off the coast of Ecuador, he began to notice subtle variations in species which had allowed them to adapt to different niches on their island homes. His observation of finches on the Galapagos was particularly notable and, upon their return to England, specimens that he had collected were identified as twelve distinctly separate species – all having descended from a single finch ancestor and each developing traits to exploit a particular food resource so as not to come into conflict with its cousins.

At the time, Charles was completely unaware of what this discovery would mean and it was during this time that he began to formulate his ideas on natural selection; the theory that organisms evolve through a process of small variations which, if beneficial to the creature’s survival, are passed down genetically, and over time can alter a species entirely. Or, as the man himself outlines in the introduction to his seminal work, On the Origin of Species:

“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, under the complex and sometimes varying conditions of life, will have a better chance of surviving, and thus be naturally selected.”

His ideas would bring him ridicule from certain quarters. They were, after all, radical for their time. And Darwin would spend the next 20 years after his epic voyage gathering a mountain of evidence to support his arguments. Although his theories were controversial, he provided such a wealth of evidence to support his claims that by the 1870s (just over a decade after publishing his work) the theory of natural selection was widely accepted in scientific circles and by the educated public.

Whilst travelling the seas aboard HMS Beagle Darwin suffered from terrible seasickness, yet still used his time to make scores of scientific notes and write in his journal – which would later be published and make him a well-known writer, years before he would bring his theories of natural selection into the public eye.

It is from those same notes and journals that we developed the all-over print that is featured in our collaboration with the Natural History Museum. To save on paper, Darwin would often use a page more than once, filling it up before turning it to the side and writing horizontally across what he had already scrawled down. This feature is visible in our print, in Darwin’s own highly recognisable handwriting, and we’ve even included his signature, taken from the guest book of the Museum which would later erect a statue of him in the main hall, in recognition to his contributions to natural science.

As we move into a critical time for the future of our planet, the value of human experience has never been greater. We must learn the lessons of the past so that we might better preserve the natural world for the generations that will follow us. So that they can marvel at its wonders, in the same way that Darwin did all those years ago.

Words by Zak Rayment | Images courtesy of the Natural History Museum