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Darwin’s children liked to draw and thank goodness for that

(Courtesy of Cambridge University Library)

On one side of the graying piece of paper, two watercolor soldiers charge toward one another, one sitting astride a carrot while the other rides an eggplant.

And on the other? Page 40 of the first — and only — handwritten draft of Charles Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species,” arguably the most important text in the history of biology.

Scientists today may prize the worn, weathered page for the messy scrawl on its front. But for years, that piece of paper was preserved because of the illustration on its back, painted by one Darwin’s 10 children after their father finished with it. It’s one of four sheets from the draft that got turned into material for an arts-and-crafts project by the biologist’s boisterous brood.

A good thing, too. Scribbled-on and barely-decipherable though they may be, those four sheets are among only 45 that remain from the nearly 600-page initial manuscript.

“Darwin was done with those pages — he was throwing away sections of his draft and not caring about it because the book was published,” Darwin scholar David Kohn told The Washington Post in a phone interview. “But the family valued the drawings, and in the end that’s what saved them.”

Kohn is director of the American Museum of Natural History’s Darwin Manuscripts Project (DMP), now the world’s largest high-quality digital archive of Darwin’s writing. “Aubergine and Carrot Cavalry” and its flip side, “‘Origin’ manuscript Page 40, Section 1: Variation Under Domestication,” are among several thousand images of papers from Cambridge University’s Darwin collection added to the database this month.

For his part, Kohn values all sides of the doodled-on sheets equally. The fronts offer insight into Darwin the acclaimed scientist, documenting his first attempt at describing his theory of evolution in book form. But the backs illustrate who Darwin was as a man — a husband, a devoted father, a homebody naturalist who returned from five years on the H.M.S. Beagle to spend the next 40 revolutionizing science from the comfort of his own backyard.

“We think about him as Darwin, the Charles Darwin, greatest theorist in biology bar none,” Kohn said. “And yet here is he doing experiments with his children and throwing away pages. Suddenly he becomes accessible.”

Among the 4,000 pages of loose notes in the museum’s database are jottings from Darwin’s projects with his kids — he often had them collect plants for him to study — and thoughts that came to him while sitting in his garden. In one of Kohn’s favorites, Darwin wrote that he wept with relief when he finally witnessed a “humblebee” pollinate a snapdragon after waiting 1,000 hours.

“You just feel this joy that he experienced by watching nature,” Kohn said. “The tangibleness is overwhelming.”

In their artwork, the Darwin children seem to have inherited their father’s love of nature and eye for detail. The DMP database contains a richly colored painting of birds and a butterfly, illustrations of various types of soldiers, watercolors of animals both exotic and mundane. George, Francis and Horace Darwin, whose signatures appear on the doodles, all grew up to be scientists of some kind: George became a geophysicist, Francis got a medical degree and worked in his father’s lab and Horace founded the Cambridge Scientific Instrument Company, which produces lab equipment.

But unlike their father, these kids were not pure naturalists. They turned ordinary produce into a battalion of galloping vegetables and fruit, wrote stories about the “fairies of the mountain” and drew up coats of arms.

All told, there are more than 100 items from Darwin’s children listed on the DMP site. They may be the database’s most colorful entries, but Kohn’s eye is drawn to Darwin’s writing.

“We’re really interested in the intellectual development of Darwin, how his way of explaining things changed, how his approach to scientific problems develops over time,” he said. “And you can see it all right there in the manuscripts when you compare them to the published version.”

Darwin’s notes also document how his home life became fodder for his scientific research. After the publication of “On the Origin of Species” in 1859, his theory of natural selection as the mechanism for evolution became the subject of intense debate. To resolve it, Darwin looked to his backyard.

He wound up writing six books on botany to document how flower species co-evolved alongside insects to become highly specialized. Conceived and researched in the fields around his home, the books tapped into Victorian enthusiasm for gardening — and finally popularized his theory.

For Kohn, who has been interested in this part of Darwin’s life since his days as a graduate student in the 1970s, the new digitization of the Darwin’s writing makes it possible to understand the development of these works.

“Now that I have his notes all together I can see the inception and trace it through. That just couldn’t happen before,” Kohn said. “It’s a big deal.”

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