Rare Charles Darwin manuscript may fetch over £1m at auction

Charles Darwin  (PA)
Charles Darwin (PA)

A rare autographed manuscript containing a passage from Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species is expected to fetch more than £1 million at auction.

On the Origin of Species is one of the most influential academic books ever written. In the 163 years since it was published, some of Darwin’s notes and manuscript leaves have survived.

The 1865 document (Sotheby's)
The 1865 document (Sotheby's)

But autographs from Darwin – who was known for obsessively revising his publications and discarding pages from working drafts – were extremely rare.

The document is said to be one of the most significant autographed manuscripts to have appeared at auction.

According to the auction house Sotheby’s, the manuscript was mistaken as a leaf from a working draft of the third edition of On the Origin of Species.

Professor John van Wyhe, who curates a scholarly collection known as Darwin Online, told the BBC: “He includes a passage that appears in the third edition of On the Origin of Species

“It’s a really favourite passage, because he’s trying to make the point that people might find his theory unbelievable and outlandish, but they said the same about Newton and gravity, and nobody doubted the existence of gravity anymore.

“The same, he says, would be true eventually with evolution and natural selection.”

Darwin wrote the document four years after the publication of the third edition of Origin of Species in 1865, in response to a request from Hermann Kindt, the editor of the Autographic Mirror.

Kindt had written to Darwin requesting a sample of his handwriting to reprint it in his magazine, which focused on the pre-eminent figures of the age, Sotheby’s said.

Sotheby’s expects the previous world record for a Darwin manuscript of £400,000 to be beaten.

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

“He wrote it out on an oversized sheet. It’s done incredibly clearly, and he’s very boldly signed his name. In this passage he mentions natural selection, he mentions Newton, and he discusses the room for higher powers, but at the same time he says nothing explains away these theories.

“It really serves as his definitive, or authorised, statement on his work.”

Sotheby’s online auction, titled the Age of Wonder sale, opens on Friday and ends in two weeks’ time on December 9.