Darwin’s Passion For Animal Welfare Revealed In New Handwritten Note

The famous Darwin sculpture at London's Natural History Museum. Though he killed animals during specimen collection, Darwin and his wife Emma were devoted to reducing the suffering of animals. Paolo Paradiso/Shutterstock

Charles Darwin, when laying out the groundwork for his newfangled theory of evolution in On The Origin of Species, often described how the driving force for adaptation is the harsh “universal struggle for life” that all beings must face every day.

And yet despite recognizing the inherent brutality of existence (and choosing a career field that required him to kill numerous organisms for academic specimens), Darwin was devoted to minimizing the suffering of animals. A unique item up for sale at Sotheby’s illustrates this often-overlooked quality and gives a peek into one of science’s greatest minds.


The famous auction house is offering an original, handwritten note in which Darwin details his thoughts on steel traps – inhumane devices commonly used at the time to catch rodents, wild dogs, and cats.

The one-page musing, dated to 1863, is headed “Conclusions From Capt. Darwin’s Book” and is confirmed to have been written by Darwin after he read The Game-Preserver’s Manual, by his cousin Edward Levett Darwin. 

“These papers were kept by a descendant of Darwin and have never been seen before,” Gabriel Heaton, a Sotheby’s text expert told The Telegraph.

“They show he was deeply concerned about the use of steel traps and believed that humans and animals could experience the same sorts of feelings as humans, and the same pain and suffering.”


Though the text is hard to make out, Darwin’s scribblings touch on how deadfall traps – which kills the animal instantly – are highly effective for “smaller vermin”. Steel traps worked by violently snapping shut as soon as the animal entered, often crushing a paw or other body part in the process. The animal would then languish, starving and wounded, until a groundskeeper or farmer came to check the trap and finished them off.

Further down on the page, he muses, “It is evidently thought an advantage that Dogs [should] be caught, & this can be only by steel-traps. On the other hand in most districts ... the Ability to catch foxes [would] be thought a great disadvantage". This line is a droll reference to how local fox hunters would likely prefer their prey to not get stuck in these traps, yet many advocated for them to be placed in the landscape to dispose of similarly sized wild dogs.

Charles and his wife, Emma – both loyal supporters of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) – were actually so bothered by the use of steel traps that later that year they printed a four-page pamphlet explaining the device’s cruel effects and urging for a better solution. Copies of the pamphlet, titled “An Appeal” were then sent to various magazines, newspapers, and fellow well-to-do members of society.

According to the University of Cambridge’s Darwin Correspondence Project, Emma Darwin rallied impressive support for the cause, and even raised a £50 prize to be awarded to anyone who could design a trap that served gamekeepers "without inflicting torture".


This little piece of history can be yours for an estimated £30,000 to £50,000 ($40,000 to $66,000), but hurry, the auction ends July 10.

[H/T: The Telegraph]


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