But new documents which are coming up for sale at Sotheby’s later this month show Darwin was a kind-hearted animal rights activist who campaigned for the abolition of steel traps.
In the 19th century it was common for gamekeepers to use traps to keep vermin under control, but they could be lethal for larger animals like dogs, foxes and deer which became ensnared.
In the notes from 1863, which have remained with his descendents until now, Darwin sets out his concerns and appeals for the use of humane deadfall traps, which kill the animal instantly rather than leaving them to suffer.
In the same year, Darwin and his wife Emma published a four-page pamphlet on the cruelty of steel traps, which generated such a response that they were able to raise funds and persuade the RSPCA to launch a competition to design something less barbaric.
A hundred designs were eventually exhibited at the Royal Horticultural Gardens in 1864 and humane traps were used widely afterwards.
Darwin made the notes after reading a copy of The Game Preserver’s manual written by his cousin Edward Levett Darwin. They are expected to fetch up to £50,000.
Gabriel Heaton, a specialist books and manuscripts expert from Sotheby’s said: “These papers were kept by a descendent of Darwin and have never been seen before.
“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.”
Darwin also pointed out that while gamekeepers may want to trap wild dogs, the local hunts may object if too many foxes were killed.
In a tongue-in-cheek note, he wrote: “It is evidently thought an advantage that dogs should be caught, and this can only be steel-traps. On the other hand in most districts, the ability to catch foxes would be thought a great disadvantage.” The collection has come from the estate of Anne Pinsent Keynes, who died last year and who was married to Darwin’s great grandson Richard Keynes.
The sale also includes two pages from the original manuscript On The Origin of Species, of which just 11 pages survive, and most are kept at Cambridge University.
Despite it being one of the the most important scientific works of all time, Darwin did not value his handwritten first version after it had been printed and used it as scrap paper. There are doodles from his son George, who went on to hold a chair in Astronomy at Cambridge.
A first edition of On The Origin of Species is also included in the sale. The copy belonged to the brother of one of Darwin’s shipmates on HMS Beagle on which he circumnavigated the globe and where the theory of evolution was born.
The manuscript pages are expected to sell for up to £180,000 and the first edition for up to £80,000.
The sale also includes around 30 lots come from the collection of Charles Lyell – the geologist who established that the world was billions of years old, and a huge inspiration to Darwin who once said “I always feel as my book came half out of Lyell’s brain.
He carried a copy of Lyell’s work with him on the Beagle.
The sale takes place at Sotheby’s in London on July 9th and is expected to raise more than £1 million.