Darwin and the Ming Dynasty: Online like never before

The relentless expansion of the digital cornucopia can't be stopped. Not that anyone would want to...

Topics: Globalization, How the World Works,

Today How the World Works gives praise:

To the University of Cambridge, for Darwin Online, a massive collection of the complete works of Charles Darwin, totaling some 90,000 pages of documents. Feast your eyes on the world-changing — his first scrawled handwritten notes laying out the theory of evolution — and the fascinatingly parochial — his small contribution to a debate about whether retail booksellers in London should be allowed to undercut wholesale prices. (Darwin was in favor of letting booksellers set their own prices.)

To UNESCO, the Library of Congress, and the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology for their plans to digitize and put online “all Arab and Muslim scientific records.” The Arab News editorial is correct: A reminder of the great scientific achievements of Islamic civilization, “will be cause for pride and should help strip away the destructive sense of intellectual inferiority to Western culture that has been such a debilitating element in much of Arab thinking over the past century.”

To Geoff Wade at the University of Singapore, who translated all the references to Southeast Asia in the Ming Shi Lu — the Veritable Records of the Ming Dynasty — and organized them into a searchable online database. It pleases How the World Works to be able to input the word “trade” into the Ming Shi Lu online and learn that on June 24, 1369 (Year 2, Month 5, Day 20 of the Hong-Wu reign), the emperor said:

“…The territory of Fu-jian borders the great ocean and it is rich in people and resources. The fan [foreign] ships come and go from there and there are many people who trade privately with them. In the past many officials fell into criminal ways through the avenue of bribery. Now it is ordered that when you proceed there you must firmly guard against falling into such ways.”



From the Ming Dynasty to The Voyage of the Beagle to Abdul Qasim Az-Zahrawi, “the father of surgery,” we go. The world has many problems, to be sure, but if you love knowledge for its own sake, there has never been a better time to be alive than right now. Except maybe for tomorrow, or the next day…

(Naturally, the expansion of online resources should not mean that physical access to resources should suffer accordingly — as in the case of the Library of Congress’ controversial plans to turn its “exquisite” European Reading Room into an exhibition space, and exile researchers into some out-of-the-way closet. We subtract 10 points from the LoC for such boorishness.)

Thanks are also in order to Marginal Revolution, Open Access News, and Frog in a Well for alerting us all to these resources.

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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