Charles Darwin’s Debt to the Romantics

How Alexander von Humboldt, Goethe and Wordsworth Helped Shape Darwin’s View of Nature

by Charles Morris Lansley (Author)
©2018 Monographs XII, 274 Pages


«The influence of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution is famously much-studied; the influences upon Darwin’s theory are less often investigated. Charles Lansley redresses this balance, with regard to Darwin’s debt to the German and English Romantics. This work is by turns delicate and discerning, as appropriate for large-scale and important work of this order.» (Gary Farnell, Senior Lecturer in English, University of Winchester)
«This fine study offers a compelling picture of Darwin’s changing relationship to Romanticism during his scientific career. Charles Lansley’s meticulous scholarship and wide-ranging engagement with Darwin’s writings ensure that his account is solidly grounded, yet he also tells a persuasive and engaging story that is never obscured by his detailed research.» (Neil Messer, Professor of Theology, University of Winchester)
«This is a persuasive, meticulously researched, and stimulating book that makes a convincing case for Darwin as a 'Romantic' Victorian. In its discussion of Darwin's debt to the Romantics, it acts as a useful reminder of the somewhat arbitrary nature of Romantic and Victorian periodisation. Likewise, it is essential reading for anyone interested in the productive way in which science and art can work together, a topic as germane today as when Darwin first set out, armed with Humboldt's Personal Narrative, on his voyage on the Beagle.» (Jayne Thomas, British Association for Victorian Studies Newsletter, Autumn 2019)
«Charles Darwin’s Debt to the Romantics is an engaging, thought-provoking, and rich study of an aspect of Darwin’s work that has received comparatively little scholarly attention. As such, it is a welcome contribution to the field.» (Trenton B. Olsen, Review in British Society for Literature and Science, 2021) 
This book argues that the Romantic movement influenced Charles Darwin and his theory of natural selection. Given that Darwin has traditionally been placed within Victorian naturalism, these Romantic connections have often been overlooked. The volume traces specific examples of Darwin’s reliance on the Romantics – such as Alexander von Humboldt’s Personal Narrative, which he took with him on the Beagle, and the poetry of William Wordsworth, discussed in his notebooks – and explores correlations in Darwin’s own writings. When Darwin refers to the «archetype» in Origin, could he be drawing on Goethe’s own use of the concept? And how to explain his description of all poetry as creating a feeling of «nausea»? In addition to these key figures, the book also explores the possible influence of Darwin’s own grandfather, Erasmus Darwin. The book cleverly follows Darwin’s form of the narrative in a search for traces of history in both science and poetry, inspired by the unique imagination of Darwin himself.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • List of Figures
  • Acknowledgements
  • Introduction: Charles Darwin’s Victorian Debt to the Romantics
  • Chapter 1: Organic and One Reality Nature in Humboldt and Darwin
  • Chapter 2: The Forces of Nature in Humboldt and Darwin
  • Chapter 3: Darwin’s Romantic Theory of Nature
  • Chapter 4: Darwin’s Romantic Theory of Mind
  • Chapter 5: Darwin’s Concepts of Morality and Romantic Materialism
  • Chapter 6: Darwin’s Moral and Reflective Nature: Conflicting Values in the Victorian Era
  • Chapter 7: The Transmutation of Darwin’s Romanticism
  • Chapter 8: From Erasmus Darwin’s Broth of Chaos to his Goddess of Nature
  • Chapter 9: The Rime of the Ancient Naturalist
  • Bibliography
  • Primary Sources
  • Secondary Sources
  • Index

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Figure 1: A. v. Humboldt, Geography of the Plants near the Equator, 1803. © Museo Nacional de Colombia/Oscar Monsalve Pino. Permission to reproduce the photo kindly granted by Museo Nacional de Colombia and Oscar Monsalve Pino. Colección Museo Nacional de Colombia, reg. 1204.
Alexander von Humboldt (1769/1859). Geografia de las plantas cerca del Ecuador.
Tabla fisica de los Andes y paises vecinos, levantada sobre las observaciones y medidas tomadas en los lugares en 1799–1803, 1803. Acuarela (Acuarela y tinta Papel) 38.7 × 50.3 cm.

Figure 2: L. A. Schönberger and P. J. F. Turpin after A. v. Humboldt and A. Bonpland, Geógraphie des plantes équinoxiales, 1807. Permission to reproduce image from book kindly granted by Peter H. Raven Library/Missouri Botanical Garden and the Biodiversity Heritage Library <http://www.biodiversitylibrary.org>.
Essai sur la geographie des plantes: accompagne d’un tableau physique des regions equinoxiales, fonde sur des mesures executes, depuis le dixieme degree de latitude boreale jusqu’au dixieme degree de latitude austral, pendant les annees 1799, 1800, 1801, 1802 et 1803/par Al. de Humboldt et A. Bonpland; redigee par Al. de Humboldt.
A Paris, Chez Levrault, Schoell et compagnie, libraires, XIII–1805.
<http://www.biodiversitylibrary.org/bibliography/9309>. ← vii | viii →
Item: <
http://www.biodiversitylibrary.org/item/37872>, page 156.

Figure 3: Leaf Sequence in Sidalcea Malviflora. From Miller, 2009, Image 55, p. 107. © Gordon L. Miller and The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, USA. Permission to reproduce the photo kindly granted by Gordon L. Miller and The MIT Press.

Figure 4: ‘Part of secondary wing-feather of Argus pheasant, shewing two perfect ocelli, a and b. A,B,C,D, &c., are dark stripes running obliquely down, each to an occelus. [Much of the web on both sides, especially to the left of the shaft, has been cut off.]’.
Text and drawing from Figure 57 in Darwin, 2004, p. 489.

Figure 5: ‘Basal part of the secondary wing-feather [of the Argus pheasant], nearest to the body’.
Text and drawing are from Figure 58 in Darwin, 2004, p. 490.

Figure 6: ‘Portion of one of the secondary wing-feathers [of the Argus pheasant] near to the body, shewing the so-called elliptic ornaments. The right-hand figure is given merely as a diagram for the sake of the letters of reference. A,B,C,D, &c. Rows of spots running down to and forming the elliptic ornaments. B. Lowest spot or mark in row B. c. The next succeeding spot or mark in the same row. d. Apparently a broken prolongation of the spot c in the same row B’.
Text and drawing are from Figure 59 in Darwin, 2004, p. 491.

Figure 7: ‘An ocellus in an intermediate condition between the elliptic ornament and the perfect ball-and-socket ocellus’.
Text and drawing are from Figure 60 in Darwin, 2004, p. 492. ← viii | ix →

Figure 8: ‘Portion near summit of one of the secondary wing-feathers [of the Argus pheasant], bearing perfect ball-and-socket ocelli. a. Ornamented upper part. b. Uppermost, imperfect ball-and-socket ocellus. (The shading above the white mark on the summit of the ocellus is here a little too dark.). c. Perfect occelus’.
Text and drawing are from Figure 61 in Darwin, 2004, p. 494.

Figure 9: The Raising of Lazarus (1517–1519) by Sebastiano del Piombo. The image has been reproduced with the kind permission of the National Gallery, London. © The National Gallery, London.

Figure 10: Diana of Ephesus. This image has been reproduced with kind permission of Whetton & Grosch. Replica sculpture of Diana of Ephesus. © Whetton & Grosch, Museum Models 2016. <http://www.whettonandgrosch.co.uk>.

Penguin Group UK (PUK), and the original publishers, John Murray, now part of Hodder and Stoughton Ltd, have no objection to the reproduction of Figures 4–8 in this volume. However, PUK have been unable to trace the original contract or any other rights information regarding the Descent title. They are therefore unable to give formal permission to use the images as they cannot warrant that such use would not infringe any third party rights. They therefore request that this disclaimer is entered in the acknowledgements. The original publisher, John Murray, also state that they do not control the copyright and that they no longer have records of the relevant copyright holders. However, they state that the date of publication (1871) suggests that the images may be in the public domain. They request that John Murray is credited as the original publishers. The figures are therefore inserted in this volume in good faith on the assumption that they are out of copyright and that copyright law has not been infringed. ← ix | x →

Every effort has been made to trace copyright holders and to obtain their permission for the use of copyright material. The publisher apologizes for any errors or omissions in the above list and would be grateful for notification of any corrections that should be incorporated in future reprints or editions of this book.

| xi →


Firstly I would like to thank my supervisors Dr Gary Farnell (Director of Studies) and Professor Neil Messer for all the help, support and encouragement they have given me for the duration of the research leading up to the PhD thesis as well as their support for the post-doctoral research leading up to the publication of this book. In particular, Gary has helped steer me through the complexities of Romantic and Victorian literature, whilst Neil has helped sharpen my understanding of Creationism and Ethics. Above all, they have inspired me to think creatively without losing my sense of direction. I would also like to thank my external examiners, Professor Tim Fulford and Derek Bunyard, whose input was most helpful. Thanks must also go to Ruth Padel for her permission to use extracts from her biographical poems of Charles Darwin (Padel, 2010), her great-great grandfather, and for the inspiration they gave me in writing the final chapter.

Thanks also to my original supervision team at the University of Gloucestershire, Professor Adam Hart, Professor Shelley Saguaro and Dr Roy Jackson who helped me start out on this venture.

The journey of this research goes right back in time just like Darwin’s ‘tree of life’ and his quest for the origins of life. For me the search for the meaning of life was very much part of the philosophical discussions I had with my brother Peter and our friend Dr Terry Hopton who inspired me to study philosophy at university. The inspiration for developing an enquiring philosophical mind came through my tutors at Oxford, Guy Backus and his wife Professor Irena Backus. This enthusiasm was developed further when studying linguistics for my MA at the University of Southampton under the late Professor Chris Brumfit and his wife Professor Ros Mitchell – this is where I first seriously came across Charles Darwin within the context of the evolution of language. Once I started reading Darwin I could not stop. So thank you Chris and Ros.

As well as seeing Darwin’s ‘tree of life’ in terms of descent, it can also be seen as a ‘tree of enchantment’ like a Christmas tree covered in baubles, ← xi | xii → a celebration of life itself and all those privileged to be part of it. So in this sense I would like to thank my late parents, Peter and Ruth Lansley, for enabling me to be a bauble on this tree, and my wife Claire for enabling us to attach our children, Charlotte and William, thereby connecting the past and the present to the future. I would also like to express my indebtedness to my wife Claire for keeping me in the manner whilst carrying out my research.

I would also like to thank my parents-in-law Martyn and Brenda Iffland for accompanying me and Claire on my first visit to Charles and Emma Darwin’s home at Down House in 1997 enabling me to purchase my first bundle of Darwin books; and for Martyn finding the ‘Darwin Bark’ nearby which our friends Ray and Stella Newton framed as a commemoration of our visit. And thanks to Charles Darwin for inspiring me to research his life.

Finally, I would like to dedicate my research to all past, present and future grandparents for making descent possible and for all past, present and future grandchildren for continuing the line of descent from our past progenitors. In particular my maternal grandparents, Rudolf and Ida Kormes, who I never had the privilege of meeting and who died in one of the Nazi concentration camps, and my paternal grandparents, Percy and Ethel Lansley.

To conclude, as a temporary pause at this moment in time, the final dedication goes to our grandson Rupert Morris Maybury, our granddaughter Merryn Isobel Maybury, and to our daughter Charlotte and her husband George Maybury for continuing the line of descent. And to any further offspring that may be born to our children Charlotte and William. In Darwin’s own words, ‘from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved’ (Darwin, [1859] 1985, p. 460).

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Charles Darwin’s Victorian Debt to the Romantics

The works of Charles Darwin have mainly been explored within the context of the Victorian period and of Darwin as a significant ‘Victorian’. There is much less research available, however, that examines Darwin’s own intellectual precursors and cultural influences and in particular the Romantic influences on his life.

Today the academic establishment recognizes Darwin’s place in the ‘history of ideas’ as a ‘high Victorian’; he is acknowledged by Desmond and Moore (2009, pp. 449–50) as having begun a paradigm shift away from Paley’s concept of divine creation of Nature1 to one of slow ‘transformation’ or evolution over millions of years. This book will examine how some of the key ideas of the Romantic era may have influenced the development of Darwin’s thinking.


XII, 274
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2018 (August)
Wordsworth Charles Darwin Erasmus Darwin evolution Romantic Victorian Alexander von Humboldt Goethe natural selection
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, New York, Wien, 2018. XII, 274 pp., 5 fig. col., 5 fig. b/w

Biographical notes

Charles Morris Lansley (Author)

Charles Morris Lansley is an Early Career Research Fellow at the University of Winchester (2016–2018), where he was awarded his PhD for the research that forms the basis for this book. He also holds a BA (Hons) in Philosophy from the University of London, a Post-Graduate Certificate in Education from the University of Leicester and a Master of Arts in Language and Linguistics in Education from the University of Southampton. Prior to his PhD, he worked for the British Council overseas and for the Defence Academy in language and logistics training. Dr Lansley is a Chartered Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, a Fellow of the Linnean Society of London and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts. His research interests are in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century naturalists and in scientists and poets of the Romantic era.


Title: Charles Darwin’s Debt to the Romantics
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