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Charles Darwin’s Debt to the Romantics

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

Charles Morris Lansley

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.

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Chapter 1: Organic and One Reality Nature in Humboldt and Darwin


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Organic and One Reality Nature in Humboldt and Darwin

This chapter will examine the influence of Humboldt’s ‘Organic Nature’ in the development of Darwin’s ‘web of affinities’ to help identify the roots of Darwin’s Romanticism. In order to understand Humboldt’s organic view of Nature,1 it is useful to identify which thinkers and their ideas had helped Humboldt develop this view. It is also helpful to provide some background to exploration at the time in order to understand the context of naturalists’ ideas.

Humboldt had read Immanuel Kant2 whose own organic way of thinking had been sparked off through his dissatisfaction with Carl Linnaeus’ classification system of the natural world;3 Kant saw this system as incapable of conveying the idea of the whole by not placing enough emphasis on the unifying processes and the interrelationships between the parts and too much emphasis on their external structures (McCrory, 2010, p. 122). What was missing was a description of the interrelated unifying processes ← 19 | 20 → that could not be directly seen. Humboldt filled this gap by describing the character of each geographical region of land through these interrelationships, such as the hills, the plants and the colour of the sky4 (Nicolsen, 1995, p. xiii). Humboldt had also been influenced by Johann Forster5 and his son George Forster, both of whom had been with Captain James Cook on the second of his three voyages of discovery6 to the Pacific. Humboldt travelled...

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