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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 2: The Forces of Nature in Humboldt and Darwin


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The Forces of Nature in Humboldt and Darwin

This chapter looks at the importance that the direct experience of the forces of Nature played in developing both Humboldt and Darwin’s aesthetic imagination. For Darwin, these insights into the workings of Nature, together with the inspirational insights from Humboldt, enabled him to use his imagination to explore the hypotheses that led to his theory of natural selection. Their insights also led to their belief that all of mankind are born equal and this chapter will also examine their abhorrence of slavery showing that Man’s ‘common humanity’ can also be a force of Nature determining the perpetuation of Man’s existence.

One of the fascinations that drew naturalists and chemists in the late eighteenth century towards the desire to discover the secret forces of Nature was the discovery of electricity. By the time Humboldt was twenty-six, in 1795, he was already very interested in the experiments in electricity conducted by Galvani and Volta. Galvani had demonstrated that you could make frogs legs convulse by applying two different metals to the muscles and nerves of the leg. Galvani believed this was because the electricity was contained in the nerves, calling it ‘animal electricity’, publishing his experiments in Commentary on the Effect of Electricity on Muscular Motion (1791). He believed ‘animal electricity’ was an additional form of electricity to natural electricity such as lightning and ‘artificial electricity’ such as friction (static electricity). Volta (who...

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