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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 3: Darwin’s Romantic Theory of Nature


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Darwin’s Romantic Theory of Nature

This chapter looks at those German Romantics that can be identified as having had an influence on Humboldt and consequently Darwin. It looks at both Humboldt’s work and his contemporaries to determine whether they could be regarded as Romantic and whether their brand of Romanticism informed Darwin’s work. The chapter looks at the relationship between literature and science and how they are used to describe the experience of Nature. This gives some background in understanding Humboldt’s method of incorporating aesthetic experiences into his interpretation of Nature and how this in turn sparked Darwin’s own imagination enabling him to see natural selection in Nature. The chapter also provides evidence to show that Darwin was influenced by Malthus and Townsend in terms of struggle and self-improvement which are important aspects of Darwin’s theory of natural selection.

This chapter examines the concept of struggle in terms of what it means for Darwin’s theory of natural selection and what it means in terms of an understanding of Nature. Is ‘struggle’ an example of the force of Nature and is this Romantic? Is it an example of a mental experience reflected through mankind’s relationship with Nature? Does it represent a set of objective laws? Or is it a combination of subjective mental experiences and objective laws? In trying to answer these questions in this chapter, the influence of Humboldt’s Personal Narrative on Darwin needs to be traced back to...

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