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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 4: Darwin’s Romantic Theory of Mind


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Darwin’s Romantic Theory of Mind

This chapter examines Darwin’s theory of Mind, how it is Romantic and how he has been influenced by other Romantic thinkers such as Goethe. Darwin’s own thought processes were shaped by the world he saw, both through empirical perception and through intellectual reflection. This mental reflective insight into the working laws and forces of Nature that became his theory of natural selection is akin to Goethe’s vision of the vertebra archetype referred to on his second Italian Journey in 1790, in his Zur Morphologie (1823):

[…] as I lifted a battered sheep’s skull from the dune-like sands of the Jewish cemetery in Venice, […] I immediately perceived the facial bones were likewise traced to the vertebrae. (Translated and cited by Richards, 2002, pp. 491–2)

This reflective insight is also referred to in Goethe’s discovery of the plant archetype (the ‘Primal Plant’ or Urpflanze) during his first Italian journey in a letter to his friend Johann Herder on 17 May 1787:

The Primal Plant is going to be the strangest creature in the world […]. With this model and the key to it, it will be possible to go on for ever inventing plants and know that their existence is logical; that is to say, if they do not actually exist, they could, for they are not the shadowy phantoms of a vain imagination, but possess an inner necessity and truth. The same...

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