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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 5: Darwin’s Concepts of Morality and Romantic Materialism


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Darwin’s Concepts of Morality and Romantic Materialism

The mental concept of ‘reflection’ has already been referred to when considering the importance of relating data and the experiences of Nature in order to grasp its organic whole, and this is particularly important for Darwin when moving between past and present, or when moving between the extremities of the genealogical – teleological continuum showing the descent and development of Nature (its history). The previous chapters have also shown the importance of reflection and imagination through Goethe’s ‘Genetic Method’ when conceptualising the ‘leaf’ and ‘vertebrae’ archetypes, enabling the mind to ‘see’ the commonality running through Nature. This chapter will now continue to examine these concepts of ‘reflection’ and ‘imagination’ in relation to Darwin’s concept of moral reflection.

The concepts of ‘reflection’ and ‘imagination’ gain gradual development from the early Darwin and can be seen as a stronger, consolidated form in the Descent. The whole point of the Origin and the Descent is to show that there is development from animals to humans, and this includes mental as well as physical development. Man has a more advanced form of reflection, but this does not mean that animals have no form of reflection, as Darwin’s observation of Jenny the Orang-utan at Regent’s Park Zoo showed (referred to earlier). Darwin the natural historian, Darwin the writer and Darwin the moralist when expressing his views on the slave trade, is, through his reflections, demonstrating his advanced mental...

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