How Alexander von Humboldt, Goethe and Wordsworth Helped Shape Darwin’s View of Nature
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.
Chapter 8: From Erasmus Darwin’s Broth of Chaos to his Goddess of Nature
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From Erasmus Darwin’s Broth of Chaos to his Goddess of Nature
It is beyond the scope of this chapter to provide an in-depth analysis of the works of Erasmus Darwin, especially as well-researched work has already been carried out by King-Hele (1999), Fara (2012) and Priestman (2013). However, there are important thematic elements of Erasmus Darwin’s vitalistic conception of materiality that can be identified as similar to the underpinnings of Charles Darwin’s own brand of Romantic materialism and these will be examined in this chapter.
Erasmus Darwin, like Priestley, supported a vitalistic notion of materialism in which matter was not dead but had a vital force of power, a mix of the material and the soul. On a visit to the Treak Cliff Cavern in Derbyshire in 1767, Darwin experienced matter as a broth of chaos dispersed throughout the caves. After an excursion into a cave called ‘the Devil’s Arse’, Erasmus Darwin excitedly told his friend Josiah Wedgwood:
I have lately travel’d two days journey into the bowels of the earth […] and have seen the Goddess of Minerals naked. (King-Hele, 1981, p. 43)
Darwin also wrote to Mathew Boulton, saying he would conduct experiments on his mineral finds (King-Hele, 1981, p. 44). For Darwin, descending through a narrow miners’ passage would have been ‘like entering the bowels of some great beast, the narrow walls lined with glistening mineral streams of barytes and calcite, milky white...
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