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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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Firstly I would like to thank my supervisors Dr Gary Farnell (Director of Studies) and Professor Neil Messer for all the help, support and encouragement they have given me for the duration of the research leading up to the PhD thesis as well as their support for the post-doctoral research leading up to the publication of this book. In particular, Gary has helped steer me through the complexities of Romantic and Victorian literature, whilst Neil has helped sharpen my understanding of Creationism and Ethics. Above all, they have inspired me to think creatively without losing my sense of direction. I would also like to thank my external examiners, Professor Tim Fulford and Derek Bunyard, whose input was most helpful. Thanks must also go to Ruth Padel for her permission to use extracts from her biographical poems of Charles Darwin (Padel, 2010), her great-great grandfather, and for the inspiration they gave me in writing the final chapter.

Thanks also to my original supervision team at the University of Gloucestershire, Professor Adam Hart, Professor Shelley Saguaro and Dr Roy Jackson who helped me start out on this venture.

The journey of this research goes right back in time just like Darwin’s ‘tree of life’ and his quest for the origins of life. For me the search for the meaning of life was very much part of the philosophical discussions I had with my brother Peter and our friend Dr Terry Hopton who inspired me to study...

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