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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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Introduction: Charles Darwin’s Victorian Debt to the Romantics


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Charles Darwin’s Victorian Debt to the Romantics

The works of Charles Darwin have mainly been explored within the context of the Victorian period and of Darwin as a significant ‘Victorian’. There is much less research available, however, that examines Darwin’s own intellectual precursors and cultural influences and in particular the Romantic influences on his life.

Today the academic establishment recognizes Darwin’s place in the ‘history of ideas’ as a ‘high Victorian’; he is acknowledged by Desmond and Moore (2009, pp. 449–50) as having begun a paradigm shift away from Paley’s concept of divine creation of Nature1 to one of slow ‘transformation’ or evolution over millions of years. This book will examine how some of the key ideas of the Romantic era may have influenced the development of Darwin’s thinking.

Before considering what might have influenced Darwin, it is important to first understand where the term ‘Romantic’ comes from. The Romantic era is generally thought to cover the period 1770–1870, and the movement’s strongholds were mainly in England (Wordsworth, Coleridge and Blake), Scotland (Scott and Burns) and Germany (Friedrich Schlegel, Goethe, Schelling and Schiller), influenced by the writings of the French Rousseau (Melani, 2009, pp. 1–6). Whereas Naturphilosophie2 was concerned with the organic core of nature and its relationship to mind, ‘Romanticism’ was Naturphilosophie with the addition of aesthetic and moral features. Friedrich Schlegel coined the term romantisch ‘to indicate a specific kind of poetic and...

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