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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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List of Figures


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Figure 1: A. v. Humboldt, Geography of the Plants near the Equator, 1803. © Museo Nacional de Colombia/Oscar Monsalve Pino. Permission to reproduce the photo kindly granted by Museo Nacional de Colombia and Oscar Monsalve Pino. Colección Museo Nacional de Colombia, reg. 1204. Alexander von Humboldt (1769/1859). Geografia de las plantas cerca del Ecuador. Tabla fisica de los Andes y paises vecinos, levantada sobre las observaciones y medidas tomadas en los lugares en 1799–1803, 1803. Acuarela (Acuarela y tinta Papel) 38.7 × 50.3 cm.

Figure 2: L. A. Schönberger and P. J. F. Turpin after A. v. Humboldt and A. Bonpland, Geógraphie des plantes équinoxiales, 1807. Permission to reproduce image from book kindly granted by Peter H. Raven Library/Missouri Botanical Garden and the Biodiversity Heritage Library . Essai sur la geographie des plantes: accompagne d’un tableau physique des regions equinoxiales, fonde sur des mesures executes, depuis le dixieme degree de latitude boreale jusqu’au dixieme degree de latitude austral, pendant les annees 1799, 1800, 1801, 1802 et 1803/par Al. de Humboldt et A. Bonpland; redigee par Al. de Humboldt. A Paris, Chez Levrault, Schoell et compagnie, libraires, XIII–1805. . ← vii | viii → Item: , page 156.

Figure 3: Leaf Sequence in Sidalcea Malviflora. From Miller, 2009, Image 55, p. 107. © Gordon L. Miller and The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, USA. Permission to reproduce the photo kindly granted by Gordon L....

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