Charles Morris Lansley, Charles Darwin’s Debt to the Romantics: How Alexander von Humboldt, Goethe and Wordsworth Helped Shape Darwin’s View of Nature

Charles Morris Lansley, Charles Darwin’s Debt to the Romantics: How Alexander von Humboldt, Goethe and Wordsworth Helped Shape Darwin’s View of Nature (Peter Lang, 2018) 274 pp. £60.00, $90.95 Hb. ISBN: 978-1-78707-140-7

Readers approaching Charles Darwin’s The Voyage of the Beagle for the first time may be surprised to find the famous scientist repeatedly emphasizing his subjective feelings as much as his empirical observations. In his description of a Brazilian rainforest in the second chapter, Darwin muses, “It is easy to specify the individual objects of admiration in these grand scenes; but it is not possible to give an adequate idea of the higher feelings of wonder, astonishment, and devotion, which fill and elevate the mind.” Such passages may sound more like the reflections of a Romantic poet than those of a Victorian biologist. In his book Charles Darwin’s Debt to the Romantics: How Alexander von Humboldt, Goethe and Wordsworth Helped Shape Darwin’s View of Nature, Charles Morris Lansley resists this distinction as he explores how Darwin’s Romantic predecessors influenced his work.

Lansley’s use of the term “Romanticism” centers on a vision of nature as its own creator, whose parts are all interrelated. The union of mind and matter, subjective awareness and the objective world, and materiality and spirituality, Lansley emphasizes, are key features of this Romantic natural wholeness. Locating these ideas primarily in the work of Alexander von Humboldt, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Erasmus Darwin, and William Wordsworth, Lansley seeks to trace these Romantic influences on Darwin’s thinking, research methods, and theory of natural selection. While the book would have benefitted from a more patient and thorough unpacking of how exactly such a varied group of poets and scientists can all be considered Romantic, Lansley sees this influence operating in a few specific ways. He identifies the “Humboldtian method,” which exercises the imagination through a combination of observation and aesthetic experience; Goethe’s “genetic method,” which seeks to understand natural development over time through “archetypes”; and Wordsworth’s “double-consciousness” narration, a form of conversation between himself, his imagination, and his readers, as significant influences on Darwin’s work. Noting that scholars have primarily explored Darwin’s writing in the context of the Victorian period, Lansley seeks to examine the influence of Romanticism on the development of Darwin’s thought, particularly the aesthetic and moral dimensions of his work, building on the scholarship of Gillian Beer, George Levine, and Robert Richards.

Chapter 1 argues that Humboldt’s vision of a unified natural world in which everything relates to everything else shaped Darwin’s view of an interconnected, entangled nature, which facilitated his theory of natural selection. Lansley asserts that the “Humboldtian Method,” which blends empirical observation with aesthetic sensitivity, helped shape Darwin’s Romantic imagination. This method involved a move away from isolated analysis of individual specimens to a study of how individuals and species interact with and affect each other and their environment, including their observers. Continuing this line of argument, the second chapter credits Humboldt with helping Darwin move beyond direct experience of nature and develop a more creative way of thinking, honing the mind’s eye through reflection and imagination. The chapter also notes Humboldt’s and Darwin’s shared hatred of slavery and belief in humanity’s common progenitor.

Chapter 3 traces Darwin’s scientific Romanticism back to Goethe, particularly the poet-scientist’s “Genetic Method,” which links the genealogical past to a teleological future by tracking the unchanging “inner kernel” of natural organisms over time even as their outward forms adapt to their environment. Lansley argues that similar reflective methods helped Humboldt and Darwin to not only go beyond the self and experience the sublime but also to help unify science and literature. Chapter 4 argues that these influences shaped Darwin’s Romantic theory of mind, which holds that our view of nature is not only composed of empirical observations but subjective reflections on them. For Lansley, reflection is more than thinking about an experience—it is contextualizing it in time and place and relating it to all other experiences. He argues that this Romantic method, used by Goethe and Darwin, enables the mind to imaginatively capture the organic whole of nature’s essence.

Chapter 5 builds on this discussion to examine Darwin’s concept of moral reflection. Emphasizing that sympathy developed through natural selection, Lansley focuses on morality as a part of nature. The sixth chapter moves beyond Darwin’s concept of moral reflection to appraise his own moral values in the context of Romantic and Victorian culture. While the chapter’s framing binary question of whether Darwin was a Romantic or a Victorian, based on such criteria as his undermining of established religion on the one hand and his socioeconomic privilege on the other, is perhaps overly rigid, the chapter offers nuanced readings of the complexities and contradictions in Darwin’s thinking on race, gender, and class.

Chapter 7 traces the development of Darwin’s Romantic concept of mind from The Voyage of the Beagle to On the Origin of Species to The Descent of Man to show a shift from an anthropocentric worldview to a more anthropomorphic perspective. The chapter argues that poetry helped Darwin develop the imaginative capacity to put his mind in the consciousness of another organism. The eighth chapter traces Darwin’s Romantic materialism back to the influence of his grandfather, Erasmus Darwin. Though Darwin denied his grandfather’s influence on his work, Lansley documents striking parallels in the two Darwins’ views on language, sympathy, and the familial ties linking humans and animals.

This chapter might have offered an opportunity to reflect on the entanglement of these Romantic influences. Wordsworth's reading of Erasmus Darwin, for instance, enabled him to celebrate in The Excursion "how exquisitely . . . the progressive powers . . . of the whole species to the external Worlds / [are] fitted" (Preface 63-66). Wordsworth’s Wanderer gives this evolutionary reflection in Book VII:


                                    The vast Frame

             Of social nature changes evermore

             Her organs and her members, with decay

             Restless, and restless generation, powers

             And functions dying and produced at need,---

             And by this law the mighty Whole subsists:

             With an ascent and progress in the main. (1021-1027)


In Book III, the Solitary reflects on competing explanations of human origins and asks, “our origin, what matters it?” (238). As Lansley points out, Darwin read The Excursion twice and brought his copy with him on the Beagle voyage. What would he have made of these passages and his grandfather’s impact on their ideas? How do such proto-Darwinian passages relate to the Romantic influence on Darwin that Lansley describes? For all the book’s insightful analysis, it leaves such potentially fruitful material unexplored.

The book’s conclusion analyzes the contemporary poet Ruth Padel’s biographical poem on Darwin, who is her great-great-grandfather. Lansley pairs Padel’s poem with Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and Percy Shelley’s “A Defence of Poetry” to highlight the Romanticism of Darwin’s life and work. While the conclusion offers interesting analysis of striking poetry, it probably reveals more about Padel’s “Romanticism” than Darwin’s, though she draws on her ancestor’s writing and emphasizes Darwinian concepts, such as the mind’s origins in matter, which fit nicely in Lansley’s analysis.

This book has an ambitious reach. In addition to the central figures of Humboldt, Goethe, Wordsworth, and Erasmus Darwin, Lansley includes Shelley, Coleridge, Rousseau, Thomas Malthus, Joseph Townsend, and others. The depth of archival research, including Darwin’s notebooks, marginalia, and letters, is also impressive. In making his argument, outlined in the abstract, “that the Romantic movement influenced Charles Darwin and his theory of natural selection,” Lansley provides some compelling support. His strongest examples include Darwin’s explicit discussion of Humboldt’s influence, his citation of Goethe in Origin (103), his allusion in a notebook to Wordsworth’s discussion of the relationship between science and poetry (135), and his echo of Goethe’s “leaf” archetype in The Metamorphosis of Plants (103-104). These direct quotations and identifiable references provide strong, clear evidence to support Lansley’s claim of influence.

These convincing examples, however, are sometimes overshadowed by Lansley’s tendency to impose analogies and emphasize parallels that don’t evince actual influence. This limitation is partly due to the loose working definition of Romanticism the book uses. In a discussion of Goethe’s influence on Darwin, Lansley writes, “Although scientific, these hypotheses could also be seen as aesthetic due to the way Nature impresses itself on Man’s senses and how Man responds to these perceptions.” The same discussion posits that “the development of the eye, as with all other organs, could be seen as Romantic because it has developed organically” (73). At this point, “Romantic” becomes a catch-all term applying to all perception and all of nature. Lansley later claims that the conversational questions Darwin poses in Origin and Descent “could be seen as Romantic” because of their mixture of self-assertion and self-doubt, but we could just as easily call this Socratic as Romantic (132). Lansley’s claim in the book’s conclusion that Darwin’s marriage “could be said to be more than just romantic, but also Romantic in the sense of Emma holding all the fragmented pieces together” signals how widely the book applies the term (244). Lansley’s “Romanticism,” then, would be more critically useful if it was conceived less broadly and deployed more discriminatingly.  

Nevertheless, Charles Darwin’s Debt to the Romantics is an engaging, thought-provoking, and rich study of an aspect of Darwin’s work that has received comparatively little scholarly attention. As such, it is a welcome contribution to the field. 

Trenton B. Olsen, Brigham Young University-Idaho