Darwin had his own “origin story”

Charles Darwin in 1881

Charles Morris Lansley, author of Charles Darwin’s Debt to the Romantics


To most, Charles Darwin’s story is simply the birth of the Theory of Evolution. In reality, the story of how Darwin came to this theory, and the many people who would shape his destiny, is itself a story that needs to be told. Like many superhero movies of the 21st century, Darwin has an “origin story”, the tale of how Darwin became Darwin.

Darwin’s story can appeal to many readers on different levels. On the purely academic level the work traces the influence of Alexander von Humboldt, Goethe and Wordsworth, in addition to Erasmus Darwin, on the development of Charles Darwin’s theory of natural and sexual selection. On another level is the story of the development of Darwin’s imagination and how this enabled his theories to evolve during the Victorian era when it was difficult to express them, yet at the same time in an era which encouraged them. This was a very contradictory time in history indeed.

Charles Darwin’s Debt to the Romantics is an attempt to mirror Darwin’s own narrative, in which, through his imagination, he engages in conversation with the reader on a journey to discover the laws behind the process in which life evolves. These traces in time, moving both backwards into the past and forwards into the future, are like footprints in the sand, some of which get washed away never to be seen again. What drew me to this research was the Romantic notion of the imagination in which the self is so very much a part of Nature. We try very hard to observe nature objectively, but we can never get away from being subjectively part of it at the same time, just through the very act of observing it through our senses or through the act of remembering what we have seen, or think we have seen. And these footprints, or recreated memories of our past, are there for us to see today in fossils or archaeological remains — a mental map of our descent. What makes all of this so Romantic is the almost terrifying or sublime notion that mind has come from matter — that mind evolved and originated from that which was not mind. This is surely one of the greatest mysteries of our very existence — that science, poetry, literature, language, thought and culture have all ultimately evolved from inorganic nature (and this, of course, is only part of the story, as inorganic nature evolved before this).

But this is not just the story of Darwin’s imagination. I hope it also draws in the reader and adds to the excitement of their own imagination as it did for me as the author. Darwin’s web of affinities extends right out to the author and the reader as well as all the writers who have contributed to the development of Darwin’s imagination. The book, I hope, in addition to analysing the texts of Humboldt and Darwin, also offers the reader an imaginative experience similar to that of Darwin’s, in which the self experiences Nature as if for the first time through the prose of naturalists and romantic poets.

To those new to this subject area, I hope that readers will also read Humboldt’s Personal Narrative and Darwin’s Origin and Descent and discover the same imaginative excitement that I felt upon reading them for the first time. Here the reader will discover a poetic optimism in knowing that they are part of a life that will continue and diversify in the future.

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