Fragments of a Romantic Theory of Evolution

Darwin is supposed to have discovered something nowadays called “evolution” and to have laid to rest something nowadays called “creationism.” But if this is so, what are we to make of the theories of Schelling and Goethe in Germany, and of Coleridge in England, articulated several decades earlier than he? Their Romantic conception of the transformation and morphogenesis of molecules, plants, and animals, is already fully evolutionary. Schelling spoke of evolution of plants and animals out of the earth by way of a chemical process (see, e.g., p. 168, The Romantic Conception of Life by Robert Richards). Goethe and Coleridge agreed.

The reason Darwin is supposed to have discovered the “real” evolution is that his version is a-teleological, based on a conception of nature driven exclusively by efficient causes, while the Romantic theory of evolution is not only teleological, but theological. It breaks the rules of scientific explanation by attributing animation/agency to that which it theorizes. Modern science takes it as a matter of course that nature is without intelligence or intrinsic value. Romantics experience nature as full of complex feeling and archetypal intention. Even if, for Goethe, Nature is God and God is Nature, divinity is ingredient in any Romantic philosophy of nature. Goethe, were he interested in the abstract distinctions of philosophical logic, may also have articulated a panentheistic (like Coleridge and Schelling), rather than a pantheistic ontology. But cosmologically, these three Romantic Naturphilosophen conceive of nature alike as a creative, archetypal process of generation. They understood the universe to be an ensouled being living in the midst of itself, like a snake eating its own tail (following Plato in Timaeus). Schelling and Coleridge, whose soul’s were more Christian than Goethe’s, also perceived something fallen in nature (following Paul in Romans 8), and so also something–or rather, someone–in the process of being resurrected.

For the anxious longing of the creation waits eagerly for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it, in hopethat the creation itself also will be set free from its slavery to corruption into the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation groans and suffers the pains of childbirth together until now. And not only this, but also we ourselves, having the first fruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our body. For in hope we have been saved, but hope that is seen is not hope; for who hopes for what he already sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, with perseverance we wait eagerly for it. -Paul, Romans 8:20-25

Schelling, Coleridge, and Paul experience the fall originally taking place in the human heart. The human heart: the potential beacon of love and freedom in the cosmos, but also evil’s bridge into the world. Because of a fissure in our hearts, we perceive ourselves, and so nature, to be dead. Were our hearts whole, we’d perceive nature alive because we ourselves would be healed of death.
“The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon,
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers,
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not.–Great God! I’d rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.” -William Wordsworth
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7 thoughts on “Fragments of a Romantic Theory of Evolution

  1. Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection presents a possible explanation for the origin of species. Even to this time, Darwin’s theory is consistent with all current data. If data is discovered not consistent with Darwin’s theory, then another theory that could consistently explain all formerly, and newly, discovered data would be required.

    It is Darwin’s theory that is assists in framing an ontological model that has intelligence ultimately emerging from within matter. This contrast with ontological models that: have matter emerging from within intelligence, have matter emerging from without intelligence, and have matter and intelligence emerging simultaneously.

  2. Pingback: Poetic Imagination in the Speculative Philosophies of Plato, Schelling, and Whitehead [final draft] | Footnotes to Plato

  3. Pingback: Teleology in Science? Purpose in Nature? | Footnotes 2 Plato

  4. Pingback: Life After Darwin (another response to Benjamin Cain) | Footnotes 2 Plato

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