Darwin’s Conception of Life: A Romantic Reading

Charles Darwin was a martyr to ill-health all his life, and was patiently nursed by his wife Emma, whom he called ‘Mammy’ (The Spectator)

harles Darwin’s theory of evolution marks a unique turning point for both the natural and social sciences. His works do not only provide essential resources to understanding life through the lens of scientific observation, but a new language for describing life in scientific and political theory. His writings drew inspiration from a wide range of thinkers, and have consequently been interpreted and read in contrasting ways. On one hand, his works are primarily scientific and explanatory in nature, by which a mechanistic outlook becomes central. On the other hand, Darwin remains in awe at the complexity, vastness and directedness of life and nature, which is a defining characteristic of the German romantic movement. This essay seeks to evaluate the different views that have emerged, and shed light to understanding Darwin’s conception of life by focusing primarily on his two most influential texts: The Origin of Species and The Descent of Man.

In this essay, I argue that Darwin’s writings should not be read purely as a mechanical and amoral conception of life, as his theories reveal both mechanistic and romantic perspectives. The essay will begin by examining Darwin’s treatment of the variation and historical continuity of traits amongst species, which is contrasted to the traditional account of life as static categories of creation. Building upon the de-theologized perspective, I account for the importance and implications of the causal explanations of life that are provided by Darwin’s scientific undertaking. The essay will end by analysing the limitations of a purely mechanistic reading, which neglects Darwin’s conception of life as deeply moralistic and organic.

A central part of Darwin’s project is to critique the traditional theological viewheld amongst naturalists at the time, which sees life and species as being independently created for some higher telos or purpose. Under this view, natural beings are to be classified by their essence and studied in isolation of one another. As noted in the Descent, “constancy of character is what is chiefly valued and sought for by naturalists”.[1] Darwinian theory threatens this traditional and religious understanding of nature. In the first two chapters of the Origin, Darwin sought to reject the static and conventional conception of life by raising various examples of variability of traits and their subsequent inheritance amongst species under human domestication and the state of nature. The empirical evidence paints a picture of life and the natural world in two new ways. Firstly, species should no longer be described as distinct forms and essences, but are to be discussed as a non-immutable formation that have adapted to different local environments. Thus, the diversification and variation of traits amongst organisms illustrate life as a venue for instability and change. Second, inheritance reveals the means in which living beings have descended from other species through time, highlighting the interconnectedness of the natural world. This contributes to a new understanding of life as genealogical and deeply embedded in history. The combination of the two observations points to Darwin’s conception of life as a variable and historical being. Thus, life is no longer viewed as a rigid fulfilment of an intrinsic teleological essence assigned by some higher external theological entity, but as its own independent system of continual growth, adaptation and production of differences. The question remains as to whether we should understand this independent Darwinian system as a mechanical or organic structure.

In order to fully support the refutation of the theological view and explain the process of modification and evolution, Darwin must provide a coherent theory to account for the systematic mechanisms operating in the continual variation of living beings. As Ruse observes, without assuming the existence of causal mechanisms, Darwin’s theory can no longer function as an explanatory theory of life.[2] Thus, a mechanistic view of life plays a major role in Darwin’s writings. The subsequent cause that Darwin identified was the principle of natural selection, which is modelled based on two key observations. First, living organisms possess the ability to produce life in abundance and populate the earth in exponential rates through reproduction. Second,building upon his reading on the doctrine of Malthus, Darwin comes to the conclusion that life in the animal and vegetable kingdom grows rapidly in a way that is unsustainable given the scarcity of resources. Thus, Darwin holds that the struggle for existence is an inevitable part of the process of natural selection. Operating through struggle and competition, the principle of natural selection preserves favourable characteristics and eliminates those unfavourable for the continuation and multiplication of life.[3]

By fully establishing the principle of natural selection, Darwin naturalises life’s directedness, providing a biologically grounded explanation to the underlying causes in which drives life’s evolution, advancement and progress. Life can thus be seen as a rigid subject of the mechanical nature of science, where living beings become an inevitable subject for natural conditioning. Evolution, variation and the multiplication of organisms also become foreseeable directed consequences of life. Whilst life is no longer seen as being necessitated by a creator, life processes continue to be dictated and necessitated by the forces of nature.

Although the causal explanations of the mechanisms of life can be read mechanistically and reductively, as a step-by-step guide to how organisms mechanically act and vary through time, it could also be read as an extension of the romantic concept of the uniformity of life. Central to the German romantic movement is the idea that “nature exhibited fundamental unities, of which species and individuals played out the variations”.[4] In a similar fashion, natural selection could be interpreted as a synthesis of all patterns; a description of the regularities that uniformly govern all life processes in nature, by which every organism evolve despite their differences in accordance to this universal law. In the final chapter of the Origin, Darwin even suggested that “all the organic beings which have ever lived on this earth have descended from some one primordial form, into which life was first breathed”.[5] This implies that, for Darwin, the causal mechanisms of life in which he postulates do not only serve as a mere mechanical description of the process of evolution, but a theory that captures an inherently romantic notion: the commonality, unity and connectiveness of all life forms.

Building on the notion of uniformity, Darwin employs the frequent use of poetic and romantic language in describing his vision and interpretation of life as being governed by a unifying force. The first instance occurs in the third chapter of the Origin, where he compares life and nature as “a yielding surface, with ten thousand sharp wedges packed close together and riven inwards by incessant blows, sometimes one wedge being stuck, and then another with greater force”.[6] The metaphor captures the dynamic process of life by describing natural selection as a powerful natural force. The abundance of the wedges and the randomness attributed to the movement of the wedges both points to Darwin’s recognition of the vastness and unpredictable nature of life.

In comparing natural selection to human selection, Darwin makes clear that “natural selection […] is as immeasurably superior to man’s feeble efforts, as the works of Nature are to those of Art.”[7] This highlights the superiority that Darwin sees in the forces of life and the impossible task of human attempts in imitating and emulating it. It reveals life as a mysteriously organized and aesthetically perfect entity governed by a force of nature that Darwin deeply reveres. This demonstrates Darwin’s commitment to conceiving life as something that is beyond complete human comprehension and control. Despite his success in providing a mechanistic framework to capture the intricacies of life, any attempts of replicating life’s mechanisms and its beauty are ultimately one of many “feeble efforts”.

Under the mechanistic reading, the struggle for existence has often been interpreted as a representation of the harshness and cruelty of life. The misconception that animals are programmed to robotically fight for survival, associates the theory to images of animal violence. It has also been subsequently interpreted as an extension of Thomas Hobbes’ conception of life as perpetual struggle between the living.In a letter composed to Lavrov, Engels notes that “Darwinian theory of the struggle for existence is simply the transference from society to animate nature of Hobbes’ theory of the war of every man against every man”.[8] For Engels, Darwin’s theory embodies the Hobbesian image of animal violence, self-preservation and conflict. This interpretation, however, is problematic on two levels.

First, whilst direct aggression between animals do happen, competition that arise between animals do not occur necessarily through physical struggle against one another since participants of the Darwinian struggle usually do not encounter one another at all.[9] Instead, animals try to outlast one another as they themselves struggle against their natural environment, finding ways to sustain their population whilst grappling on the limited resources available in their local economy. Thus, the Hobbesian image of violence is fundamentally incompatible with the realities of the natural world and Darwin’s conception of life.

Second, even when referring to physical violence that occur in cases of predation, “a state of equilibrium is always established between” prey and predator.[10] To go so far that predator causes extinction of the prey simply serves no advantage to the preservation of the species. Moreover, natural inhibitions exists to reduce and prevent the risk of destruction of either animals. For example, the prey is always able to reproduce more rapidly than the predator, instilling a fine balance between the two participants of the Darwinian struggle. As such, unlike Hobbes, Darwin does not see the state of nature as perpetual conflict, but as a venue for contained, controlled and harmonious interactions.

Ultimately, the Hobbesian comparison is fundamentally mistaken as it neglects the romantic aspects of Darwin, which draws our attention to the less violent and more harmonious aspects of the struggle for existence. As he emphasizes in the Origin, “I should premise that I use the term Struggle for Existence in a large and metaphorical sense, including dependence of one being on another, and including (which is more important) not only the life of the individual, but success in leaving progeny”.[11] The interdependence between animals points to a complex and intricate system of relations that unites animals irregardless of their variety. What Darwin seeks to highlight, however, seems to be a will to life that permeates the natural world in contrast to the Hobbesian conception of will to destruction. As such, life emerges from Darwin as an inherently driven and directed form of existence.

Similarly, Richards argue in his book that “the nature to which [natural] selection gave rise was perceived in its parts and in the whole as a […] self-organizing structure”.[12] This conception of life and nature is best reflected in Darwin’s recurring analogy of an entangled bank. As he remarks poetically in the concluding paragraph of Origin, the many plants, bushes, birds and insects that populate the river bank are “so different from each other, and dependent on each other in so complex a manner”.[13] This provides us with a lucid vision of life’s self-organising diversity and complexity that arises from the uniform laws of nature. It draws our attention to the “entangling” relationships that structure and permeate the web of life. Under this framework, life for Darwin simply cannot be reduced to a purely mechanistic and robotic process.

Mechanistic readings commonly interpret Darwinian theory as a doctrine devoid of morality. As Bulhof argues, “Darwin does not moralize when describing nature […] Nature is harsh and strictly amoral”.[14] This should not, however, be seen as Darwin’s complete characterisation of life. As he describes in the Descent, altruistic behaviour, which are acquired and selected through evolution, act as an anchorage for human moral judgements.[15] Unlike utilitarian thinkers, Darwin does not regard self-interest as the basis of human moral action, but rather attributes moral action to our instinctive will to act in favour of benefiting the greatest possible number of community members. Similar to how soldier bees would sacrifice themselves to safeguard the beehive, human beings evolved to see altruistic behaviour as an advantageous attribute to promoting the interest of the tribal community. A deeply moralistic conception of life emerges from Darwin, positing a biological and scientific grounding to account for human moral action. Life and nature, as such, becomes a source of morality and ethics. As Darwin describes the natural world in the Descent as “laying the foundation of the most noble part of our nature”.[16] The evolution and advancement of humans and animals is thus fundamentally tied to morality.

To conclude, whilst Darwin’s writings provide, at first glance, a predominately mechanistic and amoral perspective, Darwin ultimately posits a deeply moralistic and organic conception of life. The mechanistic reading, as shown, starts with Darwin’s scientific undertaking in refuting the traditional theological views on life. However, it is unable to fully reflect all aspects of his works. By employing poetic metaphors and accounts of life, Darwin displays a deeply moralistic and organic conception of life as being governed by a dynamic, intricate and unpredictable force. In retaining the romantic reading of Darwin, this essay salvages aspects of Darwin, which are otherwise neglected under the mechanistic framework of understanding.

[1]Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man (2nd edn., London: John Murray, 1888), p.166.

[2]Michael Ruse, “The Romantic Conception of Robert J. Richards”, Journal of the History of Biology, 37/1 (2004), p.11.

[3]Charles Darwin, The Origins of species, ed. Morse Peckham (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1959), p.164.

[4]Robert J. Richards, The Romantic Conception of Life: Science and Philosophy in the Age of Goethe (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002), p.526.

[5]Darwin, The Origins of species, p.753.

[6]Ibid., p.150.

[7]Ibid., p.146.

[8]Friedrich Engels, “Engels to Lavrov 12 November 1875”, in Marx Engels Internet Archive (2000), at <https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1875/letters/75_11_12.htm>.

[9]Peter Amato, “Hobbes, Darwinism, and Conceptions of Human Nature”, Minerva — An Internet Journal of Philosophy, 6/1 (2002), p.41.

[10]Konrad Z. Lorenz, ‘On Aggression’ in David P. Barash ed., Approaches to Peace: A Reader in Peace Studies (2nd edn., Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), p.15.

[11]Darwin, The Origins of species, p.146.

[12]Richards, op. cit., p.534.

[13]Darwin, The Origins of species, p.758.

[14]Ilse Bulhof, The Language of Science, with a Case Study of Darwin’s The Origin of Species (Leiden: Brill, 1992), p.95.

[15]Darwin, The Descent of Man, pp.120–123.

[16]Ibid., p.125.



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Brian Pak

Navigating life through arts, culture, philosophy, politics, tech and entrepreneurship. Follow my latest work at https://www.linkedin.com/in/pakbrian/!