Isis, 2003, 94:679-683
© 2003 by The History of Science Society. All rights reserved.


The Ecology of Romantic Biology

Kenneth Caneva*

ROBERT J. RICHARDS. The Romantic Conception of Life: Science and Philosophy in the Age of Goethe. (Science and Its Conceptual Foundations.) xix+587 pp., frontis., illus., bibl., index. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002. $35 (cloth).

     In its exhaustive survey of essential primary sources, its sympathetic yet incisive analysis, and its masterful interweaving of the lives and ideas of his dozen protagonists, the bulk of Robert Richards's Romantic Conception of Life constitutes the best synthetic account I have ever read of the scientific—especially biological—aspects of German Romantic philosophy. The author has explored all imaginable sources and mined them for every relevant nugget of information. Focusing roughly on the period 1770–1830, Richards has charted the philosophical and scientific ideas of German Romantic thinkers "as their ideas emerged from the intellectual legacy to which they were heir, from their immediate scientific experiences, and especially from their more intimate personal relationships" (p. xviii). The amount of biographical detail may tax the patience of the reader who wants to know what the significance is of this or that fact, but the picture that results is all the richer for having been so fleshed out, and it well illustrates Richards's point that an adequate understanding of German Romantic philosophy cannot be divorced from the interconnected lives of the people who created it. "Out of these intellectual and personal interactions came a mode of thought that emphasized creative becoming, development, and self-realization" (p. 200). Richards is especially good, for example, in showing the connections between Goethe's art and science in the context of his lived life, in particular his aesthetic response to both women in the flesh and the female as an abstraction. Nor did he thereby ignore the importance of Goethe's response to both Kant's and Schelling's philosophical enterprises.

     Indeed, the book invites reflection on what it means to understand a philosophical system like Schelling's, which evolved from work to work without ever achieving canonical form, which employed concepts and modes of thought largely alien to most of us, and which we may be tempted to judge incapable of being understood in sensible terms. By taking seriously the philosophical and scientific problems of Schelling et alia, and by engaging their works with a sympathetic suspension of self-blinding criticism, Richards has succeeded not only in making accessible many of the most abstruse and seemingly strange ideas of Kant, Fichte, and Schelling but also in situating those ideas within the interactive context of the scientific work of (in particular) Blumenbach, Kielmeyer, Reil, and Goethe, as well as of the literary, philosophical, and theological endeavors of the Schlegels, Novalis, Schleiermacher, and (again) Goethe—not to mention the thrice-married Caroline Michaelis Bφhmer Schlegel Schelling. We understand what makes sense in context, and we best understand philosophical and scientific ideas as answers to specific problems. Richards notes that, for Romantic biologists, "both in art and science, comprehension of the whole had to precede that of the parts" (p. 12). In a similar vein, his comprehensive analysis of Romantic thinkers and their thoughts provides the essential context for understanding the diverse particulars.

     Richards himself does not draw boundaries around the scientists versus the philosophers versus the literary figures, nor does he need to. He does distinguish a subset of Romantics from a larger set of Naturphilosophen in terms of the former's addition of aesthetic and moral elements to the latter's general concern with "the organic core of nature, its archetypal structure, and its relationship to mind" (p. 516), but he seldom invokes the distinction or bothers to identify just who was which. Such omissions, however, do not detract from the book's cogency, since the terms were not enlisted to do explanatory work. Richards's Romanticism is not an archetype but, rather, an evolving set of interacting ideas enunciated by specific historical personages.

     Alongside its major themes, Richards's book contains a wealth of related insights and suggestions. For example, he offers a plausible resolution of the dispute between Goethe and Lorenz Oken over the vertebral character of the skull, a resolution that nicely illustrates his comment regarding Goethe's refashioning of himself in memory and memoir: "An event's significance may only be realized at a later time, when memory and judgment have fleshed out their consequences" (p. 503). And Richards nicely explicates Schelling's notion of dynamic evolution in terms of his rejection of Erasmus Darwin's "genealogical" evolution. Against many claims to the contrary, Richards argues convincingly that both Schelling and Goethe imagined organic evolution—the progressive development of higher from lower organisms—to have been a real occurrence in real time.

     Of course it is hardly to be expected that Richards would get it all right, even if he is usually a reliable guide. When he writes that the explanation of natural phenomena in Schelling's system requires "a framework of interactive polar forces, that is, of fundamentally organic powers" (p. 139), and asserts that, for Schelling, "the laws of chemistry derived from higher organic laws" (p. 287), he misses the opportunity to discuss the centrality to Schelling's philosophy of his conception of a hierarchy of laws applicable to (typically three) different levels of dynamic interaction, and he fails to recognize that "organic" applies only to the highest level, not also to the more basic and lower inorganic levels. Richards apparently misses the significance of the passage he quotes in which Schelling noted "the continuous and steady progress of nature toward organization" (p. 290).

     Richards's translations are generally serviceable insofar as they accurately convey the sense of the original, but they are sometimes imprecise as translations. The quotation from Kant on pages 230–231, while it does not distort Kant's sense, is in fact an edited fusion of two separate sentences from the original. Similarly, the first two sentences in the long quotation from Kant's Kritik der Urteilskraft on page 232 are a grammatically recast and edited-down rendition of a single sentence in the original—and, as such, are more a paraphrase than a translation. In the long quotation from Schelling on page 145 Richards omitted translating the important qualifying words "ohne es erreichen zu kφnnen" at the end of the first sentence, and here as elsewhere he has failed to indicate emphasis in the original text (usually Sperrdruck in Schelling). And occasionally the translations threaten to fall short of even the serviceable. Where Schelling wrote specifically "das Universum" Richards offers, generically, "a universe"; nor does "a general mutuality of substances" intelligibly render "eine allgemeine Wechselwirkung der Substanzen" (p. 157). Where Richards has Herder saying "and so no human eye can penetrate the realm of the unborn, the great ΰλα[matter] or Hades," a more accurate rendering would be "and so arose the realm of the unborn, the great ΰλη [sic] or Hades, into which reaches no human eye" (p. 223; "[matter]" is Richards's interpolation). To Richards's credit, his expanded references make it possible to check such passages in editions other than the ones he has cited.

     In the "Epilogue" that constitutes, as it were, the book's teleological culmination, Richards seeks "to demonstrate ... that Darwin's conception of nature derived ... in significant measure from the German Romantic movement" (p. 516). More particularly, he claims that the Romantics' identification of purposefulness in nature without assuming a Designer God passed to Darwin via Goethe (p. 191). "Goethe's ideas were instrumental in the very construction of Darwin's theory. In Darwin's early essays, for instance, he made Goethean metamorphosis central to the notion of unity of type, of which his own theory would give account" (p. 435). The evidence for the latter claim, concerning "archetype theory and its articulation in morphological and evolutionary thought" (p. 512), is contained largely in Richards's earlier book, The Meaning of Evolution: The Morphological Construction and Ideological Reconstruction of Darwin's Theory, in which Goethe has little direct role as one of Darwin's sources.2 In the book under review Richards devotes his attention, rather, to the importance to Darwin of "the aesthetic and the moral dimensions of the science of biology" (p. 512), as manifested particularly in the works of Alexander von Humboldt. That Humboldt has played only a peripheral role in Richards's story up to this point makes him an oddly weak link by which to attach Darwin to German Romantic biology. Lapsing into an identificationist mode foreign to the earlier sections of his book, Richards here asserts that "in important respects Darwin was a Romantic biologist," not just that certain Romantic themes found their way into Darwin's writings (p. 513).

     Since this Darwinian epilogue is by far the weakest chapter in the book, it would be unfortunate if the considerable strengths of the more than five hundred pages devoted to "Science and Philosophy in the Age of Goethe" were overshadowed by the author's overreaching in his less-than-fifty-page epilogue, especially since claims about Darwin will likely interest more people than an in-depth representation of German Romantic science and philosophy. Much of Richards's case consists in attacking a simplistic counterimage of Darwin as representative of a crudely mechanistic view of nature, but trashing that straw man does little to establish Richards's positive claims. After the dust has settled, it appears that Richards's case largely reduces to the influence of Humboldt's Personal Narrative on Darwin's image of nature—in Richards's terms, on "the Romantic conception of nature that underlay his theory of evolution" (p. 514). "The nature that Darwin experienced with the aid of Humboldt was not a machine, a contrivance of fixed parts grinding out its products with dispassionate consequence. The nature that Darwin experienced was a cosmos, in which organic patterns of land, climate, vegetation, animals, and humans were woven into a vast web pulsating with life" (p. 525). Yet even at that, Richards has little evidence that the weakly "Romantic" aspects of Humboldt's travel narrative were the features that especially attracted Darwin. Indeed, Darwin's quoted response to Humboldt's Cosmos reveals no kind of "aesthetic penetration into nature," as Richards would have it (p. 521). Ironically, in quoting a passage from Darwin's diary from 1836, Richards reveals the extent to which Darwin assigned his emotional response to nature not to reading Humboldt but to his own experiences in the primeval forests of Brazil and the desolation of Tierra del Fuego: "No one can stand unmoved in these solitudes, without feeling that there is more in man than the mere breath of his body" (p. 525).

     Such scanty evidence as Richards is able to adduce for his strong claims sometimes even goes against them. For example, he asserts that "the nature to which selection gave rise was perceived in its parts and in the whole as a teleologically self-organizing structure" (p. 534), whereby Richards identifies natural selection as the Darwinian analogue to the Romantics' goal-directed Bildungstrieb (p. 479). I just don't see the supposed teleological commonality. Two long passages Richards quotes in this regard demonstrate the weakness of his claim. In the first, from the Origin, a quasi-personified "Nature" scrutinizes every variation, "rejecting that which is bad, preserving and adding up all that is good" (p. 534). In the second, from the "Essay of 1844," a supposed "Being"—here explicitly masculine—oversees the selection process (p. 536). Alas for Richards's attempt to link Darwin's view of nature with that of the German Romantics, such externalized agency as Darwin depicted, viewing the phenomena of nature at a distance or from the outside, is not consistent with the way the German Romantics saw nature as operating in accordance with an immanent purposefulness. The closer affinity of Darwin's image would appear to be to the English conception of nature as under the purposeful control of a transcendent God—precisely the image Richards has insisted that the Romantics firmly rejected. Purposefulness was not a part of nature for Darwin, as it was for genuine Romantics. Richards fails to show that Darwinian nature was imbued with either purposefulness or intrinsic morality. In quoting the famous "tangled bank" passage from the end of the Origin as evidence that Darwin's nature "embodies aesthetic and moral values" (p. 539), Richards grasps at a weak reed with which to support his claims. Even on its own terms, that Darwin had an aesthetic appreciation for the exuberant intricacies of nature hardly warrants the claim that "Darwin's conception of nature [was] ... expressive of the kind of Romanticism cultivated originally in Germany and imported to England under various guises" (p. 540). In the end I agree with Richards's estimation that his attempt to trace Darwin's notions of morality and ethics to the German Romantics "would certainly press my case for the influence of German Romantics on Darwin beyond the endurance of the most tolerant of readers" (p. 552).

     Given the fact that Richards was concerned both to trace Goethe's historical influence on science and to rehabilitate Goethe's science as good science—he was "not simply a good scientist for the time, but a good scientist for all time" (p. 408)—one is not surprised to find that, more broadly, he was concerned not just to exhibit Romantic science within its own context of intelligibility but also to claim for it a substantial positive role in the unfolding story of nineteenth-century biology on the wider stage of Darwinian evolution. As noted, Richards's earlier book, The Meaning of Evolution, makes a convincing case for the importance to the development of Darwin's evolutionary ideas of certain characteristically Romantic notions—in particular, morphological archetypes and recapitulation both ontogenetic and phylogenetic. In attempting to do similar rehabilitative work for Romantic notions of aesthetics, morality, and teleology, Richards has overplayed his hand. This is unfortunate, because although it falls short of its goal, The Romantic Conception of Life can serve as a model for how to do thick-description, biographically contextualized history of ideas. In a just world it will be appreciated for what it has accomplished in making accessible and intelligible a vast body of often abstruse material concerning a major episode in cultural history, in the history of philosophy, and in the history of the life sciences.

     Department of History, 219 McIver Building, University of North Carolina, Greensboro, North Carolina 27402-6170.
     1 Robert J. Richards, The Meaning of Evolution: The Morphological Construction and Ideological Reconstruction of Darwin's Theory (Chicago: Univ. Chicago Press, 1992).





To the Editor:

     In his essay review of my book The Romantic Conception of Life: Science and Philosophy in the Age of Goethe (Isis, 2003, 94:679683), Kenneth Caneva plays both the critical good cop and the critical bad cop. In the initial part of his essay, as he surveys the first 550 pages of the book, he infuses praise sufficient to inflate the most inelastic of egos. When he acknowledges that the book is "the best synthetic account I have ever read of the scientificespecially biologicalaspects of German Romantic philosophy," well, the author can only humbly accept the sentiment. As he expands on this view, the author can only admire the acuteness of Caneva's judgment. In the second part of the review, however, a distinct falling off of critical acumen occurs. Indeed, another kind of judgment slips into the review.

     Caneva makes two kinds of rough complaint, one concerning parts of the translation, the other concerning the last fifty pages of the book. The book is interlarded with translations from German Romantic poetry, plays, letters, scientific treatises, and philosophic works. On the one hand, Caneva says that the translations "accurately convey the sense of the original," but, on the other, he thinks I've distorted two passages in Kantthough preserving their meaningby altering their German surface structure: either by joining some separated phrases or by dividing a longer sentence. Kant's original sentences are often sinuous and complex hydras that can strangle meaning when rendered word for word in English. Moreover, English lacks certain grammatical markers present in German (e.g., gender of nouns and pronouns), so that some shifting of noun phrases and pronoun clauses is required in order that the English not be neutered of meaning. The job of the translator, as even Caneva suggests, is to retain the sense of the originalwithout, however, mechanically constructing a pony that no sensible reader could comfortably ride. Of the almost 100 pages devoted to Schelling, with a considerable amount of translation leavening the discussion, I will admit to having dropped a phrase in one of his sentences, a phrase that simply does not change the basic meaning of the sentence. Even Homer nods. From those 100 pages, Caneva detects two other defective translations. One seemingly occurs when I substitute an English indefinite article ("a") for a German definite article ("das"); I do believe, though, the English captures exactly Schelling's meaning. What is trot-literal in an isolated phrase would, if injected into the translation, make the English stumble along. The second supposed defect amounts to translating a very vague German phrase with a vague English phrase. I suppose the objection here is that I was too literal in my rendering. I believe, though, that if my discussion of Schelling's philosophy up to that point has been followed, the phrase, which occurs in a footnote, is as clear as possible. Most of Schelling's early treatises were little-changed lectures that he gave at Jena. Often he would only inchoately indicate a direction of thought, which would then sail off into a cloud bank. Historical precision in translation sometimes requires that the clouds not be obscured.

     The second half of Caneva's review is devoted to the last eight percent of the book. In the epilogue, I make a case for the impact of German Romanticism on Darwin. The argument is simply that via direct sources (e.g., reading Alexander von Humboldt and accounts of Goethe's morphology) and indirect sources (e.g., the German morphological doctrine and archetype theory conveyed by Richard Owen and recapitulational ideas ultimately stemming from German Naturphilosophie), Darwin developed a conception of nature and human morality that is quite distinct from the mechanistic and selfish views usually attributed to him. I am nonplussed by Caneva's belief that this latter attribution of mechanism to Darwinian nature is a "straw man," easy enough to demolish. I'm delighted that Caneva suggests I've easily demolished it; but I rather thought it was the dominant opinion about Darwin's theoryplenty of straw still left in that man, I wager. Well, the reader can judge the adequacy of my account. But I can't refrain from making a final observation about Caneva's assessment. I argue that reading Alexander von Humboldt's Personal Narrative of his own trip to South and Central America had a decisive and shaping influence on Darwin's experience of nature in the tropics and that this Humboldtian conception of nature was retained in the Origin of Species. Caneva simply says that it was Darwin's unmediated experience of nature that ignited an emotional and conceptual response that carried over to his later work. Aside from the many letters and diary entries I quote to argue otherwise, there is Darwin's own explicit judgment, which shouldn't be ignored. Perhaps Caneva missed the passage I cited (p. 525) from Darwin's diary. Darwin penned this on the return voyage of the Beagle: "As the force of impressions frequently depends on preconceived ideas, I may add that all mine were taken from the vivid descriptions in the Personal Narrative which far exceed in merit anything I have ever read on the subject." I think Darwin was certainly right about preconceived ideas.