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Ensaios-->HOW DARWIN MAKES USE OF THE INTELLECTUAL TRADITIONS -- 23/08/2017 - 07:07 (Paccelli José Maracci Zahler) Siga o Autor Destaque este autor Destaque este Texto Envie Outros Textos

By Paccelli Zahler

Through the History, we can observe that thinkers, scientists and writers used to reflect the ideas of their lives and times in their writings. That happened with Charles Darwin (1809-1882) too. And to understand how Darwin made use of the intellectual traditions of Utilitarianism and Romanticism in his work, we have to come back a little in time.

The British Enlightenment brought to us ideas of Empiricism, with John Locke and David Hume; Utilitarianism, with Jeremy Bentham; and Romanticism, represented by Wordsworth and Coleridge.

In the beginning of the 17th, John Locke (1632-1704) said that we get knowledge by experience, not only by reason. But David Hume (1711-1776) contested him saying that experience give us habit only. This was the time of Empiricism.

Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) is considered the father of Utilitarianism. For him, we should eliminate all the things that we can not quantify, put in a rational system, quantify and measure the results [1].

We can observe that Empiricism is related with Utilitarianism.

On the other hand, the Romantics, like Wordsworth and Coleridge, manifested their opposition to Utilitarianism. For them, “we are passive receptors of the world and we deal with it through our sensation” and “we make the world as we live in it” [1].

The Enlightenment movement in Britain was associated with tradition, empiricism and toleration [2]. But science played an important role in that time. The study of science, under the heading of natural philosophy, was divided into physics, chemistry, anatomy, biology, geology, mineralogy, and zoology.

Well, coming back to Charles Darwin, object of this short essay, he grew up in a religious family. His first interest was Medicine but decided to study Natural History. He studied Paley`s Natural Theology or Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity ( 1802), which made an argument for divine design in nature, explaining adaptation as God acting through laws of nature. He read John Herschel`s book, Preliminary Discourse on the Study of Natural Philosophy (1831), which described the highest aim of natural philosophy as understanding such laws through inductive reasoning based on observation, and Alexander von Humboldt`s Personal Narrative of scientific travels in 1799–1804 [3].

When he had the opportunity to make the voyage in the HMS Beagle with capitain Robert FitzRoy, as a naturalist, his first intention was to get evidences of Creationism. But, reading and reflecting about the book of Charles Lyell, Principles of Geology, and collecting and describing animals and fossils, he begin to change his mind. For instance, in cliffs near Punta Alta, Patagonia, Argentina [3], he made a major find of fossil bones of huge extinct mammals beside modern seashells, indicating recent extinction with no signs of change in climate or catastrophe. He identified the little-known Megatherium by a tooth and its association with bony armour, which had at first seemed to him to be like a giant version of the armour on local armadillos.

He began to ask: “Why there is so much variation in species? Why species are not permanent?”

The same questions were made by Alfred Russel Wallace, working in Borneo, in his paper “ "On the Law which has Regulated the Introduction of New Species"(1855)[4].

In his book “On The Origin of Species” (1959) [5], Darwin used a language that people would find acceptable to turn it accessible to a general audience. He took care to measure, to reflect very much about his conclusions before put them in a paper. In this case, as we saw, he used the ideas of Utilitarism and Empiricism. On the other hand, as the romantic poets in England were embracing Nature, sawing it as something we had interaction, his work can be related with Romanticism.


[1]. Re-imagining the world. The Modern and Post-Modern (Part 1). Week 5. Wesleyan University/Coursera, 2017.

[2]. British Enlightenment. Available at:


[4]. WALLACE, Alfred Russel. On the law which has regulated the introduction of new species. Annals and Magazine of Natural History, 2 nd series, 16:184-196 (1855). Available at:

[5]. DARWIN, Charles. On the Origin of Species. 1859. Available at:

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