Darwin made one of the greatest discoveries in the whole of science. But what is not so generally appreciated is that the accounts by the young Darwin of his sublime experiences of nature in South America in his Beagle Journal, at a period of his life when he was intoxicated by Humboldt’s highly personal approach to science, are amongst the greatest poetic writing in English. But in middle age the acute sensitivity of this wonderful man perished. He could now feel nothing. Now grand scenery ‘does not cause in me the exquisite delight which formerly it did’. ‘My mind seems to have become a kind of machine for grinding general laws out of a large collection of facts’. Onto his discovery he projected a bleak metaphor of evolution through ‘war, extermination, disease and death’ drawn from Victorian capitalism. The influence of Humboldt waned, disappeared indeed, to be replaced by that of Malthus. The sublime glories of nature that he had actually experienced in South America found no place in The Origin of Species. The great Humboldtian Origin remains to be written.
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