How Romanticism Set the Stage for Darwin’s Theory of Evolution

By introducing the concept of Bildungstrieb—the formative drive—Romanticism set the stage for Darwin’s theory of evolution.

Jun 21, 2024By Miljan Vasic, MA Philosophy, BA Philosphy

romanticism early theories evolution


Immanuel Kant opposed the notion that life could arise from lifelessness. However, he acknowledged an indistinct yet evident element of original organization. To underline organized matter’s capacity to exhibit a self-sustaining purpose, he borrowed the term “formative drive”—Bildungstrieb—from the German naturalist Johann Friedrich Blumenbach. This adoption of Bildungstrieb by Kant led notable figures of Romanticism like Goethe and Schelling to embrace the idea. The concept of Bildungstrieb thus served as a means to explain the connection between organic and inorganic matter, the specific forces inherent in living organisms, and even the origin of new species.


Early Theories of Embryological Development

A depiction of preformationism, 18th century CE, Source: Fine Art America


During the world of 17th and 18th century philosophical Romanticism, two competing theories of embryological development vied for dominance: preformationism and epigenesis. Preformationism posited that the fully formed adult version of an individual already existed in miniature within the female egg, with male sex cells merely serving as a stimulus for gradual growth. In contrast, epigenesis, dating back to Aristotle, proposed that the embryo starts as an undifferentiated mass and progressively develops until it assumes its final shape.


Albrecht von Haller, by Johann Rudolf Huber, 1736, Source: Wikimedia Commons


The influential 18th-century Swiss anatomy theorist Albrecht von Haller advocated both theories at different stages of his research. Initially a preformationist, Haller later embraced epigenesis after studying the regenerative abilities of certain animals. Ultimately, through the examination of embryonic development in fertilized chicken eggs, Haller arrived at a middle ground between the two theories. He concluded that while there were no miniature organisms within cells, embryonic elements gradually transformed in shape and size to form organs. Haller termed this process “evolution” and viewed it as a purely mechanical assembly of parts, devoid of any mystical forces.


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By contrast, philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder sought to explain the origin of life on Earth by combining various strands of natural science, speculation, theology, and poetic thought. He proposed that planets, including Earth, emerged from “nebular chaos” and subsequently developed habitable areas teeming with diverse plant and animal species through volcanic activity. During an initial period of challenging living conditions, creatures adapted to survive. Once nature’s forces subsided, the surviving creatures coexisted harmoniously. Herder envisioned a succession of different natural kingdoms in the early stages of creation, where life forces shaped new organisms. He claimed that while this process slowed over time the same forces are at work today. According to Herder, the ultimate purpose of our current existence is the formation of humanity, with all prior processes serving as necessary means to that end.


Herder’s ideas were met with disdain by Immanuel Kant, who labeled them “ideas so monstrous that reason shudders before them.” Kant’s mechanistic understanding of scientific laws clashed with Herder’s vitalism, and he argued that human freedom could not stem from material relations in nature. This fundamental disagreement led Kant to reject Herder’s notions, which left Herder disappointed and disheartened by the great philosopher’s response.


Blumenbach’s Notion of Bildungstrieb

Johann Friedrich Blumenbach, by Ludwig Emil Grimm, 1823, Source: Wikimedia Commons


In his early works, the German naturalist Johann Friedrich Blumenbach aligned his ideas with Haller’s perspective. However, he later diverged from this position, contending that male cells played a more significant role than Haller had acknowledged. Blumenbach supported his argument by pointing to evidence such as the absence of blood in the female egg and the existence of hereditary defects and hybrid animals such as mules. With the publication of his book Über den Bildungstrieb (1789), he completely abandoned preformationism and embraced epigenesis. In this work, he introduced the concept of Bildungstrieb, in order to present the idea that all living beings possess an inherent drive that shapes their form.


Blumenbach considered this drive to be fundamentally distinct from other bodily characteristics. He described activities like reproduction, regeneration, and nutrition as variations of this same inherent drive. However, while he presented substantial empirical evidence demonstrating the effects of Bildungstrieb, his explanations of how such a drive operates remained somewhat ambiguous. He instead proposed that it functions as an “architectural” force, guiding the development and interaction of various organism parts until they fulfill their specific purpose within a species.


Johann Gottfried Herder, by Anton Graff, 1785, Source: Wikimedia Commons


Although the first edition of his book did not incorporate Herder’s ideas, Blumenbach’s subsequent editions and texts demonstrated a convergence with Herder’s theories. Blumenbach utilized Bildungstrieb to account for the origin of different subspecies. He posited that degenerative factors, such as inadequate nutrition or unfavorable climate, could give rise to variants of the original species that adapt to diverse conditions. Additionally, Blumenbach proposed that Bildungstrieb could be responsible for both the emergence of new species and the transformation of inorganic matter into organic matter.


Blumenbach later redefined Bildungstrieb within the framework of Newtonian mechanics. Inspired by Samuel Clarke’s concept of a secondary cause, Blumenbach argued that Bildungstrieb was akin to a force like gravity. It exhibits constant empirical effects, but its true cause remains concealed and unknown. Blumenbach’s Newtonian reinterpretation aimed to emphasize that Bildungstrieb was not a metaphysical “occult” phenomenon, but rather a force fully comprehensible within the principles of mechanistic science. While its cause may elude direct knowledge, Bildungstrieb reveals itself through its observable effects.


Goethe’s Theory of Archetypes

Goethe’s idea of the “Plant Archetype,” Different authors, 19th century, Source: Research Gate


The same year that Kant published his Critique of the Judgment (1790), Johann Wolfgang Goethe embarked on a series of essays devoted to the study of flora and fauna, a pursuit that he continued for decades. Within his seminal work, Metamorphosis of Plants (1790) Goethe proposed a concept wherein the various parts of a plant possess the ability to transform into one another: stem into flower, flower into petals, petals into seeds and pistils, and so on. He introduced the notion of an “ideal leaf,” an internal structure capable of expanding and contracting to assume all the forms of a plant.


According to Goethe, all floral organs are mere modifications of this ideal leaf. Visible solely to the “spirit’s eye,” the ideal leaf encapsulates all potential manifestations of plant parts across different species. It is important to note that Goethe did not envision this archetype, as the smallest common container present in every individual plant. But rather, claimed that it represents a metamorphic scalar form, from which “the greatest complexity is possible.” He maintained that the same notion of archetypes can be applied to animals as well.


Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog, by Caspar David Friedrich, c. 1817, Source: Wikimedia Commons


Prior to his deep dive into botany and zoology Goethe had been deeply impressed by Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason (1781). Yet he took issue with what he saw as an epistemological break erected by Kant between human knowledge and the external world. As an artist, Goethe believed in the direct and immediate experience of nature, which he expressed and explored through his poetry. He perceived nature as a direct response to his aesthetic aspirations. In this regard, the limits imposed by Kant posed obstacles to his naturalist works, as he could not ascertain whether the idea of archetypes corresponded to anything that existed in a sole external domain.


Goethe nonetheless found a solution to this problem in Kant’s Critique of Judgment (1790). The book appeared to unify Goethe’s two passions—art and biology—and conveyed that Kant had ultimately accepted what Goethe had long proposed: the profound connection between the realms of art and science. According to Goethe, works of art possessed their own aesthetic value independent of morality or theology. Consequently, he understood Kant’s assertion that the products of nature were as purposeful as those of art, with an internal structure inexplicable by any external cause, human or divine, as a positive overture to the inherent value of art. Goethe believed that in order to present nature worthily through poetry or painting, artists must comprehend its fundamental structures and archetypes.


Goethe’s Resolution With Kant and His Concept of Bildungstrieb

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, by Joseph Karl Stieler, 1828, Source: Wikimedia Commons


Despite their previous common ground, Goethe encountered a further issue with Kant’s Critique of Judgment. For Goethe, while Kant’s system would allow the theory of archetypes, it had to be treated only as a heuristic principle, akin to other teleological explanations. However, thanks to his reading of Johann Friedrich Schiller, a prominent Kantian, Goethe encountered a fresh interpretation of Kant’s ideas. Although organisms exhibit internal teleology, he believed that they should not be viewed as elements of external teleology. Goethe rejected the notion that plant and animal parts were created according to a divine plan, instead advocating for the idea that these parts derive their purpose solely from the functioning of the organism as a whole. The focus should not be on whether a specific plant or animal was created to serve human utility, but rather, with reference to how it functions independently within its own geographic environment.


The relationship between organisms and their external environment should be seen as unintentional. The environment influences creatures by shaping and adapting them to its requirements. Yet, this process represents only one facet of a larger phenomenon—the internal structure of plants and animals emerges from an inner force that follows a general scheme, the archetype. Goethe calls this internal force Bildungstrieb. Critically, he perceives the influence of the environment and Bildungstrieb as complementary. When one force’s influence increases, the other’s influence decreases and vice versa, ensuring that nature, which employs both processes, remains in equilibrium. In certain individual species, where one force’s impact becomes overly dominant, the other force fails to manifest adequately. For instance, Goethe explains the emergence of the giraffe as a result of the environment’s excessive influence, leading to a considerable deviation from the vertebrate archetype.


Immanuel Kant, by Johann Gottlieb Becker, 1768, Source: Wikimedia Commons


Goethe’s departure from Kant’s philosophy, then, was ultimately influenced by his interactions with Johann Gottlieb Fichte and later with Schelling. Fichte’s insights into the challenges arising from Kant’s dualism, coupled with Schelling’s idealism, propelled him towards a new perspective. Schelling’s System of Transcendental Idealism (1800), presented a theory that scientific understanding and artistic intuition need not be in conflict but can be regarded as interconnected methods for unveiling natural laws. According to Schelling, the human mind itself creates nature, eliminating the necessity for a hidden “thing-in-itself” behind this creative process. Nature, as we perceive it, is exactly as it appears–subjective in its construction, yet devoid of anything beyond that construction. For Schelling, idealism constituted the purest form of realism.


This idea proved liberating for Goethe as it successfully reconciled his two approaches to nature. As a poet who crafted works of art through his creative talent, Goethe believed in appealing to the authority of nature itself, unveiling the archetypes through which nature expressed its creativity. Furthermore, unlike Kant, Schelling argued that genius could also be found within the realm of science. Indeed, according to Schelling, the individual capable of fully comprehending nature would need to embody the qualities of an ideal poet-scientist. It is easy to see why Goethe found this theory so alluring.


Schelling’s Dynamic Evolutionism

Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling, by Joseph Karl Stieler, 1835 CE, Source: Wikimedia Commons


In On the World Soul (1798), Schelling presents a viewpoint that opposes Kant’s rejection of evolutionism. Schelling argues against the existence of inorganic matter, asserting that even non-living entities are only seemingly inorganic. Accordingly, “Mother Earth” herself is inherently organic. Schelling provides additional arguments, stating that the Earth’s extensive existence makes it challenging to empirically observe species changes. Furthermore, he contends that the absence of evidence of one species transforming into another does not constitute proof of its impossibility.


Schelling advocates for dynamic evolution, in which Goethean archetypes embody a comprehensive set of characteristics for related plant or animal species. These archetypes are progressively actualized in nature through the succession of different species over extended periods. Throughout this continuous evolution and constant transformation, the collection of all species’ instantiations would yield their archetype as a cross-section. Schelling also adopts the concept of Bildungstrieb, which he interprets as the organizing force behind the origin of all organic beings. This force accounts for the existence of every natural product at any given moment.


Yet in the last instance, Goethe’s perspective remains influenced by Herder. Although he starts accepting the idea of species transformation, thanks to Schelling’s influence (which later led Darwin to recognize him as a predecessor), Goethe himself does not advocate for dynamic evolution. Instead, he holds the belief that evolution is a process commencing from primitive plants and animals and progressing toward increasingly perfect ones. Goethe maintains that the archetypes themselves serve as the creative force driving these changes, gradually realized in the empirical world over time through the creation of ever more perfect beings.


Romanticism and Darwin’s Theory

Charles Darwin, photo by Julia Margaret Cameron, 1869 CE, Source: Wikimedia Commons


Although Kant initially attacked the idea of evolution (as formulated by Herder), under the influence of Blumenbach, he became more open to the idea. Most importantly, he acknowledged the theoretical possibility of species changing through the expansion and contraction of organization. Nonetheless, Kant considered this theory a “daring adventure of reason” that he himself did not wish to embark upon. Importantly, he specifically rejected the notion of organized matter emerging from unorganized matter. His reluctance stemmed from two primary reasons: his stance on teleology and the perceived lack of empirical evidence supporting evolution. While Kant chose not to explore the idea of evolution Goethe and Schelling proved far more daring in their approach.


Schelling challenged Kant’s first reason by asserting that nature is neither inorganic nor mechanistic but rather characterized by organic processes. Goethe contested the second reason and believed that empirical evidence could be provided in favor of evolutionary theory. Their collective position, contra Kant, can be characterized as a form of neutral monism. While Kant suggested that we should approach nature as if it were purposive, Goethe and Schelling (alongside Blumenbach) questioned why it could not be genuinely purposive while still adhering to mechanical principles.


Darwin’s Finches, by Charles Darwin, 1882, Source: Wikimedia Commons


The Romantics, including Goethe and Schelling, invoked specific causal forces to explain the manifestation of archetypes and their progressive variations. One such force was Bildungstrieb, which Goethe viewed as complementary to environmental influences. In Darwin’s work, however, this additional force was natural selection. Despite being perceived as opposed to the Romantic movement, due to his radically different approach from speculative metaphysics like Schelling’s, Darwin maintained continuous engagement with Romantic science. He drew inspiration from literary figures such as Wordsworth, Coleridge, Humboldt, and Goethe.


Goethe’s incorporation of the concept of Bildungstrieb, alongside the idea of living things adapting to their environment, paved the way for subsequent theories like Lamarckism and Darwinism. Schelling is credited with popularizing the concept of evolution within Germany, which facilitated the smoother acceptance of Darwinism among German biologists. Thus, the Romantics themselves can be seen as precursors to popular scientific literature. They displayed an inclination toward developing a theory that could systematize their knowledge. But at the same time, they avoided reducing science to mere mechanical principles and instead regarded it as inseparable from art.




Lambier, J. D. (2016). Romantic Evolutions: Introduction. Literature Compass 13(10). 587-596.

Richards, R. J.  (2000). Kant and Blumenbach on the Bildungstrieb:  A Historical Misunderstanding. Studies in the History and Philosophy of Biology and Biomedical Sciences 31. 11-32.

Richards, R. J.  (2002). The Romantic Conception of Life. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press.

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By Miljan VasicMA Philosophy, BA PhilosphyMiljan is a Ph.D. candidate in Philosophy whose primary areas of research include political philosophy, social epistemology, and the history of social choice. He is especially interested in various quirks of democracy, both ancient and modern. He holds BA and MA degrees in Philosophy from the University of Belgrade.