Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Coleridge and Darwin -- It WAS "in the air"

Loren Eiseley, The Firmament of Time, 1960. pp. 61-62:

“Great literary geniuses often possess an ear or a sensitivity for things in the process of becoming, for ideas which are just about to be born. It is interesting in this connection to compare the remarks of Charles Darwin with certain observations on science made at a much earlier date by the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Darwin, in his autobiography, protests that he saw no evidence that the subject of evolution was “in the air” of his time. “I occasionally sounded out not a few naturalists,” he remarks, “and never happened to come across a single one who seemed to doubt about the permanence of species.”

"By way of contrast, we may note that Coleridge, in a philosophical lecture delivered as early as 1819, makes reference to a belief which “has become quite common even among Christian people, that the human race arose from a state of savagery and then gradually from a monkey came up through various states to be a man.” Coleridge was not an evolutionist. He is, however, sensitive to a new doctrine, whose presence “in the air” Darwin had failed to discover. He observes in a very shrewd fashion … the way in which the intellectual climate of a given period may unconsciously retard or limit the theoretical ventures of an exploring scientist. “Whoever is acquainted with the history of philosophy during the last two or three centuries,” contended the great poet, “cannot but admit, that there appears to have existed a sort of secret and tacit compact among the learned, not to pass beyond a certain limit in speculative science. The privilege of free thought so highly extolled, has at no time been held valid in actual practice, except within this limit.”

Eiseley, a prolific science writer in the mid-20th century is a new discovery for me, though I understand he was very, very popular in the 1950s and 1960s. He doesn't provide citations in his works, though, using a more essayist style of writing. I was able to quickly find citations for the quotes of Coleridge and Darwin, thanks to Google Books.

Coleridge, Biographia Literaria. Vol. I (1817)
p. 140 paragraph 77

Darwin, Francis. The Autobiography of Charles Darwin. Austin, TX:1st World Publishing, 2004.
p. 65

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