Journal of the History of Biology

, Volume 3, Issue 2, pp 325–360 | Cite as

Humboldt, Darwin, and population

  • Frank N. Egerton


I have attempted to clarify some of the pathways in the development of Darwin's thinking. The foregoing examples of influence by no means include all that can be found by comparing Darwin's writings with Humboldt's. However, the above examples seem adequate to show the nature and extent of this influence. It now seems clear that Humboldt not only, as had been previously known, inspired Darwin to make a voyage of exploration, but also provided him with his basic orientation concerning how and what to observe and how to write about it. An important part of what Darwin assimilated from Humboldt was an appreciation of population analysis as a tool for assessing the state of societies and of the benefits and hardships which these societies can expect to receive from the living world around them.

Darwin exhibited in his Journal of Researches a casual interest in the economic and political conditions of the countries he visited, but these considerations were much less important to him than to Humboldt. Instead, Darwin, with the assistance of Lyell's Principles of Geology, shifted from Humboldt's largely economic framework to a biological one built around the species question. This shift led Darwin away from a consideration of how the population biology of animals was related to man's economy to focus instead upon how population biology fitted into the economy of nature.

Humboldt's Personal Narrative served very well as a model for Darwin's Journal of Researches, thereby helping Darwin gain scientific eminence. The Journal of Researches, like virtually all of Humboldt's writings, was a contribution to scientific orthodoxy. But Darwin had, along the way, acquired an urge to do more than just add his building blocks to the orthodox scientific edifice. He decided to rearrange those blocks of knowledge into a different structure, and for that task neither Humboldt's Personal Narrative nor any other of his works could serve as a model. Humboldt had lacked the confidence which Darwin needed that biogeography and the origin of species could be understood. Humboldt had not explored very far the possible connections between biology and geology. Nor had he provided a general synthetic account of population biology. Had he done so, he might have been more explicit about the extent of his endorsement of Malthus. But even if he had, Humboldt's strong orientation toward cooperation would probably have inhibited his recognition of the importance of competition in nature.

Lyell, who had also benefited from reading Humboldt, gave Darwin insights that were lacking in Humboldt's Personal Narrative. Lyell admirably demonstrated how stratigraphy, paleontology, biogeography, and population biology could be interrelated, and his reasons for doing so were essentially the same as Darwin's. Lyell's understanding of biogeography and ecology came from the writings of Augustin-Pyramus de Candolle as much as from Humboldt's, and from the former Lyell derived an appreciation for the importance of competition and also a confidence that the mysteries of biogeography could be explained.117 Furthermore, Lyell's discussion of all these subjects and also of evolution in his Principles of Geology is a good synthetic argument that was the ideal model for Darwin's greatest book.

Darwin, having become convinced that species change through time, was able to synthesize in his mind the contributions which he had derived from the writings of Humboldt and Lyell as they applied to the species question. When Darwin wrote his Journal of Researches there were two large gaps in his thinking about evolution that bothered him—the mechanism of evolution and the causes of extinction. It was only after reading Malthus in 1838 that he realized, as Lyell had more or less pointed out, how important was competition in nature. He now had the general outlines for his theory, and in the 1845 abridged edition of his Journal, now retitled The Voyage of the Beagle, he inserted a fuller discussion of competition in nature which showed his awareness of its importance as an ecological factor.118


Strong Orientation Ecological Factor Population Biology Full Discussion Political Condition 
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Copyright information

© President and Fellows of Harvard College 1970

Authors and Affiliations

  • Frank N. Egerton
    • 1
  1. 1.Division of Social SciencesUniversity of Wisconsin-ParksideKenoshaUSA

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