Opposites Attract: How Romanticism and Utilitarianism Opened the Door for Darwin’s Natural Selection

Charles Darwin

Charles Darwin changed the way the world thinks. Even those that disagree with his ideas must in the end answer to them and struggle to defend beliefs that uphold wand-like creation. Darwin’s creation, instead, is slow, gradual, painstaking, but revolutionary. The very nature of his theory of evolution made it contentious to present. Fortunately, by the time Darwin published Origin of the Species in 1859, two philosophical movements had permeated British thought, planting notions that would prove key to the acceptance and understanding of Darwin’s natural selection. These two movements were Utilitarianism and Romanticism.

Jeremy Bentham (1748-1842) is the undisputed father of Utilitarianism, which can be understood as a system of valuation whereby whatever gives the most pleasure to the most individuals is given primacy. Gone are all notions that cannot be quantified, such as human nature. And precedence is no longer sufficient to justify the continuity of custom. 

Jeremy Bentham Utilitarianism
Mr Bentham

Utilitarianism’s advancement of numbers and facts generates a philosophical environment favorable to Darwin’s scientific work. Indeed, Darwin’s work is based on the presentation of observable fact. And, what Darwin observed was the process by which favorable traits are passed down from generation to generation and disparaging traits are eventually discarded. In other words, those traits that will prove the most advantageous to the most members of a species are those that survive. Such an idea is directly parallel to Bentham’s moral calculus of pleasure. 

Another way in which Utilitarianism established a fertile ground for the growth of Darwin’s idea is in its rejection of an undisputed status quo. Bentham famously said:

Antiquity is no reason.

Darwin was aware that his ideas were revolutionary, but he also knew that they were just the beginning of a new science that would, itself, evolve. Without the openness to change set forth by belief systems like Utilitarianism in the 19th century, Darwin’s ideas would have certainly risked rejection, if not outright persecution.

Turner Art Romanticism
Nature and nostalgia in Joseph Mallord William Turner’s art.

Despite the fact that Romanticism and Utilitarianism can be mapped on opposite ends of a philosophical plane, both served Darwin well. Romanticism helped the scientist by bringing the idealization of nature to the table. In order to prove his theories, Darwin literally goes to nature. He spends five years aboard the S.S. Beagle observing and documenting species from all over the world. It is thanks to this direct contact with nature that he is able to build a convincing case for natural selection. 

A lofty valuation of nature is vital within the framework of Darwin’s bold concepts, where man is one end of an evolutionary process of which he is not the goal. Darwin even argues that intelligence develops gradually through reproduction and the natural favoring of traits that increase an individual’s chance of survival. Indeed, the type of evidence that Darwin uses to prove his theories can be classified into the following natural sciences: biogeography, paleontology, embryology and morphology. 

Another important Romantic ideal that Darwin incorporates into his work is Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s notion of an “organic community,” which demotes the value of the individual in favor of community. According to Darwin, both morality and ethics evolved thanks to the fact that human beings lived together over thousands of years. Because living in groups is favorable to survival, those with the ability to do so better than others thrive and pass on this ability to their offspring.  In other words, being a moral or ethical human being is simply a safer evolutionary bet. Through these ideas, Darwin effectively naturalizes both ethics and morality.

Charles Darwin Origin of Species History Nature
The only illustration from Charles Darwin’s “Origin of Species”

Finally, it is important to take into account the philosophical work of John Stewart Mill when analyzing the historical context in which Darwin presented his Origin of the Species. Mill’s ideas, based on his own personal evolution, are considered to be the intersection between utilitarian mathematics and Romantic ideals.  This very intersection spawned an especially welcoming environment in which Darwin’s evolutionary discovery could be well received by his contemporaries. Indeed, Darwin’s work confirms the intersection between the cold calculus of Utilitarianism and the return to nature and community expounded by the Romantics. 


  1. Middlemay Farm

    What interests me about having faith in evolution is that evil still exists. There are many people who do selfish, evil things( by this I mean not good for the species at large) but who also reproduce many generations of the species who don’t seem to carry the traits of the evil doer. Darwinism also made it very easy for people to demand native American assimilation for the “greater good” and to theorize that the weaker people are unfit–think eugenics.

    I don’t think anyone should be persecuted for their faith in evolution or wand waving belief systems. Both can make good cases but both fail to prove things completely.

    Very interesting history though 🙂

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