Natural revelation and natural selection


Image: William Wordsworth, by Benjamin Haydon, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

It has long been recognized that the many hymns to nature in the poetic works of William Wordsworth (1770-1850) convey an implicit belief in natural theology. This concept was no stranger to Darwin himself in its abstract form following his study of William Paley Natural theology in his college days. There is even evidence that the young Darwin’s explorations brought with them a more direct, quasi-Wordsworthian awareness of the divine revelations of Nature than he could have gained from reading Paley alone.1

In his mature years, by contrast, there are fewer indications that he paid much heed to Wordsworth’s injunction to his readers to “Let nature be your teacher”. At this point, the influences of the two poles of, on the one hand, the poetry of nature of Wordsworth and, on the other, of Darwinian theory ― the two totalizing visions of nature of the nineteenth century ― seemed destined to enter in an inevitable conflict. Wordsworth’s view was clearly of nature as the source of spiritual guidance while Darwin presented nature only as a brutal struggle for existence unredeemed by a higher purpose. It is this binary, and the debate in British public life to which it has given rise, that I wish to analyze in a series of articles.

Next“Darwin, Wordsworth, and Natural Theology.”


  1. Once during his young expedition aboard the Beagle he was even moved to describe a virgin forest as “a temple filled with the varied products of the God of nature.” No one can remain in these solitudes without being moved and not feeling that there is more to man than the simple breath of his body. This point was noted by AD Martin in his Wordsworth’s Religion (London: Allen and Unwin, 1936), p. 14-16.

neil thomas

Neil Thomas is Senior Reader at Durham University, England, and a long-time member of the British Rationalist Association. He studied classical studies and European languages ​​at the universities of Oxford, Munich and Cardiff before joining the German section of the School of European Languages ​​and Literatures at Durham University in 1976. His teaching involved a wide range of specialties, including Germanic. Philology, Medieval Literature, Enlightenment Literature and Philosophy, and Modern German History and Literature. He also taught modules on the propagandistic use of the German language used by both the Nazis and officials of the former German Democratic Republic. He has published over 40 articles in a number of peer-reviewed journals and half a dozen single-author books, the latest of which were Reading the Nibelungenlied (1995), Diu Crone and the Medieval Arthurian Cycle (2002) and “Wigalois” by Wirnt von Gravenberg. Intertextuality and Interpretation (2005). He has also edited a number of volumes, including Myth and its Legacy in European Literature (1996) and German Studies at the Millennium (1999). He was the Brach UK President of the International Arthurian Society (2002-5) and remains a member of several learned societies.

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Key words

Charles DarwinDarwinian theoryGreat BritainHMS BeagleNatural theologyNatural theology (book)naturespiritualityThe Religion of WordsworthWilliam PaleyWilliam WordsworthWordsworth v Darwin (series)


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