|A general overview of Goethe's metamorphology theory, aka "evolution" as Darwin would later, citing Goethe, popularize, showing Goethe’s views of monkey-human common origins (Ѻ) and his notion of the urpflanze (Ѻ) or “primordial plant”, a general model of the origin of plants, animals, and humans, each of which by 1809 were believed to originated from a combination of morphological forces and chemical reaction mechanism.|
“Was Goethe then an introvert? Mainly interested in ferreting about among those half-formed emotions and impulses and huge creative forces which move in a mysterious way within us, we are told, as the forces of nature drive us and shape us from without? Not for a moment. He was the most exact and conscientious observer of plants and animals and the physical structure of man – especially his bones. Nothing delighted him more than the loan of an elephant-skull. He seems to have been about as good at borrowing other people’s bones as Coleridge was at borrowing other people’s books; and at least one rather aggrieved letter, which is still extant, suggests that he was not always much better at returning them. Incidentally I think Charlotte von Stein has been a little unfairly treated by some of Goethe’s biographers. The intellectual and active life of that lady between the years 1775 and 1786 must have been something of a marathon. When she was not mugging up Spinoza in Latin as well as German – or inspecting musty skulls, she was always liable to get an urgent request from Goethe for ‘mosses of all sorts, if possible with the roots – and wet’.
In the same letter Charlotte speaks of a "new book" which makes it probable that men were originally plants and animals. And this brings me to the hardest part of my task. For I have to try to describe the origin of something new in the world of thought. Or rather – which makes it still harder – something then new, but now very familiar to us all. I do not mean a theory. The absence of that is easy enough to look back on. No, I mean an image or construct, a meaning, a Vorstellung, a Bild, as the Germans say – whatever word or phrase you choose, as long as you grasp that it is not a theory I am talking about, but rather the raw stuff about which theories are formed.”
|Sketches of Goethe's 1784 discovery of the intermaxillary bone in animals (left) and humans (right), see: human intermaxillary bone, thus giving "evidence" of a common origin of form, thus disproving the then-prevalent separate creation theory; the oft-cited starting point for modern evolution theory.|
“I have found neither gold nor silver, but something that unspeakably delights me—the human Os intermaxillary! I was comparing human and animal skulls with Loder, hit up the right track, and behold—Eureka! Only, I beg of you, not a word—for this must be a great secret for the present. You ought to be very much delighted too, for it is like the keystone to anthropology—and it’s there, no mistake! But how?”
|A depiction of Goethe circa 1780 ruminating on a theory of common descent of humans, animals, and plants from chemicals; and his searching for an discovering the human intermaxillary bone (1784), upon which he built his metamorphology theory, aka "evolution" as Darwin would popularize things.|
“The ever-changing display of plant forms, which I have followed for so many years, awakens increasingly within me the notion: The plant forms which surround us were not all created at some given point in time and then locked into the given form, they have been given… a felicitous mobility and plasticity allows them to grow and adapt themselves to many different conditions in many different places.”
“It is rather a singular instance of the manner in which similar views arise at about the same time that Goethe in Germany, Erasmus Darwin in England, and Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire in France, came to the same conclusion on the origin of species, in the years 1794-95.”
“We see that our researches on the fixity or the variation of the species, lead us directly to the ideas issued by two men justly famous, Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire and Goethe.”This passage was also cited by Darwin. In total, in his in his 'Historical Sketch', on those who advocated variations on a theory of origin of species, prior to 1859, Darwin gives thirty-four authors who believe in the modification of species, or at least disbelieve in separate acts of creation, of which twenty-seven have written on special branches of natural history or geology, in which the two foremost of these, according to Darwin, are Goethe and Geoffroy.
“The history of the theory of descent is also extremely interesting and I witness with great joy, how even a long time ago, the greatest German philosophers and thinkers have a priori proclaimed this theory to be the only possible way of understanding the origin of species. But you, through the epoch-making discovery of ‘Natural Selection’ and ‘Struggle for life’, have for the first time provided the concrete proof for that abstract statement. The most beautiful expression of this was given by our greatest poet, Goethe, in his Essays on Morphology, and, most especially, in the review of Geoffroy's ‘Principes de Philosophie zoologique'’, written shortly before his death. I find that in the excellent biography of Goethe by your compatriot Lewes, this great merit of Goethe's is perfectly appreciated (in the tenth Chapter of book V entitled ‘The poet as a man of science’). Our greatest philosopher, Kant, has also expressed himself in equally decided terms as being for the ‘Theory of Epigenesis’, as he calls it. Indeed, all possible organic manifestations of nature, both in animal and vegetable life are thus so simply and harmoniously explained, that I do not understand how so many and such learned naturalists can still be opposed to your view.”
“It is easy to understand that these prevalent ideas of the absolute unchangeability and supernatural creation of organic species could not satisfy the more penetrating thinkers. We find several eminent minds already, in the second half of the last century, busy with the attempt to find a natural explanation of the ‘problem of creation.’ Pre-eminent among them was the great German poet and philosopher, Wolfgang Goethe, who, by his long and assiduous study of morphology, obtained, more than a hundred years ago, a clear insight into the intimate connection of all organic forms, and a firm conviction of a common natural origin. In his famed Metamorphosis of Plants (1790) he derived all the different species of plants from one primitive type, and all their different organs from one primitive organ—the leaf. In his vertebral theory of the skull he endeavored to prove that the skulls of the vertebrates —including man—were all alike made up of certain groups of bones, arranged in a definite structure, and that these bones are nothing else than transformed vertebrae. It was his penetrating study of comparative osteology that led Goethe to a firm conviction of the unity of the animal organization; he had recognized that the human skeleton is framed on the same fundamental type as that of all other vertebrates— ‘built on a primitive plan that only deviates more or less to one side or other in its very constant features, and still develops and refashions itself daily.’ This remodelling, or transformation, is brought about, according to Goethe, by the constant interaction of two powerful constructive forces—a centripetal force within the organism, the ‘tendency to specification’, and a centrifugal force without, the tendency to variation, or the ‘idea of metamorphosis’; the former corresponds to what we now call heredity, the latter to the modern idea of adaptation.”
“There is no reason to believe that Goethe had a remote inkling of the concept of evolution, though admirers, strained the words of some poem or apothegm, have called him Darwin’s precursor.”
|Sketch of Goethe’s research and poem entitled Ginkgo Biloba which gives a hint of what he was digging for in his work on comparative botany. |
“How deeply Goethe had penetrated into their character by these philosophic studies of the ‘construction and reconstruction of organic natures,’ and how far, therefore, he must be considered the most important precursor of Darwin and Lamarck.”— Ernst Haeckel (1882), “The Systems of Darwin, Goethe, and Lamarck” 
“About the end of the eighteenth century fruitful suggestions and even clear presentations of this or that part of a large evolutionary doctrine came thick and fast, and from the most divergent quarters. Especially remarkable were those from Erasmus Darwin in England, Maupertuis in France, Oken in Switzerland, and Herder, and, most brilliantly of all, from Goethe in Germany.”— Andrew White (1896), A History of Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom 
“I often think of the different ways Goethe and Darwin got at evolution. Goethe had the poetic conception of it all right; Darwin worked it out step by step. Who's ahead? And which has any business scoffing at the other?”— Susan Glaspell (c.1915) (Ѻ)