The life and times of Erasmus Darwin
With special attention to his possible influence on the work of Charles Darwin and on the conflict between conservatism and modernism
By Robert Day, The Ohio State University
From G. de Beer, Royal Navy hydrographer to FitzRoy, Captain of "The Beagle":
"My dear sir, I believe my friend Mr. Peacock of Trinity College Cambridge has succeeded in getting a 'savant' for you - a Mr. Darwin, grandson of the well known philosopher and poet......"
Overview of the life of Erasmus Darwin.
Records of the Darwin family can be found in Elston church near Nottingham, north central England dating back as far as 1654. Erasmus was born at Elston Hall in 1731. He was the fourth son of Robert Darwin (1682-1754), a moderately successful lawyer, and Elizabeth Darwin (1702-1797, originally Elizabeth Hill). Elizabeth Darwin was a charismatic, intelligent woman with a fondness for reading and raising pigeons, (which interestingly play a part in the first chapter of "Origin of Species"). Robert Darwin inherited Elston hall and lived comfortably but never dedicated himself to the accumulation of wealth. He retired early to pursue an interest in archeology and enjoy the simple pleasures of country life. Reading between the lines there is some suggestion of occasional impatience with his ever exuberant, energetic and scholastic wife, twenty years younger than he. In one litany he writes:
"From a morning that doth shine,
From a boy that drinketh wine,
From a wife that talketh Latine,
Good lord deliver me."
Erasmus was an inquisitive and inventive child who experimented with poetry, clocks, and electricity. His thirst for knowledge was matched only by his appetite for sweets, his dislike of exercise and his indifference towards what his older brothers called "rural diversions". One such "diversion" (a fishing trip) culminated with the older brothers tying Erasmus in a sack, allowing him to fall in the river, and almost drown. This may possibly have led to his reluctance to accompany them further.
At age ten he was sent to Chesterfield school, which he found most agreeable, and there he flourished both academically and in terms of his circumference. In a letter to his sister he reveals his wit with the ingenious arguments he uses to rationalize his inability to abstain from eating meat during lent:
"...I have lived upon puding, milk and vegetables all this lent; but don't mistake me, I don't
mean I have not touched roast beef mutton ,veal, goose, fowl etc. for what are these ? All flesh
is grass !"
We also see here that Erasmus is developing a liking for cynical critique of religious ritual and an enduring love of food, which would inevitably lead to his future corpulence. Later in life, a semi-circular hole had to be cut in a dining table to accommodate his girth at meal times.
At nineteen he won a scholarship to attend St. John's College, Cambridge with his two older brothers. Supporting three sons at once was a financial strain on the family, (although apparently not enough to cause Robert Darwin to go back into practice), and during his college years, Erasmus learned a good deal of practical independence and frugality. He was awarded a BA in 1754 and went on to two years of medical college at Edinburgh.There he became friends with James Keir, later a famous chemist and fellow member of the Lunar Society of Birmingham. This group of liberal minded thinkers and industrialists met on moonlit nights to exchange ideas and develop new inventions. The Lunar society is widely recognized as a major catalyzing force behind north England's industrial revolution.
In 1756, armed with much erroneous 18th century medical knowledge, Erasmus was let loose on the people of Nottingham. At first, he could find no patients, so he moved to Lichfield, where he lived for twenty-five years. Soon after arriving, he was able to save the life of a young man from a leading family, whom other doctors had declared a hopeless case. This established his reputation in the area and his practice grew quickly. A few months later he met and married the eighteen year old Mary Howard who was described as "blooming and lovely" with a mind of "native strength". They enjoyed a happy marriage until Mary's premature death in 1770 age thirty-one.
Erasmus and Mary Howard had four children that survived infancy including Robert Darwin (Charles Darwin's father). Their first son (also called Charles) went to medical school but died at eighteen after cutting himself while dissecting the brain of a child and contracting an infection. Their second son, Erasmus Jr., became a lawyer. Erasmus Jr. had a tendency to be introspective, directionless and flighty, often leaving bills and paper-work unattended. One evening, prompted by his infuriated father (who had presumably grown tired of paying off Erasmus Jr.'s petty debts), he settled down to deal with a pile of unpaid bills and apparently finding the chore unbearable, ran from the house, jumped off a bridge and drowned himself. The Darwins tried to put some positive spin on the incident by implying to outsiders that the death was accidental, but the facts suggest otherwise. It could be that this incident had some bearing on Robert Darwin's dismay at seeing his own son's directionlessness prior to the voyage on The Beagle. There is some suggestion that Mary Darwin, Erasmus Jr. and possibly Charles Darwin all suffered from some sort of heritable malady since they all shared some of the same symptoms. For Mary and Erasmus Jr., these included occasional bouts of depression or hysteria which may have led to Erasmus Jr.'s suicide. It has also been suggested that Charles Darwin's belief in the heritability of this disease may have led to some psycosomatic effects that worsened his own health after his return from the voyage of "The Beagle".
After the death of his first wife, Erasmus Darwin developed somewhat of a reputation for "his fondness for Venus", and had two illegitimate daughters by a Miss Parker. The girls were raised in his home and were the inspiration for a book Darwin authored on female education. The sisters went on to start a boarding school of their own nearby. Erasmus enjoyed the company of several other women too and for a while continued a flirtation with an old friend and neighbor, a Miss Anna Seward who, partly as a result of Darwin's guidance, became a well known poet herself. Although close for many years they never married. It seems that Anna may have resented this a little since her memories of Darwin, written late in life are generally flattering but occasionally otherwise; when she talks of their personal relationship she describes a "cold shell of sarcasm" that surrounded him.
In 1778, Erasmus fell in love with Elizabeth Pole, wooing her with verse and wit. Unfortunately, she was already married to a colonel Pole and Darwin had to wait for the colonel's convenient death in 1780 before making Elizabeth his second wife. By this time it has been said that Erasmus was "fat, clumsy and ugly", while the new Mrs. Darwin was young, beautiful, charming and pursued by many young suitors. Anna Seward described the marriage as "the triumph of intellect over aesthetics". Elizabeth had no great fondness of Lichfield, (or possibly just the ever present Anna Seward), so the Darwin's moved away to Derby. His second marriage was also a happy one and seven more children were forthcoming, bringing his grand total to thirteen. Darwin lived a healthy life and died suddenly of a heart attack in 1802 aged seventy.
Erasmus Darwin's character and diversity of achievement.
Darwin was a good humored, larger than life character known for his wit, charm and forthrightness. He was energetic and sociable, the type of person that turns any gathering into a party. He possessed a bad stammer but this did not seem to adversely affect his public speaking ability. Indeed it was often said that the stammer aided his delivery by giving him time to choose his words more precisely and by causing listeners to attend more carefully. When one well-meaning young man asked him if he found the stammer inconvenient, Darwin answered:
"No sir, it gives me time for reflection and saves me from asking impertinent questions."
Others have alluded to the fact that when opposed in debate, he could be overbearing, sardonic and merciless in his rhetoric. A reading of his personal letters shows that he apparently enjoyed baiting those whom he knew held views different to his own, particularly when his thoughts turned to religion or politics. In this respect it seems he had much in common with scientific personalities of today, although in his time "good natured sparring" of this sort was often not taken so lightly. In a letter to a friend whom Erasmus knew to be a loyal subject of the (slightly loopy) King George, a staunch catholic, and a supporter of the French aristocratic clergy-in-exile, Darwin cannot resist inserting a few jabs amongst the otherwise cordial missive:
"...... The success of the French against a confederacy
of kings gives me great pleasure and I
hope they will preserve their liberty and spread the holy flame of freedom over Europe......"
"....... [I see by your letter you'll laugh to the last], like Pope Alexander who died laughing on
seeing his tame monkey steal to bed side and put on the holy tiara, the triple crown, which
denotes him king of kings. Now Mr. Pain says he thinks a monkey or a bear or a goose may
govern a kingdom as well and at a much less expense than any being in Christendom, whether
idiot or madman or in his royal senses......"
" ........ I don't believe amongst the 8000 French Parsons whom you are feeding in London, and
whom France has spewed out of her mouth that you can find one equal to your old playfellow
[in your home parish]."
Erasmus could be direct to the point of insensitivity, but it seems that he believed that directness was always the kindest approach in the long run. To one pious young lady he is reputed to have said:
" ... Man has but five gates of knowledge, the five senses;
he can know nothing but through them;
all else is vain fancy and as for the being of a God, the existence of a soul, or a world to come,
who can know anything about them? Depend on it my dear madam, these are only the bugbears
by which men of sense govern fools."
When we consider his life of charity, and the accolades of all who new him, even those with whom he had disagreements, we must forgive him his occasional lapses of patience in debate (especially since it turns out that he was nearly always right).
The devoutly religious Samuel Coleridge knew, but secretly disliked Darwin for his poem "The Botanic Garden" (with it's evolutionary undertones), for his "tendency to atheism" and for his attempts to bait Coleridge into religious debate. Nonetheless, Coleridge said of him:
"Dr. Darwin possesses, perhaps a greater range of knowledge
than any other man in Europe
and is the most inventive of philosophical men. He thinks in a new train on all subjects except
religion. Dr. Darwin is an extraordinary man, and received me very courteously - He had heard
that I was a Unitarian and bantered incessantly on the subject...... When he talks on any other
subject he is a wonderfully entertaining and instructive old man...... I absolutely nauseate
It should be added that everybody else seemed to like Darwin's poem, "The Botanic Garden" well enough, since it was widely regarded as a literary classic, inspiring stylistic echoes and influences in the work of other poets (including Coleridge himself) for years to come.
Throughout his life Erasmus was inventive, productive and multi-faceted. This was an exciting time for a man of science to have lived. Whole new vistas of knowledge and understanding were unfolding. Through his correspondence and connections, he always kept abreast of key discoveries, and demonstrated admirable flexibility in his ability to re-evaluate old paradigms and see new implications.
His receptiveness to new ideas can be clearly seen from the way that his published views seem to evolve significantly over time, particularly between the various editions of "Zoonomia" (discussed later).
One cannot help but be struck by the long list of familiar names from 18th and 19th century science, philosophy and industry with whom Darwin had direct or indirect contact (see below). Similarly impressive are his diverse (and often uncredited) contributions to science and many of the industrial revolution's best known technologies. He was also a horticulturist, poet, humanitarian and philosopher, progressive and prophetic in thought, politically and scientifically many years ahead of his time. His ideas, inventions and accomplishments are too numerous to address individually but a brief synopsis is included as an appendix.
As a physician Erasmus Darwin was widely recognized as England's finest medical doctor. He was asked several times to be personal physician to King George, although his lack of respect for the monarchy in general and George in particular made this an easy offer to refuse. Much of the philosophy central to Erasmus Darwin's medical beliefs is laid out in his treatise on animal life called "Zoonomia." Although his views were loaded down with incorrect 18th century ideas and assumptions, and some of his treatments seem strange, almost barbaric to us today, he was generally able to improve the lives of many of his patients using common-sense ideas such as a balanced diet, the practice of basic hygiene and the cleaning and dressing of wounds. He was considered progressive in that he believed in a connection between his patient's state of mind and their general health, and was one of the first physicians to espouse sympathetic treatment of mental patients, who at the time were kept in deplorable conditions.
He showed similar compassion towards the poor and homeless, whom he treated without fee, and charged others only what they could afford. Like his father before him, he was known as a militant opponent to the use of alcohol and was convinced that it's use could lead to a variety of health problems, a view widely scoffed at by his peers. After the Beagle voyage, Charles Darwin often claimed that his own health problems were related to his consuming some sour wine in South America. This seems unlikely but his belief may have been the result of the teachings of his grandfather.
Erasmus Darwin's public decline.
Towards the end of his years it seems Darwin fell from public favor somewhat. This was partly because some of the central ideas he presented in his medical treatise "Zoonomia" were shown to be false, but mainly because his other views were so forward-thinking and radical that they began to cause serious concern to the English establishment. His support of the French and American revolutions, his ideas on social equality, religious, educational and political reform and his constant vocal opposition to the slave trade made him many powerful enemies in London who went out of their way to discredit him.
His radical views became particularly worrying to the English establishment in light of the near hysteria generated by the French revolution. The possibility of a popular uprising and the overthrow of the old monarchistic and theistic orders seemed a real and terrifying possibility to the English nobility and clergy. They mobilized their forces and did everything possible to maintain the status-quo from which they benefited. The clergy preached the importance of humility and contentment to the masses while many nobles published huge numbers of pamphlets designed to "remind" workers of how much worse off they would be if not so paternally sheltered from the trials of independence by their aristocratic overlords. Some went further - employing mobs to harass the public and private meetings of reformist bourgeoisie, including members of Erasmus's Lunar Society. The net result of these actions was to bring about a conservative movement that set the stage for one hundred years of intolerant Victorian imperialism and ultimately the appearance of the early twentieth century evangelical groups.
In 1798, a scathing parody of Darwin's "The Loves of Plants" (the second half of the of "The Botanic Garden") appeared in "The anti-Jacobin". The anonomously published article, called "The Loves of Triangles," was actually written by George Canning, Under-Secretary for Foreign Affairs in the Pitt government. Canning particularly ridicules three of Darwin's ideas: that humans have evolved from lower forms, that electricity will have important practical applications and that the mountains are older than the bible says they are. Darwin was also widely lambasted for his prediction that powered aircraft would eventually become a major weapon of war. The fallacy of these attacks hardly needs to be stressed, and it seems safe to assume that Erasmus would eventually have resumed his place amongst the eighteenth century's most recognized scientific elite had he not been somewhat over-shadowed by the rise to fame of his grandson.
The attacks were personally wounding to Erasmus and after 1798, resigned to the realities of the social climate and his own advancing age, he withdrew somewhat from public life. Amongst his close associates he remained as outspoken as ever and continued to discuss his progressive views in his personal correspondence, but he decided to delay the release of his evolutionary poem "The Temple of Nature", which was eventually published posthumously a year after his death. "Temple" was not received as warmly as "Botanic Garden" and a shift towards a more internal, emotional poetic style galvanized by such writers as Wordsworth led the general public away from Erasmus's work for good.
Connections, influences and influences.
There follows an abbreviated list of some of the better known personal acquaintances, contacts, disciples and mentors of Erasmus Darwin. These are included so that we might begin to visualize the full extent of his influence.
James Kier. Famous chemist, member of Lunar Society, involved in developing new chemical processes for Wedgwood's pottery manufacturing.
Matthew Boulton. Buckle maker, coin maker, member of Lunar Society, later formed partnership with James Watt.
Benjamin Franklin. Continued correspondence with Darwin, Watt and Boulton who were strong supporters of American independence. Met with Darwin several times.
Dr. William Small. Professor of natural philosophy at Case Western university, friend of Franklin's and teacher of Thomas Jefferson. Later moved to England and became Darwin's "favorite friend".
Josiah Wedgwood. Pottery manufacturer. Originally became friend of Darwin's as both were advocates of a new canal system. Darwin and the Lunar Society helped Wedgwood with many other projects including wind powered mill and new chemical processes that assured his success in business. Erasmus's son Robert married Josiah's daughter Susannah in 1796 and Charles Darwin married another Wedgwood in 1839.
Richard Lovell Edgdeworth. Member of Lunar Society, Reform minded landlord and inventor.
James Watt. Member of Lunar Society, inventor
of steam engine. Boulton and Watt went into business together, producing steam
engines that drove much of industrial revolution.
Thomas Day. Member of Lunar Society, author, reform activist.
Dr. Joseph Priestley. Member of Lunar society, experimental scientist, worked on the constituents of air and other problems. His work was funded by subscription organized by Darwin.
King George III. Wanted Darwin as physician.
Opposed independence for America. Disliked by Darwin.
Thomas Beddoes. Friend of Darwin's and anti-church activist. His activism was funded by money from Wedgwood and Edgeworth.
Thomas Telford. Famous engineer, vocal fan of Darwin's poetry.
Edward Jenner. Scientist, discovered vaccination.
Exchanged letters with Darwin.
Albert Reimarus. Philosopher. Friend and influence on Kier and Darwin. Natural theologist and critic of church establishment.
James Hutton. "Father of modern geology", exchanged many letters with Darwin.
Keats, Shelley, Lord Byron. Poets. Fans of Darwin's written style. Shelley's "Frankenstein" was partly inspired by a conversation between Byron and Shelley about Darwin's ideas on the origin of life. (Frankenstein was also partly inspired by the scientific experiments and politics of Darwin's friend, Benjamin Franklin, in fact, Shelley at first considered calling her monster "Franklinstein").
Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Poet, Author of "Kubla Kahn". Critic of Darwin's poems even though echoes of his style can be seen in Coleridge's work.
William Wordsworth. Poet, critic of Darwin's material poetic style. Began the shift to more human, emotional poetry.
Erasmus Darwin's writings.
Greatly aiding any attempt to understand Erasmus's life is the fact that many of his original papers and correspondence have been lovingly preserved by the Darwin family. Perhaps the most useful is his "Commonplace Book". This is his daily record of thoughts, ideas and observations. Erasmus was a great believer in the usefulness of written notes as an aid to invention and creativity. He devotes many initial pages to describing the different techniques used to cross-reference entries in such a way that a progressive thread of thought may be followed over time. The book is bursting with sketches and descriptions of inventions, case-studies and commentaries of his patient's health problems and possible ways to treat them, as well as observations of natural phenomena and technologies that interested him. Stylistically, "Commonplace" stresses recording as many raw thoughts as possible, without necessarily worrying too much about their practicality or eventual fruition. In many ways the written style resembles that which Charles Darwin, used to log his thoughts during the voyage of "The Beagle". This should not be too surprising since Charles had access to most of the writings of his grandfather during his education and probably picked up some of their stylistic tone.
Erasmus Darwin's published work is as diverse as his life. It includes several large poetic works, treatises of plant and animal life and shorter articles describing his various scientific endeavors which he presented to the Royal Society (reviewed by Ernst Krause, 1887). Most of his writing was done after the death of his first wife in 1770. In 1787 he completed a major translation of the works of Linneaus. These were published with the author listed as "The Lichfield Botanical Society", but this society, which Erasmus founded, actually consisted of just three members and in reality almost all of the work was done by Erasmus alone.
In 1778 he established a botanical garden about a mile outside Lichfield and this became the inspiration for his first popular publishing success; "The Loves of the Plants" (1789). This was actually the second part of a larger work "The Botanic Garden". The first part, "The Economy of Vegetables" was not published until 1791, possibly because Darwin was initially concerned that the occasionally mystic musings therein may have a negative effect on his reputation as a serious author and physician.
"The botanic Garden" runs a weighty 4,384 lines and is made up entirely of perfectly rhyming couplets. The poem ranges widely through personified descriptions of the biology of plants and other aspects of the scientific world. Here we see the beginnings of Erasmus's belief in the existence of emotions in plants, a view that he expands upon in later publications:
"How the young rose in beauty's damask pride
Drinks the warm blushes of his bashful bride;
With honey'd lips enamour'd Woodbines meet,
Clasp with fond arms and mix their kisses sweet"
He mingles these insightful descriptions with the more metaphysical antics of various gnomes, sylphs and nymphs, sometimes as a narrative device and other times as analogies for various natural or sociopolitical forces. Erasmus also gives nods to the scientific achievements of many of his friends and contemporaries, and speculates wildly (often with uncanny accuracy) about the science and technologies of the future:
"Soon unconquer'd steam ! afar
Drag the slow barge, or drive the rapid car;
Or on wide-waving wings expanded bear
The flying chariot through the fields of air.
Fair crews triumphant, leaning from above,
Shall wave their fluttering kerchiefs as they move;
Or warrior-bands alarm the gaping crowd,
And armies shrink beneath the shadowy cloud"
Other inventions seem a little more tongue in cheek, as in this example of a new use for electricity:
"Or, if on wax some fearless Beauty stand,
And touch the sparkling rod with graceful hand;
Through her fine limbs the mimic lightnings dart,
And flames innocuous eddy round her heart;
O'er her fair brow the kindling lustres glare,
Blue rays diverging from her bristling hair;
While some fond youth the kiss etheral sips,
And soft fires issue from their meeting lips"
Aside from the descriptions of the reproductive strategies of various plants there is little evidence of any evolutionary ideas in these first two poems. Although the two parts of "The Botanic Garden" were Darwin's first major published works, at the time of their release he had been working for many years on a much larger and more serious treatise on medicine and animal life called "Zoonomia; or, The Laws of Organic Life", which was published in 1794.
Most of "Zoonomia" is made up of a Linneaus-inspired classification of all diseases and treatments known at that time. Erasmus tries to arrange them into distinct species, genera, families and ultimately into four broad classes: diseases of irritation (from external sources), sensation (such as excess pain or pleasure), volition (caused by desire or aversion) and association (where diseases of one organ or system can cause other associated problems). Since scientifically gathered, empirical data was yet available for most diseases, it is perhaps not surprising that such a simplistic fallacy could have grown in his mind. Furthermore, Darwin himself recognizes the ineffectiveness of many aspects of his efforts and writes a lengthy apology at the beginning of the book to say so.
For a modern biologist, "Zoonomia" is a deliciously frustrating book to read since Erasmus often gropes so close to our modern understanding that it is hard to restrain oneself from yelling out the crucial information he obviously needs to bring his razor sharp mind to the right answer. It is also fascinating to see the differences between modern and eighteenth century thought processes, particularly the heavy reliance on analogy as a problem-solving mechanism. Erasmus often uses the term explicitly and routinely offers it as the primary argument behind certain ideas, even when the two "analogous" phenomena are not clearly connected at all. For example in the comparison between the gills of fish and the lungs of animals, which he can see are analogous even though he is ignorant of the exact workings of either. In other places he rejects ideas if he can see no argument "either by reason or analogy" for their support. The idea that "A leads to B" may somehow be supportive of the statement: "C leads to D" seems alien to scientists today but this was one of the most common ways to attempt to understand reality prior to the development of Baconian logic.
It is interesting to note that analogy is a common pedagogic
device in biblical scripture and "reasoning by
analogy" continues to be in widespread use today by evangelical creationists as a way to develop counter-
evolutionary arguments, even though the rest of the academic community has long since abandoned this
approach as totally unsatisfactory compared to the collection of empirical data and the use of induction and
Even though the central tenet of "Zoonomia" is wrong, the book is filled with fascinating accounts of individual diseases and observations of animal behavior that are sometimes correct, and often reveal remarkable insight. Some of the descriptions of Erasmus's unique treatments also include a correct explanation of their physiological basis that shows understanding superior to that of any of his contemporaries. Specific examples include his use of whole-body cooling (in cold mountain streams) to cause vaso-constriction and thus stop internal bleeding, and his use of directed electric shocks (twenty years before Galvani) to cause the muscles around the bile duct to contract and clear a blockage that was causing jaundice. In another passage he comes close to describing the chemistry of respiration after making the connection that the newly discovered gas "oxygene" must be taken up from air by the blood as it passes through the lungs of man, or from the water in the gills of fish. He further postulates that the warmth of the mammalian body comes from the release of heat as oxygen "reacts" with blood in the lungs just as heat is released when organic matter is burned.
Some of his best medical ideas appear when he describes "diseases
of volition" which he believed to include
ailments such as excessive vanity, grief, watchfulness, ambition and "irksomeness of life" . He saw that such
mental illnesses could have physical consequences and generally deals sympathetically with such cases using
counseling and sometimes mild sedation to good effect. Remember, this was in a time when many other physicians preferred to attempt "beating the devil" from patients with mental illness. Erasmus not only condemns such superstitious practices but actually considers them to be another example of mental illness. (Or possibly he claims this as his belief just to annoy those who most opposed his anti-supernatural ideas.)
Perhaps the most interesting passages in "Zoonomia"
can be found in the chapter called "On Generations" where Erasmus
describes his understanding of reproductive and evolutionary processes (see
In 1797, encouraged by his two daughters as they strove to set up their own boarding school, Erasmus tried his hand at educational philosophy and published "A Plan for the Conduct Of Female Education in Boarding schools". The book was a polite but scathing attack on the conventional idea that girls should be raised to be vacuous ninnies, shy retiring and demure to the point of sociopathy, delicate of frame almost to the point of physical incapacity and versed only in the feminine pursuits of needle-crafts, ancient languages and social etiquette. Erasmus suggested instead that they should be raised strong in mind and body with a wide knowledge of the sciences and mathematics so that they would be able to manage their own affairs and that of their family as an equal partner to their husband. These suggestions were considered scandalous at first but were ultimately widely influential.
In 1800, Erasmus published a treatise on plant life called "Phytologia". Once again, this work shows understanding far beyond its time. It covers almost every aspect of plant biology including almost perfect functional descriptions of asexual reproduction (its advantages and disadvantages), stomata, vascular bundles, photosynthesis, plant nutrition, fertilization of soil and the nitrogen cycle. It also contains some remarkable predictions, such as the use of sugar beats instead of cane in temperate climates, sewage farms, "no till" agriculture, artesian well irrigation, biological control of pest species and commercial logging of hardy conifers in non-arable areas. Perhaps the most glaring mistake is the idea that honey is a plant storage product that bees steal without benefit to the plant. Remarkably, despite having a reasonable understanding of reproduction in plants, Erasmus never makes the connection that insects can act as pollinators. Another idea that seems a little strange to us is Erasmus's insistence that plants have similar emotional lives to those of animals, experiencing pleasure, fear and fatigue in much the same way as ourselves. He tries to defend this view by embarking on a search for the location of a simple "brain" in plant tissues, but admits that he is unable to find it.Elsewhere, Erasmus makes similar attempts to demonstrate that plants are but a low form of animal, likening the collection of buds that make up a plant to the collection of polyps that make up a coral colony.
"Phytologia" is otherwise extremely accurate and too
detailed to adequately convey with small extracts here.
The only other part of the book that I will specifically introduce is Erasmus's "philosophy of organic happiness", which says that there is always a net increase in the total happiness of all living things on earth. For example, the loss of happiness caused by the death of one animal would be more than compensated for by the gain in happiness of the beetles that consume the carcass. It could be that this philosophy is Erasmus's attempt to counter the idea that his mechanistic view of nature is dire and depressing compared to earlier theistic ideas that all things natural are good and beautiful to reflect the nature of their creator. This could also be an attempt to additionally connect living things together in some kind of transmutational network in the same way that his "animalization" of plants seems to be an attempt to unify living things, possibly to prepare his audience for the most evolutionarily explicit of his works; the posthumously published "Temple of Nature; or, The Origin of Society" which appeared in 1803 (See below).
Erasmus Darwin on evolution.
"Temple of Nature" is written in the same style as, but attracted less attention than "Botanic Garden" probably because the French revolution had changed the political climate of the country from being tolerant of new ideas to being highly paranoid and refractory towards them. This last work, although not designed to be a scientific argument, is the clearest indicator of Erasmus's views on the origin of life:
"Ere Time began, from flaming chaos hurled
Rose the bright spheres, which from the circling world;
Earths from each sun with quick explosions burst,
And second planets issued from the first.
Then whilst the sea at their coeval birth
Surge over surge involved the shoreless earth;
Nursed by warm sun-beams in primeval caves
Organic life began beneath the waves.....
Hence without parent by spontaneous birth
Rise the first specks of animated earth;
From nature's womb the plant or insect swims,
And buds or breathes with microscopic limbs."
"Organic life beneath the shoreless waves
Was born and nurs'd in ocean's pearly caves
First forms minute unseen by sphearic glass
Move on the mud, or pierce the watery mass;
These, as successive generations bloom,
New powers acquire and larger limbs assume;
whence countless groups of vegetation spring
And breathing realms of fin and feet and wing"
These astonishing lines really need no comment since they speak for themselves in terms of their familiarity to modern scientists. Erasmus goes on to describe the spread of living things, what we now call the struggle for survival and the forces that check unrestrained population growth in all animals, even man. Towards the end of the poem he eludes again to his philosophy of organic happiness by suggesting that mountains or sediment layers made up of the tests of living creatures are "mountains of past delight". In an explanatory note he proclaims that this is evidence for the "benevolence of the deity".
Some analysts suggest that this note was merely an attempt to avoid further attack as an atheist, but I find this unlikely since Erasmus was probably well aware when he wrote these lines that he would be publishing posthumously. In addition, his grandson Charles discounts the idea, offering several evidences of his grandfather's belief in some sort of natural theology driven by a "first great cause".
Erasmus Darwin's ideas of evolution are extremely advanced for their time. Most agree that they are closer to the modern model than those of Lamarck, a few years later, and some contend that they are closer even than those of Charles Darwin some sixty years later. His evolutionary ideas are laid out in chapter thirty-nine of "Zoonomia" (sub-titled; "Of Generation"). The ideas in this chapter undergo significant revision over the three additions of the book, mainly associated with Erasmus's improving understanding of the role of sexes in reproduction. Initially he seems to believe that the characteristics of the offspring come only from the male parent, the female acting as little more than a nourishing vessel. Later, after considering the characteristics of mules, he realizes that the offspring actually show a blending of characters from both parents.
In "Of Generation" Erasmus uses five basic arguments
to suggest evolution of all life from a single "living
1) The metamorphosis of larval animals after birth as seen,
for example in the butterflies and frogs.
2) The changes introduced into animals and plants as a result of domestication and selective breeding.
3) The changes that occur in species (Erasmus thought) as a result of the environmental factors acting on the
parents. As an example of this he cites the widely held belief that dogs with their tails clipped produced tail
4) The similarities and teleological modifications of related animals. This is the argument we call "homology"
5) The belief that living things learn behaviors and supposedly modify their own structure over their life time
as a result of their own "exertions", and pass these changes on to their offspring. For this Erasmus gives
several (erroneous) examples including that of diversity of bird beaks. He also describes a type of sexual
selection where animals modify themselves to achieve more effective sexual display as a result of their own
exertions to meet their basic needs (including lust).
From these arguments, Erasmus concludes:
"Perhaps millions of ages before the commencement of the
history of mankind, would it be too bold to
imagine that all warm blooded animals have arisen from one living filament which the first great cause
endued with animality, with the power of acquiring new parts ....... and thus possessing the faculty of
continuing to improve by its own inherent activity, and of delivering down those improvements by
generations to its posterity, world without end ?"
He seems to have the time scale about right, and this appears to be one of the first occasions that such a huge figure was suggested for the age of the earth. Notice also his apparent natural theology, which he eludes to often in his writing. He then goes on to suggest similar mechanisms for the evolution of plants, additionally proposing that new characters frequently appear through "intermarriages" of plant species and that selection of useful traits may occur because of a:
"perpetual contest for light and air above, and for food or moisture beneath the soil"
This phrase sounds a lot like his famous grandson's "struggle for survival". In the third edition of "Zoonomia" Darwin bolsters his speculations further by adding a new and improved theory of "generation" (reproduction):
"On considering the reproduction of [living things] the
modes of generation may be divided into
solitary and sexual.... [In solitary] reproduction I suppose that fibrils with formative appetencies and
molecules with formative aptitudes or propensities, produced by, or detached from, various essential
parts of their respective systems, float in the vegetable or insect blood........ [In sexual reproduction]
we may safely conclude that as these fibrils or molecules floated in the circulating blood of the
parents, they were collected separately by appropriated glands of the male or female; and that finally
on their mixture in the matrix the new embryon was generated, resembling in some parts the form of
the father and in other parts the form of the mother according to the quantity or activity of the fibrils
or molecules at the time of their conjunction."
He goes on to correctly assert that the sexual reproduction must give rise to a far greater variety offspring, and thus of species, than asexual reproduction, an assertion that he also maintained in "Phytologia".
Erasmus's influence on Charles Darwin:
Much has been written about Erasmus Darwin including at least five thorough biographies. A review of these suggests that the most useful, the one from which the others seem to draw most of their material, was written by none other than Erasmus's famous grandson, Charles Darwin and published in 1880, two years before Charles's death. Charles was born in 1809, seven years after the death of his grandfather but during his education he became familiar with all Erasmus's writings and correspondence. Most were still in Charles's possession when he wrote his biography, and he quotes from these materials extensively.
Charles's biography appears as a "preliminary notice" to a review of Erasmus's scientific papers by Ernst Krause. From the biography it is clear that there was much family lore passed on to Charles, and that he was well aware of the beliefs, achievements and shortcomings of his ancestors. His steadfast, almost militant defense of his grandfather's character suggests that the vindication of his ancestor's discredited views may have been a significant conscious or unconscious motivational force behind the pursuit of evolutionary ideas. In his autobiography, Charles recalls a lecture he heard at Cambridge when he was eighteen in which a Dr. Robert Grant talked favorably about the evolutionary ideas of Erasmus:
"I listened in astonishment, and far as I can judge, without
any effect on my mind. I had previously
read the "Zoonomia" of my grandfather in which similar views were maintained but without
producing any effect on me. Nevertheless it is probable that the hearing rather early in life such
views maintained and praised may have favored my upholding them under a different form in my
"origin of species"
This may be an understatement of the extent to which he was directly influenced by his grandfather since Charles's copies of "Zoonomia" and "The Botanic garden" still exist and are extensively marked and annotated in such a way as to make it clear that he read them very carefully sometime after his return from the voyage of "The Beagle", but before the publication of "The Origin of Species" Next to a paragraph where Erasmus describes the way that bird's beaks may have diversified as a result of the birds own endeavors to find food, Charles wrote:
"Lamarck, concisely forestalled by my grandfather"
Elsewhere, Erasmus describes the use of selective breeding of sheep with favorable traits by farmers to improve the flock, Charles writes "Good" showing that he seems to have developed quite early a preference for the idea of selection rather than "modification by endeavor" as a mechanism for change.
Other possible influences on Charles can be detected in some of the common subject matter that both choose to consider in their writings, even though each may treat them quite differently. Examples of references that occur in the works of both men include: the biology of corals, the diversity of the shape and function of bird's beaks, the expression of emotion in animals, the influence of sexual selection, selective breeding in domestic animals and plants (both mention pigeons early in this argument.), references to geology and uniformitarianism as evidence of an old earth, physical, intellectual and cultural evolution of man and the application to man of the same evolutionary forces as all other animals. There are abundant stylistic similarities in sentence structure and word choice easily visible between the works of the two Darwins, even the titles of their greatest works are similar; "The Origin of Society" and "The Origin of Species".
Before I close I should be sure not to strip away too much credit from Charles Darwin since although he was clearly influenced by his grandfather it is also true that "The Origin of Species" contains many unique elements considered only by Charles. In particular, Charles dispels the idea of the inheritance of acquired characteristics that his grandfather and Lamarck suggest, and more importantly, supplies a huge body of expertly gathered observations from around the world to support his ideas with a level of thoroughness and detail that Erasmus was never able to supply. Ultimately Erasmus's work seems to say: "could it be that...?", whereas Charles's work screams: "the facts suggest...."
Darwin, Erasmus "Commonplace book" [microform] Reproduced ... from the original manuscripts at Down
House. New York: Distributed by Clearwater Pub. c1970.
Darwin, Erasmus. " TheBotanic Garden: a Poem in Two Parts"
Part I "The Economy ofVegetation" London: J.Johnson (1791)
Part II "The Loves ofplants" London: J. Johnson (1789)
Darwin, Erasmus. "Zoonomia;or, The Laws of Organic Life "
Part I. London: J. Johnson (1794)
Parts I-III. London: J. Johnson (1796) (2nd Ed.)
Darwin, Erasmus. "A Planfor the Conduct of Female Education in Boarding Schools. " London: J. Johnson (1797)
Darwin, Erasmus. "Phytologia;or, The philosophy of Agriculture and Gardening " London: J. Johnson. (1800)
Darwin, Erasmus. "TheTemple of Nature; or, The Origin of Society " London: J. Johnson (1803)
King-Hele, Desmond. "Erasmus Darwin " London, Macmillan, New York, St. Martin's Press (1963)
King-Hele, Desmond. "The essential writings of Erasmus Darwin" London, MacGibbon & Kee, (1968)
Darwin, Charles and Krause, Ernst "ErasmusDarwin" The biography of Erasmus Darwin with a preliminary notice by Charles Darwin. Edited by Nora Barlow. University Press (1989)
Barlow, Nora. "The Autobiography of CharlesDarwin 1809-1882" New York: Norton and Co. (1969)
King-Hele, Desmond "Doctorof revolution : the life and genius of Erasmus Darwin " London: Faber & Faber (1977)
Darwin, Erasmus "Theletters of Erasmus Darwin" Edited by Desmond King-Hele. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (1981)
McNeil, Maureen. "Under the banner of science :Erasmus Darwin and hisage" Manchester: Manchester University Press. (1987)
Pearson, Hesketh. "DoctorDarwin" London: J.M. Dent & Sons Ltd. (1930)
Seventy Five subjects in which Erasmus Darwin contributed significant ideas, pioneered technology or made valid predictions. From "The essential writings of Erasmus Darwin" Desmond King-Hele, (1968).
1) abolition of slavery 34) materialism 67) ventilation 2) adiabatic expansion 35) mental illness 68) versifying science 3) aesthetics 36) microscopy 69) warm and cold fronts 4) afforestation 37) mimicry 70) water closets 5) air travel 38) moon's origin 71) water machines 6) animal camouflage 39) nerve impulses 72) wind-gauges 7) artesian wells 40) night airglow 73) windmills 8) artificial insemination 41) nitrogen cycle 74) wind 9) aurorae 42) ocular spectra 75) women's emancipation 10) biological adaptation 43) organic happiness 11) biological pest control 44) origin of life 12) canal lifts (locks) 45) outer atmosphere 13) carriage design 46) phosphorous 14) cemeteries 47) photosynthesis 15) centrifugation 48) Portland vase 16) cloud formation 49) rocket motors 17) compressed air 50) rotary pumps 18) copying machines 51) secular morality 19) educational reform 52) seed-drills 20) electrical machines 53) sewage farms 21) electrotherapy 54) sexual reproduction 22) evolutionary theory 55) speaking machines 23) exercise for children 56) squinting 24) fertilizers 57) steam carriages 25) formation of coal 58) steam turbines 26) geological stratification 59) struggle for survival 27) hereditary disease 60) submarines 28) individuality of buds 61) survival of the fittest 29) insecticides 62) telescopes 30) language 63) temperance 31) light verse 64) timber production 32) limestone deposits 65) travel of seeds 33) manures 66) treatment of dropsy