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 spheric 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.
In his posthumously published Temple of Nature, Erasmus Darwin outlined not only his belief in evolution, but his belief that modern life arose from simple, minute organisms. Decades later, when faced with the same brand of derision Erasmus had faced, Charles Darwin would try to disown his scandalous grandfather, then eventually relent and write his biography.
Erasmus Darwin was one of the most amazingly diverse geniuses in history. To his credit were the inventions of a speaking machine (fueled by his interest in the origin of language, the partially completed model fooled some first-time listeners into thinking they heard real a person saying "mama" or "papa"), a copying machine rivaling modern photocopiers, and a carriage steering system later used in automobiles. An enthusiastic fossil digger, he was influenced by his friend James Hutton, though he accepted elements of both Neptunism and Vulcanism. He developed a model of the atmosphere that was not overturned until the 1950s. He correctly identified sugars and starches as the byproducts of plant "digestion," recognized the importance of nitrates and phosphorus in sustaining vegetation and, decades before their actual discovery, predicted the existence of stomata; after coating leaves with oil and observing their subsequent death, he concluded that they must breathe through tiny pores.
If Erasmus Darwin's accomplishments seem unbelievable, he might have owed something to his circle of equally ingenious friends. For decades, he belonged to a largely informal club known as the Lunar Society of Birmingham. Some other luminaries in the club included the industrialist Matthew Boulton; the potter Josiah Wedgwood, Charles Darwin's other grandfather; the preacher, philosopher and oxygen discoverer Joseph Priestly; and James Watt, inventor of the steam engine. Starting around 1775, the self-described Lunaticks started to meet monthly near the full moon — not for some weird lunar ritual, but because in the days before electricity, a full moon afforded them the most light to see their way home after the meetings. Until he moved out of the region and was too far away to attend, Erasmus Darwin was more conscientious about attending Lunatick meetings than meeting of the better-known, better-connected, more prestigious Royal Society.
Erasmus Darwin made his living as a doctor, accommodating wealthy clients with house calls and tending to the poor at no charge. Though he may have prescribed opium a bit liberally (many doctors did), he promoted sanitation, vaccinations, and temperance. His grandson Charles Darwin wrote, "He was much in advance of his age in his ideas as to sanitary arrangements — such as supplying towns with pure water, having holes made into crowded sitting and bed-rooms for the constant admission of fresh air, and not allowing chimneys to be closed during summer." A master of verse, he penned The Loves of the Plants and screeds of poems for his family and friends; his poetry influenced the work of Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge and Shelley. He commemorated the achievements of astronomer William Herschel in verse. He translated the works of Linnaeus with obsessive attention to detail. He advocated education for women and despised slavery. He openly sympathized with the colonies in the American Revolution, writing to a friend, "I hope Dr. [Benjamin] Franklin will live to see peace, to see America recline under her own vine and fig-tree, turning her swords into plough-shares." After the war, Erasmus Darwin was elected to the American Philosophical Society.
Though impeded by a stammer, Erasmus Darwin was widely known as charming, kind and attractive to the ladies. He was twice married, and took at least one mistress after the death of his first wife. He had 12 legitimate children and two (known) illegitimate daughters whom he raised with their siblings as equals. Victorian society was later scandalized by his conduct, but it's not hard to imagine that plenty of his contemporaries and social equals also had illegitimate children; what was so shocking about Dr. Darwin was that he looked after his.
Only on rare occasions did he stray from his usual pleasant nature. When a longtime rival tried muscling in on the medical practice of his son, Erasmus Darwin slyly suggested publicizing the rival's habit of congratulating patients on their recovery shortly before they died.
Of all his achievements, Erasmus Darwin is perhaps best remembered for his advocacy of biological evolution. His biographer Desmond King-Hele credits the digging of the Harecastle Tunnel in 1767 with firing Erasmus Darwin's interest. An assortment of fossil bones turned up in the tunnel, and Wedgwood sent the fossils to the doctor for identification. Erasmus Darwin found he couldn't identify the species and joked that they might be a "Patagonian ox." Not long afterwards, the doctor suffered a carriage accident, and his recuperation might have given him an opportunity to ponder change over time. He first suggested the idea in 1770 by putting the allegorical motto E conchis omnia, or "Everything from shells" on his carriage and his bookplate, shown here. The choice was shrewdly subtle; the scallop shell, after all, was the emblem of Saint James, and Christian pilgrims proudly displayed it. But not everybody was fooled. He kept the bookplates, but had his carriage painted over when he found himself satirized in verse. A local clergyman wrote:
Great wizard he! by magic spells
Can all things raise from cockle shells.
But Erasmus Darwin didn't keep quiet forever. The idea reemerged in 1794 in Zoonomia when he suggested the plausibility of life arising from "one living filament, which THE GREAT FIRST CAUSE endued with animality." When Zoonomia came out in print, Erasmus Darwin believed he was "too old and hardened to fear a little abuse." In fact, he miscalculated badly; he probably couldn't have found a worse time to publish his radical book if he had tried.
Erasmus Darwin was likely a deist, a fervent believer in democracy, and a practitioner of what some would call "free love." These characteristics were tolerated, if not admired, while England enjoyed social stability. Once the British found themselves at war with Napoleon, however, the free-thinking Francophile's ideas looked dangerously subversive, and his fellow Englishmen were not amused. As England's population became more anti-intellectual, he quickly fell out of favor. As a result, his contributions to science were underestimated, and his words were largely misquoted then satirized for a century afterwards.
One publication, the Anti-Jacobin, released a lengthy poem, The Loves of the Triangles, aimed squarely at Erasmus Darwin's poetry and ideas. Writers at the Anti-Jacobin clobbered Erasmus Darwin's poetry as a way of attacking his "seditious" ideas, such as his opposition to slavery, and his conviction that all adult males (never mind females) deserved the right to vote, even if they didn't own substantial amounts of property — an idea that would continue to horrify England's upper crust when Charles Darwin contemplated his own evolutionary ideas. Science historian Patricia Fara — no fan of Erasmus Darwin's poetry — remarks:
Darwin took practical steps to help others and improve Britain. In turning to poetry, he did not simply step aside from his previous path through life, but began trying to achieve his ideals in a different way. . . . The Anti-Jacobin satirists, on the other hand, were wedded through self-interest to stability. They set about undermining his political mission by attacking him at his weakest point — his heroic couplets — and so encouraged critics to ignore the substance of his arguments.
Charles Darwin later tried to restore the reputation his grandfather had earned in The Life of Erasmus Darwin, but he allowed his own daughter, Henrietta, to edit his work, and she removed all the parts she thought too salacious for a Victorian audience — 16 percent of the book. Though some came to think of Erasmus Darwin as old-fashioned and irrelevant, he still managed to galvanize many young scientists and philosophers.
Philosophers have . . . been called unbelievers; unbelievers of what? of the fictions of fancy, of witchcraft, hobgoblins, apparitions, vampires, fairies; of the influence of the stars on human actions, miracles wrought by the bones of saints, the flight of ominous birds, the predictions from the bones of dying animals, expounders of dreams, fortune-tellers, conjurors, modern prophets, necromancy, cheiromancy, animal magnetism, metallic tractors, with endless variety of folly?
And perhaps above all, Darwin was an optimist. Not only anticipating the arguments of his famous grandson, but also those of Thomas Malthus, he acknowledged that life consists largely of competition for survival. Yet Erasmus Darwin rejoiced.
Shout round the globe, how reproduction strives
With vanquished Death — and Happiness survives;
How Life increasing peoples every clime,
And young renascent Nature conquers Time.
Narrative text and graphic design © by Michon Scott - Updated March 3, 2013