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 in shared ancestry — 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 a genius, a fact acknowledged even by his fiercest critics. 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 mechanical copying machine, a "fiery chariot" (steam car) 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 proposed a big-bang-like origin of the universe, a black-hole-like end for the Earth, and a violent birth of the Moon. 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 best light to see their way home after meetings. Until he moved out of the region and was too far away to attend (and started a new philosophical society near his new home), Erasmus Darwin was more conscientious about attending Lunatick meetings than meetings of the better-known, better-connected, more prestigious Royal Society.
Erasmus Darwin's father (Robert) just managed to qualify as landed gentry. Erasmus and his siblings fared better than many of their contemporaries by surviving to adulthood, but that meant the family wealth had to be shared among more offspring, and Erasmus was the baby of seven. Erasmus Darwin's son (also named Robert) married Josiah Wedgwood's daughter, later receiving and investing wisely a substantial inheritance from his father-in-law. Erasmus Darwin no doubt lived comfortably, but unlike his own father and son, he had no choice but to work for a living all his life. He made his living as a doctor, accommodating wealthy clients with house calls, and tending to the poor at no charge, sometimes giving them food and blankets along with medical attention. 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, Erasmus penned the hugely popular The Loves of the Plants, which provided reference illustrations, and supplemented the poetry with an explanation of the Linnaean system as well as abundant footnotes.
Besides botanical poetry, Erasmus wrote screeds of poems for his family and friends, and 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. Livid to learn that slave muzzles were manufactured in Birmingham, he wrote his friend Wedgewood and suggested the items be displayed in the House of Commons to illustrate the cruelty of the slave trade. Despite being asked to serve as a private physician to George III, Erasmus openly sympathized with the colonies in the American Revolution, and was good friends with Benjamin Franklin. 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. Years after his first wife's death, he fell in love with a patient, the not-quite-yet-widowed Elizabeth Pole. For five years, he wooed her with poetry, and when they eventually married, he moved his brood in with hers.
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 where he suggested the plausibility of life arising from "one living filament, which THE GREAT FIRST CAUSE endued with animality." He also advanced a four-pronged argument that organisms can change over time:
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" (translating Linnaeus's works on plant reproduction, Erasmus Darwin's rival William Withering searched frantically for sanitized terminology; Erasmus Darwin didn't bother). These characteristics were tolerated, if not admired, while England enjoyed social stability. In 1791, two years after French revolutionaries stormed the Bastille, Erasmus Darwin symbolized their collective action in the form of a heroic, egalitarian Colossus awaking from a long slumber. But as the French Revolution turned into the Reign of Terror, Brits watched with growing horror. Once the British found themselves at war with Napoleon, any free-thinking Francophile's ideas looked dangerously subversive. Erasmus Darwin's old verses haunted his reputation for many years.
In Britain, William Pitt's government suspended Habeas corpus. Two of Erasmus Darwin's contemporaries, Thomas Muir and Thomas Fyshe Palmer published works arguing for non-violent parliamentary reforms, and they both found themselves en route to Botany Bay. Erasmus Darwin's own publisher, Joseph Johnson, was tried for sedition, convicted by a rigged jury, and imprisoned for several months. Compared to these men, Erasmus Darwin was lucky, but even though his body avoided dire punishment, his reputation was largely destroyed. Besides tossing seditionists into prison or onto ships, Pitt's government also established The Anti-Jacobin to target anything that smelled a little too French. In 1798, The Anti-Jacobin boss George Canning, who would later become a prime minister, wrote a lengthy poem, The Loves of the Triangles, aimed squarely at Erasmus Darwin's poetry and ideas. Unfortunately for him, the parody was wickedly funny. The same year, Erasmus Darwin figured in an editorial cartoon in the Anti-Jacobin aimed at illustrating the real and imagined moral dangers of everything happening across the English Channel. In the cartoon, he carried a basket brimming with Jacobin flowers (tricolor cockades) characteristic of French revolutionaries. To make sure everyone knew Erasmus Darwin was the guilty party, his basket was labeled "Zoonomia."
Writers at the Anti-Jacobin clobbered Erasmus Darwin's poetry as a way of attacking his ideas, such as his opposition to slavery (and to the slave trade that enriched some of his peers), 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. That was an idea that would continue to horrify England's upper crust when Charles Darwin contemplated his own evolutionary theory. 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.
The Anti-Jacobin also ridiculed Erasmus Darwin's contention that electricity might one day have practical uses. The forward-thinking writers at the reactionary periodical knew that electricity could only ever be a source of fun for rich people at parties.
Erasmus Darwin died several years before his famous grandson was born, and Charles Darwin had a complicated relationship with his paternal grandfather's legacy. Erasmus's son and Charles's father Robert didn't discuss evolution much, never published on the topic, but nevertheless accepted it. Likewise, Zoonomia influenced the doctor Robert Grant, who acted as a mentor to the young Charles at Edinburgh. So Erasmus influenced his grandson at least indirectly. But Erasmus remained a controversial figure. When Charles added to his Origin of Species a historical sketch crediting those who had preceded him in writing about evolution, he praised Lamarck as the first person to "excite much attention" for the topic, ignoring Erasmus's writings. Yet in a footnote, Charles criticized Erasmus as the source of Lamarck's "erroneous views." Charles's treatment of Erasmus seems pretty unfair, but the grandson may have had a practical reason for disowning the grandfather. Incensed over the theory of natural selection, Bishop Wilberforce likened Charles to Erasmus, even quoting a lengthy anti-Erasmus rant from Canning. Charles Darwin later tried to somewhat rehabilitate his grandfather's reputation in The Life of Erasmus Darwin, but Charles 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.
Initially published while Enlightenment values were still in vogue in England, The Botanic Garden was a hit. Published in the midst of the Napoleonic Wars, The Temple of Nature was a flop. But although 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 January 1, 2021