Darwin, Erasmus (1731–1802)

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Erasmus Darwin, an English physician, man of science, and poet, was the grandfather of Charles Darwin, whose evolutionary views he partly anticipated, and of Francis Galton. Like Charles he was educated at Cambridge, where he took the M.B. degree in 1755. For more than forty years he practiced medicine at Lichfield and Derby and gained a wide reputation for his skill, intellectual vigor, and originality of character. Among his friends were Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whom he met in 1766, and Joseph Priestley. He corresponded with both men. In 1784 he founded the Philosophical Society at Derby to stimulate interest in the sciences. He wrote copiously, with varying degrees of success. His chief prose works are Zoonomia or the Laws of Organic Life (2 vols., London, 17941796) and Phytologia or the Philosophy of Agriculture and Gardening (London, 1799). Two long poems embodying his views about the origin and development of life, The Botanic Garden (London, 1789) and The Temple of Nature (London, 1803), were not taken seriously by his contemporaries, although Darwin himself was rather proud of them. Samuel Taylor Coleridge likened the poems to "mists that occasionally arise at the foot of Parnassus" and coined the word darwinizing to describe their biological speculations. After his death Erasmus Darwin was forgotten until interest in his ideas revived as a result of the fame of his grandson Charles.

An important feature of Erasmus Darwin's work is the relation it establishes between early evolutionary theory and the embryological controversy of the preformationists and the epigenesists. In "Of Generation," Chapter 39 of Zoonomia, Darwin argues against the doctrine that each new individual is already "preformed" on a minute scale in the reproductive cell from which it is developed. He defends an epigenetic position according to which new individuals develop by utilizing material from the environment to generate new parts. Hence, there is a transformation of a relatively undifferentiated egg into a complex organism. From this position it is only a short step to the view that life in general has evolved by a similar transformation.

Darwin actually took this step but did not provide a systematic justification of it. His writings are a curious mixture of observed facts, sober scientific judgments, and extravagant speculations, all designed to support the conclusion that living things, different from one another as they now are, originated from one "primal filament" that existed long ago. Through the ages organisms have altered to meet altered conditions of life. The result has been a continuous perfecting of their capacities. "This idea of the gradual formation and improvement of the animal world accords with the observations of some modern philosophers" (Zoonomia, Vol. I). An evolution of life has undoubtedly occurred.

Among the items of evidence adduced to support this contention are some that anticipate matters later embodied in The Origin of Species. Thus, Erasmus Darwin calls attention to such phenomena as the metamorphosis of tadpoles into frogs, the changes produced by the domestic breeding of animals, the specialized adaptations to climatic conditions, and, above all, "the essential unity of plan in all warm-blooded animals." These things oblige us to believe that all organisms have been derived from "a single living filament."

Embedded in Darwin's work are the rudiments of a theory about the causes of evolution. What he says foreshadows the more finished theory of the Chevalier de Lamarck. Environmental stimuli act on organisms that are endowed with the unique power of "irritability or sensibility." The organisms respond in accordance with their wants, desires, and dislikes. Thus, the bodily characteristics required to satisfy the organisms' demands are produced. These characteristics are inherited by some members of succeeding generations and favor them in the struggle for existence, which is depicted in lurid terms by Darwin in The Temple of Nature.

The facts that man's body bears traces of his evolution from lower forms of life and that Earth itself appears to have come into being gradually by the operation of natural processes in no way led Darwin to doubt the existence of "the Great Architect" of the cosmos. His solid and complacent deism enabled him to regard God as simply "the Great First Cause," who infused spirit and life into the primal filament and gave it the potentiality to evolve. "The whole of nature may be supposed to consist of two essences or substances, one of which may be termed spirit and the other matter" (Zoonomia, Vol. I, Section 1). The "whole of nature" was designed by the Great Architect. Indeed, God "has infinitely diversified the works of His hands, but has at the same time stamped a certain similitude on the features of nature, that demonstrates to us, that the whole is one family of one parent."

Darwin's views mark the close of the era of romantic speculation about natural history and the advance into an era of systematic observation and generalization. He did not, however, succeed in formulating any enduring principles. Perhaps his major achievement was acquiring the characteristics of scientific curiosity, independence of mind, and intellectual power that were transmitted to his descendants.

See also Coleridge, Samuel Taylor; Darwin, Charles Robert; Evolutionary Theory; Lamarck, Chevalier de; Priestley, Joseph; Rousseau, Jean-Jacques.


For material bearing on the once notorious controversy between Charles Darwin and Samuel Butler, in which the assessment of Erasmus Darwin's ideas played a part, see Charles Darwin, Life of Erasmus Darwin: An Introduction to an Essay on His Works by Ernst Krause (London, 1879), and Samuel Butler, Evolution, Old and New (London, 1879), Chs. 1214. The complex story of the controversy is given in the complete edition of The Autobiography of Charles Darwin, edited by Nora Barlow (London, 1958), Appendix, Part 2, pp. 167219.

See also Hesketh Pearson, Doctor Darwin: A Biography (London: Dent, 1930), and Desmond King-Hele, Erasmus Darwin (New York: Scribners, 1964).

T. A. Goudge (1967)

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Darwin, Erasmus (1731–1802)

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