Hull, United Kingdom
Fig 1. Erasmus Darwin Portrait by Joseph Wright of Derby. [Public Domain – Wright died in 1797]
That Erasmus Darwin MD., FRS. (1731–1802) was overshadowed, often forgotten, is not surprising when one considers the well-deserved fame and importance of Charles Darwin (1809-1882).
Stephen Jay Gould observed in The Structure of Evolutionary Theory (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. 2002): “‘precursoritis’ is the bane of historiography.” Though no “bane of historiography,” Erasmus Darwin’s studies and concepts were undoubtedly the precursors of his more famous grandson Charles’s works, On the Origin of Species and, The Descent of Man.
Erasmus Darwin (Fig 1.) was born at Elston Hall, near Nottingham, the seventh child of Robert Darwin, a lawyer, and Elizabeth Hill. He was the father of Dr. Robert Waring Darwin F.R.S. (1766-1848), father of Charles Darwin. In 1750 Erasmus read both classics and mathematics at St. John’s College, Cambridge. He then studied medicine in Edinburgh, taking his M.B. degree from St John’s College Cambridge in 1755.a His interests were protean, profound, and highly influential. But first and foremost he was a practicing physician. He lived in Lichfield in Staffordshire from 1756, where his medical practice flourished. His first wife, Mary Howard, died in 1770, leaving three surviving sons. The youngest, the physician Robert Waring Darwin, married the daughter of his friend, the scientific entrepreneur Josiah Wedgwood, a fellow member of the Lunar Society.1
Although medical practice was his principal work, his natural curiosity diverted him to many other explorations in science. In 1757 his first paper in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society proved that electricity did not affect the physical properties of electrically charged air. Darwin was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society (F.R.S.) in 1761. His polymathy is shown inter alia in his founding the famous Lunar Society1 in Birmingham (c. 1765-1813). In the late 1770s he cultivated an acclaimed, botanic garden near Lichfield. Many poetic works flowed from his quill. Although praised by Wordsworth and Coleridge, others criticized his flamboyant poetic style.
His ideas about evolution appear in one of his most important publications, the medico-philosophical work, Zoonomia (or The Laws of Organic Life).b (Fig 2.) It was both a classification and a synopsis of physiology for medical practice. It showed that ideas resulted from mental development through habits that were often based on imitation; they are now described as “memes.” Although Erasmus had died before Charles’s birth, without doubt in Zoonomia lay the seeds of influence for Charles Darwin’s later account of evolution. In Zoonomia (volume 1. Chapter 39, pp. 482-537) Erasmus suggested what was later called natural selection:
Would it be too bold to imagine, that in the great length of time, since the earth began to exist, 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 GREAT FIRST CAUSE endued with animality, with the power of acquiring new parts, attended with new propensities, directed by irritations, sensations, volitions, and associations; and thus possessing the faculty of continuing to improve by its own inherent activity, [my italics] and of delivering down those improvements by generation to its posterity, world without end!
This highly controversial view risked accusations of blasphemy, by contradicting an almost universal religious creed of divine creation. But he was at pains to diminish such a charge by repeated reference to The First Great Cause (God). Indeed he concluded:
Our idea of the power of the Almighty Creator becomes more elevated and sublime, as we trace the operations of nature from cause to cause, climbing up the links of these chains of being, till we ascend to the Great Source of all things. (Zoonomia vol 1. P.441)
|Fig 2. Zoonomia (1794-6) Frontispiece|
He was nonetheless ridiculed, notably in a satirical verse by George Canning, later Prime Minister; his reputation was damaged.2
A long section entitled Of generation stated:
Generation involved a continuous development process: passed on to the embryo and then developed by a series of interaction with their environment, which integrated body and mind;
And on natural selection by survival of the fittest, in reference to birds he says:
The final cause of this contest amongst the males seems to be, that the strongest and most active animal should propagate the species, which should thence become improved.
In like vein, in The Economy of Vegetation, part 1. based on his The Botanic Garden (1789) he gave a clear hint of progress of the species by evolution, which was to influence his famous grandson. Erasmus Darwin’s last work, a lengthy poem published posthumously in 1803, The Temple of Nature, expanded on the views published in Zoonomia on the development of life on earth. It explicitly related in verse the story of the evolution of life from primitive beginnings to the present day:
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.
Decades later, Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913) in 1858 wrote to Charles Darwin with his conclusions that
Every species has come into existence coincident both in space and time with a pre-existing closely allied species.
Wallace then proposed that new species arise by the progression and continued divergence of varieties that outlive the parent species in the struggle for existence. A set of papers, bearing both Charles Darwin’s and Wallace’s names, was published as a single article entitled: On the Tendency of Species to Form Varieties; and on the Perpetuation of Varieties and Species by Natural Means of Selection in the Proceedings of the Linnaean Society in 1858. In The Descent of Man (1871), Charles elaborated natural selection by survival of the fittest.
Thus it was fifty-seven years after Erasmus Darwin’s death that On the Origin of Species (1859) was published by Charles, leading to the gradual acceptance of evolution by natural selection.
Charles worked on his own famous discoveries and prolific observations from The Voyage of the Beagle published in 1839 as his Journal and Remarks; later editions hinted at his new ideas on evolution. He commented on how his grandfather Erasmus Darwin,3 Lamarck’s (1744-1829)4 “inheritance of acquired characteristics” (1809), and Geoffroy Saint Hilaire,5 had described or inferred natural selection. He wrote:
Dr. Darwin in England, and Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire (as we shall immediately see) in France, came to the same conclusion on the origin of species, in the years 1794-5.6
Fig 3. Memorial plaque: Erasmus Darwin, in Lichfield Cathedral Close.
The word “evolution” appears frequently throughout Zoonomia, but not until the penultimate chapter of Zoonomia, “Of Generation,” does Erasmus fully unveil his original and controversial concepts.
It was in his later The Temple of Nature, a remarkable achievement, that he set out a theory, which was not scientifically accepted for another hundred years, and then only after much dispute. Creationists apart, scientists subsequently have recognized and accepted its notions as correct. Although a description of organic nature (“eat or be eaten, and which would seem to be one great slaughterhouse, one universal scene of rapacity and injustice”) might seem a fitting image for competitive natural selection, it was written not by Charles but by Erasmus Darwin. It is hard to escape the conclusion that Charles’s formulation of his theory of evolution was influenced by his early reading of Erasmus’s ideas in Zoonomia.
A larger than life figure of eccentric originality, humanity, and passion, like Samuel Johnson (1709-84), also of Lichfield, he was large, clumsy, and on occasion sarcastic; he talked with a stammer. Yet he was genial, humane, and immensely attractive to women.7,8 The poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge described his intellect:
Erasmus Darwin possesses perhaps a greater range of knowledge than any other man in Europe.c
Erasmus married Mary Howard who died in 1740-1770. On her death, the governess, Mary Parker became his mistress and bore him two illegitimate daughters. He married Elizabeth Pole in March 1781 and a year later they moved to Derby. He died suddenly in 1802, aged 70, at Breadsall Priory, a house near Derby to which the family had moved only weeks earlier. At the grand, Georgian Erasmus Darwin House, his home for over 20 years at Beacon Street, a plaque describes him only as author of the Botanic Garden. It is more fitting that a memorial plaque (Fig 3.) is dedicated to Erasmus Darwin, physician, in the close adjacent to Lichfield Cathedral.
- His Cambridge M.B. is recorded at: https://www.joh.cam.ac.uk/hall-portraits.
There is no record of his M.D., although this appears on some of his books and papers. [Maureen McNeil, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004.]
- Published 1794-96, and reprinted, two volumes Palala Press, 2016. Available from The Project Gutenberg EBook of Zoonomia, Vol. I, by Erasmus Darwin. www.gutenberg.org › 53,077 free ebooks › 5
- Cottle Joseph. Reminiscences of Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Robert Southey. London, Houston & Stoneman, 1848:85.
- Pearce JMS. Polymathy in decline? Hektoen International. Fall 2013.
- Smith CUM, Arnott R. eds. The Genius of Erasmus Darwin. Aldershot, Hampshire, Ashgate. 2005. Pp.20-25.
- Darwin C, Krause E. The life of Erasmus Darwin. London, Murray, 1879. [Before publication however 16% of the work was cut out by Charles’ daughter Henrietta Litchfield — mostly the most provocative parts.] First unabridged edition Edited D. King-Hele, Cambridge Univ Press, 2003
- Lamarck J-B. Philosophie Zoologique. Paris: Museum d’Histoire Naturelle. 1809.
- Geoffroy Saint Hilaire’s Histoire naturelle, générale. 1859 tom. ii. p. 405.
- Darwin C. An historical sketch of the progress of opinion On The Origin Of Species, Previously To The Publication Of The First Edition Of This Work. (6th Ed’n) www.gutenberg.org/files/2009/2009-h/2009-h.htm
- King-Hele D. Doctor of Revolution: the life and genius of Erasmus Darwin. London. Faber,.1977.
- Fara P. Erasmus Darwin : sex, science, and serendipity. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2012.
J.M.S. PEARCE, MD, FRCP (London) is emeritus consultant neurologist in the Department of Neurology at the Hull Royal Infirmary, England. All correspondence to: 304 Beverley Road, Anlaby, East Yorkshire, HU10 7BG, England.