Erasmus Darwin, described as ‘The Da Vinci of the Midlands’, is a man whose philosophical poetry has been called dangerously radical. Without him ‘On the Origin of Species’ - perhaps even ‘Frankenstein’ - would not have been written.
The son of a Nottingham lawyer, and the youngest of seven children, Erasmus Darwin was born at Elston Hall, near Newark, Nottinghamshire in 1731.
|The Darwins’ long association with Elston in Notts began in 1680 and ended with the second world war.|
In the mid-1750s Erasmus Darwin qualified as a doctor and started a medical practice in Nottingham. With no patron to recommend him he only lasted a few months. After treating just one patient the physician moved to Lichfield. A few weeks later he successfully treated a young man for whom death had seemed inevitable. This feat, brought about through unconventional care, led to Erasmus becoming famous. His unusual treatments included the advocating of exercise regimes and the use of herbal medicine. He was a strong believer in the benefits of good ventilation, putting holes into crowded rooms for the fresh air. He also held sympathetic views on mental illness, and was known to dish out the opiates and prescribe sex.
The combination of a debilitating knee injury - caused by falling out of a carriage - and large appetite meant that Erasmus was a big man. He cut a half-moon out of his dining table so that he could sit closer to his food. Despite his big belly, and possession of a stutter, Erasmus was a real charmer and a womaniser.
|Erasmus Darwin (1731 – 1802).|
Unlike many of his generation Erasmus had no sexual hang-ups. He had no issues with masturbation or homosexuality, and was known for having a large heterosexual appetite.
"Sexual reproduction is the chef d'oeuvre, the masterpiece of nature," he wrote. Darwin believed that reproduction allowed the imprinted patterns of experience to be passed on to each new generation, in a way that sits comfortably with the latest in epigenetics.
Given his methods of treatment it’s no surprise Erasmus became so popular in Lichfield and word of his reputation reached King George III who asked him to become his personal Royal Physician. Darwin declined. Aside from his Republican tendencies his business was booming, allowing him the financial freedom to treat the poor free of charge.
Erasmus Darwin’s first wife died of alcoholism. This affected Erasmus’s attitude to drink, an anti-alcohol stance which passed down the family for generations to come. Years after his first wife's death, he fell in love with a patient, the married Elizabeth Pole. He wooed her with a deluge of verse and, when the situation allowed, married her, moving his offspring in with hers. He had at least fourteen children.
Through his poetry, Erasmus Darwin wanted to achieve things and to change people’s attitudes, so he turned to ‘didactic poetry’ (poetry with a message/instruction). His purpose was "…to enlist imagination under the banner of science". It was an inventive mix; poetry that contained science and radical ideas including a new theory of biological evolution.
At that time science, literature, philosophy and religion formed one common culture, and Erasmus was especially interested in how science and the arts were connected. Nearly all of his scientific ideas appeared in verse.
Erasmus Darwin translated the works of the Swedish botanist Carolus Linnaeus, producing volumes of work in which he coined many of the English plant names used today. One long poem ‘The Botanic Garden’ (1789), structured in rhyming couplets of four thousand lines, consisted of two parts, ‘The Economy of Vegetation’, and ‘The Loves of the Plants’.
‘The Economy of Vegetation’ attacked political tyranny and religious superstition. The poem includes a vision of the universe’s creation that’s much like the big bang theory; a pagan version that insists on a non-divine, self-regulating economy of the natural world.
‘The Loves of the Plants’, a popular rendering of the Linnaeus' works, applies Goddesses and eroticism to the classification of plants. Produced by the radical publisher Joseph Johnson it was quickly followed by further editions. Johnson, later imprisoned for a ‘dangerous’ publication, paid Erasmus a huge sum for the poem and went on to publish many of his future works. Erasmus Darwin became a leading poet of his time and inspired many of the Romantic generation with his epic, erotic, evolutionary and philosophical images.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s most famous poems, ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ and ‘Kubla Khan’ are both influenced by Erasmus Darwin’s writing. Mary Shelley’s idea for Frankenstein came as she overheard a conversation between her husband (Percy Shelley) and Lord Byron in which they referred to Erasmus Darwin and his reanimation of corpses. Byron would have been well aware of Erasmus Darwin’s poetry and, tracing back to his time in Southwell, there is a loose but significant connection between a young Byron and Erasmus through Elizabeth Pigot who encouraged Byron to publish his juvenile poems (1803/4).
One final connection comes in 1824, as works by Darwin and Byron are published together: The Botanic Garden (Erasmus Darwin’s poem in two parts) and Byron’s Poems (Don Juan) and his memoirs, were bound together in the one book. It made sense as by then both men had a reputation for being mad, bad and dangerous to know. A friend of Erasmus Darwin’s, the chemist James Keir admitted that he “paid little regard to authority.”
Erasmus Darwin vigorously opposed slavery and included his views in his poetry and personal correspondence:
E'en now, e'en now, on yonder Western shores
Weeps pale Despair, and writhing Anguish roars:
Ee'n now in Afric's groves with hideous yell
Fierce SLAVERY stalks, and slips the dogs of hell.
Conscience must listen to the voice of Guilt:
Hear him, ye Senates! Hear this truth sublime,
HE, WHO ALLOWS OPPRESSION, SHARES THE CRIME"
And in a letter he wrote to Wedgwood (the potter): 'I have just heard that there are muzzles or gags made at Birmingham for the slaves in our islands. If this be true, and such an instrument could be exhibited by a speaker in the house of commons, it might have great effect.'
At this time the British were still taking African slaves. Slavery was vital to the British economy, especially the sugar trade which depended on it. Erasmus helped to drive the British abolition movement. In Phytologia he wrote:
‘Great God of Justice! Grant that it (sugar) may soon be cultivated only by the hands of freedom.’
One of the leaders of a campaign to grow sugar beans in England, Erasmus argued that this could be used as a sweetener instead of importing cane sugar from the slave-fuelled plantations.
Popular poetic taste began to turn away from Erasmus after establishment-backed critics ridiculed his political ideas by attacking his heroic couplets. Samuel Coleridge, who thought of Erasmus Darwin as "the first literary character of Europe, and the most original-minded Man" commented that "I absolutely nauseate Darwin's poem." His popular poetry was parodied, linking him with the French Revolution and the irreligious. In the early 1790s, Erasmus Darwin nearly became Poet Laureate but the respected doctor was now seen as a crank and labelled an atheist. His next (and best) book ‘Zoonomia’ (or, ‘The Laws of Organic Life’) (1794–1796), wouldn’t help. Darwin’s nationwide approval turned to scorn. William Wordsworth used the book as the source for a poem he published in 1798 but popular opinion was disapproving. Erasmus had expected his radical book to stir controversy, saying that he was "too old and hardened to fear a little abuse." However, his ideas caused great harm to his reputation.
In ‘Zoonomia’ he expanded upon the theory that life could develop without the guiding hand of a Creator. In this two-volume medical work Erasmus incorporated pathology, anatomy, psychology and biology, and contained the ideas relating to the theory of evolution. Anticipating natural selection Erasmus Darwin wrote about "three great objects of desire" for every organism; those wants being "lust, hunger, and security."
He wrote: “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, and of delivering down those improvements by generation to its posterity, world without end!”
This was a depiction of an earth as being not as it's described in the bible, and thus argues against the teachings in the book of Genesis. This controversy roused a reaction. Criticism of the Jacobins (the most radical and ruthless of the political groups formed in the wake of the French Revolution) was made alongside criticism of 'Zoonomia'.
Undaunted in his commitment to progress Erasmus offended political and religious conservatives equally. He was ridiculed for suggesting that electricity might one day have practical uses. He was criticised for his belief that women should have access to education, expressed in ‘A Plan for the Conduct of Female Education’ (1797), and his establishing of one of the first public schools for girls which adopted Erasmus’ orders that the girls should be well-fed, undertake exercise and breathe fresh air. He was lambasted for his prodemocracy stance and argument that not just the owners of property should have the right to vote. And above all, he was hated for his views on creation, not helped when he added to the family's coat of arms the Latin phrase 'E conchis omnia' ('Everything from shells'). By shells he would have meant molluscs and that everything evolves from formless objects. The Dean of Lichfield Cathedral criticised Erasmus’s new coat of arms, demanding that he withdrew it. Living close to the cathedral, and knowing that many of his patients were influenced by the Dean, Erasmus obliged.
British opinion to the French revolution was one of concern that a dangerous idealism could be coming over the channel. The execution of Louis XVI, by means of the guillotine in 1793, had brought with it the threat of radical politics and fears of revolution. It didn't help that one such ‘dangerous’ radical was Joseph Priestly, a good friend of Erasmus Darwin.
Together with contacts like Matthew Boulton, Josiah Wedgwood, and James Watt, Erasmus set up the Lunar Society which became an intellectual powerhouse of the Industrial Revolution. They would meet up under a full moon, giving them the maximum light in which to travel back. For invention and importance, the society were second only to the Royal Society, of which many of them were also members.
The visionary reformers and leading thinkers of the Lunar Society were one reason the Industrial Revolution happened here before the rest of Europe. Many of their ideas were shared, with Darwin in particular displaying an incredibly creative and practical mind. He gave the first recognisable explanations of photosynthesis and the formation of clouds. He also invented many mechanical devices.
Erasmus Darwin’s unpatented inventions include a flushing toilet, weather monitoring machines, a lift for barges, an artificial bird and a copying machine which used two pens; one operated by hand, the other by an attached machine, with the resulting copies being identical. Keen to help those with speaking difficulties, Erasmus also developed a speaking machine able to recite the Lord's Prayer and the Ten Commandments.
Perhaps the most impressive of his inventions was a steering machine for his carriage. This method of turning made carriages less likely to overturn (as you’ll recall Erasmus had an accident falling out a carriage). In the early 1900s all the modern cars were using this Darwinian steering.
|In 1813 The Lunar Society was formally wound up. With only Keir, Watt, Edgeworth and Galton still alive they held a lottery to decide who gets to keep their collected books. Samuel Galton won.|
Erasmus Darwin’s final long poem, ‘The Temple of Nature’, was published in 1803, a year after his death. The poem, originally titled ‘The Origin of Society’, is widely considered his best poetic work, tracing the progression of life from micro-organisms to civilized society and confirming his belief in shared ancestry. Like many of his works it owes much to Lucretius.
'The Temple of Nature' was on the Vatican’s banned list. Erasmus’s idea that nature was in a state of constant warfare in which evolution happens proved dangerous to Christian teaching whose ideas on the origin of life on Earth were not used to being challenged. By this time Erasmus had made his point: his argument that we all come from one common ancestor may have been developed by his grandson, Charles Darwin, but it was very much Erasmus who provided the bulk of the theory.
One of Erasmus’s sons - Charles Darwin’s father - Robert Darwin, was in the family business, working as a doctor, and it was expected that Charles would follow suit. Like Erasmus, Charles went to Edinburgh to become a physician but he couldn’t bare the sight of blood. Breaking with tradition he took a route that should have meant his becoming a clergyman but, whilst at Cambridge, he saw the chance to take a place on HMS Beagle to work as a naturalist. He nearly didn’t make the trip as the ship’s captain, Robert FitzRoy, didn’t like Charles Darwin’s nose. FitzRoy was convinced that a man’s character could be judged by his features and so doubted Charles had the energy or determination for the journey. FitzRoy was persuaded by a professor at Cambridge and the financial support of Josiah Wedgewood II (Charles's future father-in-law) that Charles was the right man for the expedition.
Charles Darwin formed his own theory of evolution by natural selection but didn’t give Erasmus the credit he was due. I believe that Charles wanted to distance himself from Erasmus’s work as he had been aware of the storm his grandfather had aroused. Charles was known to have been concerned about causing controversy and held off publishing his own theory for many years. By leaving out the Erasmus name, Charles thought he had more chance of achieving credibility.
|With ‘On the Origin of Species’ (1859) and ‘The Descent of Man’ (1871) Charles was abused and satirised in much the same way Erasmus had been.|
Robert Grant, who had mentored a young Charles in Edinburgh, was a great admired of Erasmus’s theory of evolution and there is ample evidence that Charles adopted his grandfather’s ideas. Charles read Zoonomia as a student and did so again when coming back from his voyage on the Beagle. There is a notebook that exists today in which Charles’s ideas are first depicted. This book includes his famous evolutionary tree of life.
On the first page of Charles Darwin’s famous notebook is written the word ‘Zoonomia’. Charles would have grown up with Erasmus’s books and would have visited his ancestral home in Nottinghamshire. Charles named his first-born William Erasmus Darwin and later wrote a biography of Erasmus.Charles Darwin wasn’t born until ten years after his grandfather’s death. By then, the idea that humans pass down improvements through the generations had already been made by Erasmus. Predating the term ‘survival of the fittest’ by seventy years, Erasmus wrote that "the strongest and most active animal should propagate the species, which should thence become improved."
A child of Nottinghamshire, Erasmus Darwin was a man who expressed his dangerous ideas and, looking back, was not only on the right side of history, he changed it. To many, however, the theory of evolution remains dangerous and controversial.
This is an extended version of an article first appearing on the Nottingham UNESCO City of Literature website."All nature exists in a state of perpetual improvement." Erasmus Darwin.