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The Dolomites, 'mighty monuments of past delight' (see right-hand column)

Erasmus Darwin was a genius, but more than that, he was a likeable and thoroughly decent human being, unassuming despite the celebrity he achieved, a devoted husband and father, a loyal friend, and a character. He was enormously fat, he was talkative, he was witty, he stammered. He was restless, creative, inventive. For a time he was regarded as the finest poet of his age, admired by Coleridge, Wordsworth and the Shelleys; as a botanist he published a theory of evolution sixty years before his grandson, Charles; as a scientist he was the first to propound two of the fundamental laws of gases, to explain how clouds form and how artesian wells work; as an engineer, he designed the steering mechanism used in all modern cars. On the Continent he is recognised as one of the leading Enlightenment philosophers, alongside Rousseau and Goethe. He fathered fourteen children, including two whilst he was 'between wives' (his first wife having died in childbirth). But all that was just in his spare time; he earned his living as a good, caring and compassionate doctor, tirelessly travelling 10,000 miles a year on the terrible roads of eighteenth century England to attend his patients. 

Erasmus Darwin was born in 1731 at Elston, near Newark. His father was a lawyer. He was educated at Cambridge and Edinburgh Universities, the latter having at that time the leading medical school in the British Isles. Having tried and failed to establish a medical practice in Nottingham, he moved to Lichfield in 1756. Shortly after his arrival there he saved the life of a young gentleman by means of a novel course of treatment and from then on, the success of his practice was assured. The following year he married Mary (Polly) Howard, by whom he had four sons and a daughter. The youngest of those sons, Robert, was to become Charles Darwin's father.  The family moved to a big house on the edge of the Cathedral close in Lichfield, which is now open to the public as the Erasmus Darwin Museum.

Shortly after moving to Lichfield Erasmus Darwin became friendly with Matthew Boulton and, as the Lunar Circle gradually coalesced, he was one of its founding members, and a most enthusiastic member at that. He got involved in canal-building schemes and invented an improved canal lock. Aside from his improvements in carriage design and especially steering, he was the first to suggest the development of internal combustion engines using hydrogen as a fuel (which might yet become commonplace), and to suggest hydrogen-oxygen rocket motors, which were finally introduced in the Saturn rocket almost 200 years later. He advocated the treatment of cataracts by the method now used (though he did not attempt any operations himself). The first to explain how clouds form, and to describe warm and cold fronts and their influence on the weather, he was also the first to advocate the plotting of weather maps. His descriptions of the upper layers of the atmosphere were not bettered until the 1950s. In his wilder flights (sorry!) of inventive fancy he even speculated on the feasibility of steam-powered aeroplanes:

Soon shall thy arm, Unconquer'd Steam! afar

Drag the slow barge, or drive the rapid car;

Or on wide-waving wings expanded bear

The flying-chariot through the fields of air.

Fair crews triumphant, leaning from above,

Shall wave their fluttering kerchiefs as they move

Or warrior bands alarm the gaping crowd

And armies shrink beneath the shadowy cloud.


Whilst it hasn't worked out exactly like that, he was a hundred years ahead of his time in envisaging the possibility of air travel and the role of aircraft in warfare. In another passage he anticipated submarines.

In 1779 he invented a mechanical copying machine, which caused what was written with one pen to be replicated by a second, linked pen. It remains the only copying machine ever invented capable of  producing a copy indistinguishable from the original. He worked on a speaking machine which reportedly did a convincing impression of a child saying 'mama' and 'papa', but he never collected the thousand pounds that Matthew Boulton teasingly offered if he could develop his machine to the point where it could recite the Lord's Prayer, the Creed and the Ten Commandments. He kept a commonplace book, in which he made notes and sketches of many more inventive ideas, very reminiscent of Leonardo da Vinci's famous sketches.

Tireless, from the mid 1770s Erasmus Darwin constructed a botanical garden near his Lichfield home, where he carried out botanical research. He wrote six books, including a translation of the Linnaean system of botany, which he popularised in a saucy poem entitled Loves of the Plants, made all the more racy by giving the plants human personalities (he believed that plants feel, though less keenly than animals). In a 630-page book on botany, entitled Phytologia, he made major strides in the understanding of plant physiology, photosynthesis and plant nutrition, recognising for the first time the key roles that nitrogen, phosphorus and carbon play in plant growth. By showing how agricultural productivity could be increased, he laid the foundations of scientific agriculture. His 1300-page book on animal life, Zoonomia, was in part a surprisingly modern medical tract, in which he dealt not just with physical ailments, but also with psychological and social afflictions such as depression, delusion and religious mania. 

This book also sketched out, for the first time, a theory of evolution in which the only role for a god was that of 'great first cause'. He conjectured that all living things are ultimately descended from a single microscopic ancestor (which is the modern scientific orthodoxy). Beyond that, he argued, evolution has been driven by 'the three great objects of desire' - sexual lust, hunger and security. To a greater or lesser extent, depending on the species, lust leads to the dominant males propagating the species, thus improving it. This is the essence of natural selection. The need for food has led different species to develop different characteristics, adapted to their preferred diet, and here he cites as examples the elephant's trunk or the hard beaks that some birds have developed. Considerations of security have similarly led to different adaptations, such as flight, speed, camouflage or protective shells. He summed all this up in the following passage:

'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, ... 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 generations to its posterity .. !'  (Note his use of an exclamation, rather than a question, mark.) 

In its day this was highly controversial and widely rejected, not only by the Christian churches, which maintained their belief that God had created species which were immutable, but also by much of the scientific establishment, which at that time held similar views. Almost as controversial was the great antiquity Darwin attributed to the earth, which was generally believed at that time to be less than 6000 years old. He found himself alone; no-one came forward to support him, and he was widely condemned for his views. 

In 1781 Erasmus Darwin married Elizabeth Pole, an attractive widow who was to bear him another seven children, and went to live at her home near Derby, and later in Derby itself. On account of the travelling that would have been involved, this brought to an end his active involvement in the Lunar Society, although he continued to correspond with several of its members.

Erasmus Darwin's last work, a great book-length poem published posthumously in 1803, The Temple of Nature, expanded on the views published in Zoonomia on the development of life on earth, telling 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.


The Temple of Nature is a remarkable achievement, setting out a theory which was not scientifically accepted for another hundred years, and then only after long argument, yet is now seen as correct in all its essentials. 

Erasmus Darwin died in 1802, aged 70, at Breadsall Priory, a house near Derby to which the family had moved only weeks earlier.

Footnote. It would be sixty years after Erasmus Darwin's death before the publication in 1859 of On the Origin of Species by his grandson, Charles Darwin, began to lead to the gradual acceptance by most people that evolution by natural selection provided the best explanation of the development of life on earth. Working largely from first principles, drawing mainly on evidence amassed independently, and without acknowledging any debt to Erasmus (although he was, of course, aware of his grandfather's work), Charles Darwin came to conclusions very close to his grandfather's, to which he added relatively little; indeed, he was wrong on a few points that we now know Erasmus got right. 




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Erasmus Darwin on evolution:

'All vegetables and animals now living were originally derived from the smallest microscopic ones.'

'The final cause of this contest among males seems to be that the strongest and most active male should propagate the species, which should thence become improved.'

Coleridge on Darwin:

[Darwin has] 'perhaps a greater range of knowledge than any other man in Europe, and is the most inventive of philosophical men.'

'I think he was the first literary character in Europe, and the most original-minded man.'

'Dr Darwin, the everything except the Christian.'


Darwin's poetry exerted a powerful influence on Wordsworth, Coleridge, Percy and Mary Shelley, and Lord Byron. His scientific speculations, based on Galvani's discovery that muscle in a dissected frog contracted when subjected to an electrical current, provided the inspiration behind Mary Shelley's Frankenstein.


He ate mountains of sugar, believing it to be good for him. He wasn't especially friendly with Dr Johnson.


In The Temple of Nature, Darwin noted that nature is a battleground whose motto might be 'eat or be eaten' ( and this isn't confined to animals; plants will swamp other plants if they can). But, he argued, since in general the weaker, less active tend to get eaten by the stronger, more active animals, and the more active ones generally have a greater capacity for pleasure, this bloodbath maximises what he called 'organic pleasure'. Since many geological formations, such as limestone or coal, are formed from the remains of living things they are, he argued, monuments to this 'organic pleasure' - or, as he put it in a superb passage in The Temple of Nature:

 'Thus the tall mountains that emboss the lands / Huge isles of rock, and continents of sands / Whose dim extent eludes the inquiring sight / ARE MIGHTY MONUMENTS OF PAST DELIGHT'.

2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006  Bob Miles