Erasmus Darwin

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"From thus meditating on the great similarity of the structure of the warm-blooded animals, and at the same time of the great changes they undergo both before and after their nativity ; and by considering in how minute a portion of time many of the changes of animals above described have been produced ; 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?"
.....
"If this gradual production of the species and genera of animals be assented to, a contrary circumstance may be supposed to have occurred, namely, that some kinds by the great changes of the elements may have been destroyed. This idea is shewn to our senses - by contemplating the petrifactions of shells, and of vegetables, which may be said, like busts and medals, to record the history of remote times. Of the myriads of belemnites, cornua ammonis, and numerous other petrisied shells, which are found in the masses of limestone, which have been produced by them, none now are ever found in our seas, or in the seas of other parts of the world, according to the observations of many naturalists."
From Zoonomia

Erasmus Darwin, the grandfather of Charles Darwin, was a leading intellectual of 18th century England. He was a respected physician, a well-known poet, philosopher, botanist, and naturalist. He was born near Nottingham on December 12, 1731, and was educated at Cambridge and Edinburgh. He formulated one of the first formal theories on evolution in Zoonomia, or, The Laws of Organic Life (1794-1796) ("all vegetables and animals now living were originally derived from the smallest microscopic ones"), and he described the importance of sexual selection ("the final cause of this contest among males seems to be, that the strongest and most active animal should propagate the species, which should thence become improved").

Erasmus Darwin thus accepted that all plants and animals had evolved in form over the history of the earth - a history that he believed had lasted several million years. He believed that new species arose in the course of that evolution, which he believed was guided by natural forces. He also believed that many species had become extinct, as witnessed in the fossil record. The natural forces he believed involved "the faculty of continuing to improve by its own inherent activity, and of delivering down those improvements by generation to its posterity"; in other words he believed in the heritability of acquired features as the key mechanism driving evolution, thus anticipating some of the views of Jean-Baptiste Lamarck. In these ideas, he was influenced by the thinking of James Burnett, Lord Monboddo. [1]

Poetry

Erasmus Darwin presented his evolutionary ideas in verse, in particular in The Temple of Nature, or the Origin of Society, a Poem, with Philosophical Notes

"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."

From The Temple of Nature (1802).

His poem The Shrine of Nature was published posthumously. He was best known in his time as the author of The Botanic Garden, a long poem of decasyllabic rhymed couplets The second part of this poem - The Loves of the Plants - was published anonymously in 1789, and the whole poem appeared in 1791).

His published works also include Phytologia, or the Philosophy of Agriculture and Gardening (1799), in which he gives his opinion that plants have sensation and volition. In 1797 he wrote a paper on Female Education in Boarding Schools. Erasmus Darwin died, in Derby, in 1802.

References

  1. Erasmus Darwin (1794) Zoonomia, or, The Laws of Organic Life