The book occasioned the following review, by Hugh Cahill, Senior Information Assistant for the Foyle Special Collections Library, Kings College London, June 2004. source

Erasmus Darwin, physician, naturalist, poet and inventor, was born in Elston near Newark, Nottinghamshire, on 12 December 1731. He was the author of several important works of poetry and of science. The first volume of his most important work, Zoonomia, was published in 1794 with the second volume appearing two years later. In Zoonomia Darwin proposed a theory of evolution, which was to prefigure the theories of his grandson Charles.

Erasmus Darwin was educated at St John's College, Cambridge, and later at Edinburgh University, where he studied medicine. He practised as a physician in Lichfield from 1756 to 1781 and acquired a reputation for being a great healer. He was so successful that George III asked him to be his doctor but Darwin refused the appointment. He had great intellectual curiosity and was one of the founding members of the Lunar Society of Birmingham, the members of which were the engine of the Industrial Revolution in Britain. Other members included James Brindley, Matthew Boulton, James Watt, Josiah Wedgwood and Joseph Priestley. He had many scientific and technical achievements to his name, including the design of a horizontal windmill, used by Josiah Wedgwood for grinding colours at his factory at Etruria. In a paper in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society in 1785 he was the first to explain how artesian wells work, and in 1788, in the same journal, he was the first to explain how clouds are formed. He had a great interest in the natural world and among his publications are translations of The system of vegetables and The families of plants by Linnaeus.

Title page of Zoonomia
Title-page of: Erasmus Darwin. Zoonomia, or, The laws of organic life. 2 vols. London : Printed for J. Johnson, 1794-1796. [KCSMD Historical Collection QP29 DAR]

The book he is most remembered for today is Zoonomia. In Zoonomia Darwin aimed "to reduce the facts belonging to animal life into classes, orders, genera, and species; and by comparing them with each other, to unravel the theory of diseases". He broke disease down into four main classes according to their causes. Diseases of irritation arose from external sources, diseases of sensation were caused by such factors as excess pain or pleasure, while diseases of volition were caused by desire or aversion and diseases of association were caused when diseases of one organ or system caused other associated problems. Erasmus Darwin had a broad view of disease; social and psychological problems, such as anger, boredom and sentimental love are covered alongside physical ailments such as mumps and measles. For boredom he recommended, amongst other things, the study of science, which he thought "supplies an inexhaustible source of pleasurable novelty, and relieves ennui by the exertions it occasions".

However, the most remarkable element of the book is not Darwin's system of classification, which is largely spurious, or its medical content, but is his speculations on evolution. In a chapter entitled "Of Generation" he speculates that all warm-blooded animals may have arisen from "one living filament", which:

the Great First Cause endowed 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 delivering down those improvements, by generation to posterity, world without end!.

[Zoonomia I, p.505]

Erasmus Darwin believed that lust, the need for security and hunger were the three main reasons for change in organisms. He noted that many animal species have adapted in various ways to ensure their own security by developing hard shells or camouflage or becoming very fleet of foot. Similarly, he noted that various animal species had made adaptations so that they could compete for the attentions of females and he gives the antlers on deer as an example of such an adaptation. He noted, as his grandson Charles did many years later on the Galapagos Islands, that birds had adapted in various ways to find food. He wrote:

Some birds have acquired harder beaks to crack nuts, as the parrot. Others have acquired beaks adapted to break the harder seeds, as sparrows. Others for the softer seeds of flowers, or the buds of trees, as the finches ... All which seem to have been gradually produced during many generations by the perpetual endeavour to supply the want of food.

[Zoonomia I, p.504]

Frontispiece of  Erasmus Darwin's The botanic garden
Frontispiece of: Erasmus Darwin. The botanic garden. London : printed for J. Johnson, 1791.

This was not the first time that Darwin had put forward such ideas. He had put forward similar ideas in his poem The botanic garden, published several years earlier. It was published originally in two parts. Part II , The loves of the plants, which dealt with sexual reproduction in plants, was published first in 1789. Part I, The economy of vegetation, was published in 1791. Both contained extensive scientific notes. The botanic garden is remarkable for many reasons, not least for its exposition of the latest scientific theories and discoveries in verse, backed up with Darwin's extensive notes, which often run to several pages. But it is also remarkable for Darwin's description of the myriad devices that have evolved in the natural world to aid survival and the suggestion that mankind's achievements in the arts and industry are part of the same process. The botanic garden also contains many uncanny predictions. In The economy of vegetation he predicts submarines, and in the following lines he predicts the coming importance of steam power and the possibility of powered flight:

Soon shall thy arm, Unconquer'd Steam! afar
Drag the slow barge, or drive the rapid car;
Or on wide-waving wings expand bear
The flying-chariot through the fields of the 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.

It is hard to over-emphasise the the warmth of the reception The botanic garden received. Its combination of science and poetry led William Cowper to write in the Analytical Review (15, 1793) that "the verse has afforded delight to all who delight in verse; and the notes instruction to all philosophical enquirers". It made Darwin the most famous poet in the country for a number of years and his work was an influence on the Romantic poets, particularly Shelley.

Darwin's ideas on evolution found further expression in The temple of nature, which was published posthumously in 1803. In it he speculated on the spontaneous generation of life in the sea:

Organic Life began beneath the waves ...
Hence without parent by spontaneous birth
Rise the first specks of animated earth.

He neatly summarises this idea in the following lines:

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.

There is much debate as to how much the theories Erasmus Darwin's theories on evolution influenced the work of his grandson. Charles Darwin was certainly very familiar with the works of his grandfather and Charles's copies of Erasmus's works which survive are heavily annotated. Indeed, many of the areas covered by Erasmus such as sexual selection, competition, and the domestication of animals were covered later by Charles. Furthermore, in his autobiography Charles Darwin wrote the following words about a lecture he had attended at Cambridge by Dr Robert Grant, where the theories of Erasmus Darwin were talked about approvingly:

I listened in astonishment, and far as I can judge, without any effect on my mind. I had previously read the Zoonomia of my grandfather in which similar views were maintained but without producing any effect on me. Nevertheless it is probable that the hearing rather early in life such views maintained and praised may have favoured my upholding them under a different form in my "origin of species".

However, Charles believed that his grandfather had relied too much on speculation and had not accumulated the evidence with which to back up his theories and that, as Nora Barlow has pointed out, he had no theory of a self-governing process, such as natural selection, which could explain the adaptation of organisms to their surroundings. However, whatever his influence on his grandson, the works of Erasmus Darwin make interesting reading in themselves and his contribution to the intellectual life of his day was considerable.


Further reading

Charles Darwin.The autobiography of Charles Darwin, 1809-1882 : with original omissions restored edited with appendix and notes by his grand-daughter Nora Barlow. London : Collins , 1958. [Maughan Library LGF Science Store Books QH31. DAR]

Nora Barlow. Erasmus Darwin, F.R.S. : (1731-1802). London : Royal Society, 1959. [DeBeer Collection Pamphlet Box QH31.D1 BAR]

D. G. King-Hele. Doctor of revolution : the life and genius of Erasmus Darwin. London : Faber , 1977. [Maughan Library Humanities Books Store PR3396.A85 KIN]

D. G. King-Hele. Erasmus Darwin and the romantic poets. Basingstoke : Macmillan , 1986. [Maughan Library Humanities Books PR590. K59]

D. G. King-Hele. Erasmus Darwin, scientist and inventor. [Norwich : Jarrold & Sons Ltd., 1965]. [De Beer Collection Pamphlet Box QH31.D1 KIN]

Ernst Krause. Erasmus Darwin. London: John Murray, 1879. [De Beer Collection QH 31. D1 KRA]

Jenny Uglow. The lunar men. London: Faber & Faber, 2002.

Also of interest

Books held in the Foyle Special Collections Library by Erasmus Darwin and his circle include:

William D'Avenant. The works of Sr William D'Avenant Kt : consisting of those which were formerly printed, and those which he design'd for the press: now published out of the authors originall copies. London : Printed by T[homas] N[ewcomb] for Henry Herringman ..., 1673.[Rare Books Collection Fol. PR2470. C73] . This book containsns the bookplate of Josiah Wedgwood.

Erasmus Darwin. The botanic garden : a poem, in two parts. Part I. Containing the economy of vegetation. Part II. The loves of the plants. London : printed for J. Johnson, 1791.[Rare Books Collection Fol. QK81 D22]

Erasmus Darwin. Visit of Hope to Sydney Cove near Botany Bay. London : [s.n.], [1789]. [Marsden Collection J2/21 ]

Richard Lovell Edgeworth. Essays on professional education.. London : Printed for J. Johnson, 1809. [Rare Books Collection LC1051. E3]

Joseph Priestley. Experiments and observations on different kinds of air. London : J. Johnson, 1775-1777. 3 vols. [KCSMD Historical Collection QD28. PRI]

Joseph Priestley. Lectures on history, and general policy ... London : printed for J. Johnson, 1793.[Rare Books Collection LC1001. P9]

Joseph Priestley. The history and present state of electricity, : with original experiment. London : printed for J. Dodsley, J. Johnson and J. Payne, and T. Cadell, 1769. [Rare Books Collection QC517. P6 ]

William Withering. A botanical arrangement of all the vegetables naturally growing in Great Britain :. with descriptions of the genera and species, according to the system of the celebrated Linnæus... with an easy introduction to the study of botany ... Birmingham : printed by M. Swinney, 1776. [Rare Books Collection QK306. W5]