Erasmus Darwin. Zoonomia: or, the Laws of Organic Life. London: J. Johnson, 1796. The Michaelis Collection, Gift of J. Philip Gibbs, Jr.

Erasmus Darwin. The Botanic Garden: a Poem, in Two Parts: With Philosophical Notes.  London: J. Johnson, 1791. 






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, Canto I, 296-303

A half century before Origin of Species, Charles Darwin’s grandfather, Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802), wrote two books that laid out the case for evolution. The first, Zoonomia (1796), presented the argument within the context of a larger and highly influential work on medicine. In a lengthy chapter “On Generation” the elder Darwin postulated an ancient earth, populated with life forms that that had developed over millions of years out of fundamental structures, which he called “filaments.” Shortly thereafter, he translated the arguments into poetic form in The Temple of Nature, which was published shortly after his death in 1802. Both books were widely read and highly influential, but both also quickly fell out of favor, partly as a result of changing tastes in poetry, in the case of Temple, and partly as a result of the conservative backlash in England against all forms of radical thinking following the French Revolution. 

Darwin was a central figure in the Lunar Society of Birmingham, a small group of industrialists and scientists who played a critical role in the modernization of England.  Among them were James Watt, the inventor of the steam engine; Josiah Wedgwood, the pottery entrepreneur (and Charles Darwin’s other grandfather); and Joseph Priestly, the chemist who identified oxygen. Darwin made his reputation as a physician, but he was also an accomplished scientist, inventor and poet. His heavily footnoted epic poem The Botanic Garden, a Poem in Two Parts (1791), illustrated with engravings by William Blake and other artists, was widely regarded at the time as one of the great works of British poetry. 

Charles Darwin was born several years after his grandfather’s death, so there were no personal connections between the two men. Nonetheless, the younger Darwin was very much aware of his ancestor. In his “Recollections of the Development of My Mind and Character,” written near the end of his life, Charles Darwin reflected on the influence of his grandfather: 

I had previously read the Zoonomia by my grandfather, in which similar views are maintained, but without producing any effect on me.  Nevertheless, it is probably that the hearing rather early in life such views maintained & praised may have favoured my upholding them under a different form in my Origin of Species.  At this time I admired greatly the Zoonomia; but on reading it a second time after an interval of 10 or 15 years, I was much disappointed; the proportion of speculation being so large to the facts given. 


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