1902 Encyclopedia > Erasmus Darwin

Erasmus Darwin
English medical practitioner and philosopher of science

ERASMUS DARWIN (1731-1802), man of science and poet, was born at Elton, in Nottinghamshire, on the 12th December 1731. Having studied at St John's College, Cambridge, and at Edinburgh, and taken the degree of M.D. at the latter university, he settled as a physician at Lichfield, and gained a large practice. While here he is said to have done much, both by his own example and by more direct effort, to diminish drunkenness among the lower classes. In 1781 he removed to Derby, where he remained till his death, which took place on the 18th April 1802.

The fame of Erasmus Darwin as a poet rests upon his Botanic Garden, though he also wrote The Temple of Nature, or the Origin of Society, a Poem, with Philosophical Notes (1803), and The Shrine of Nature (posthumously published). The Botanic Garden (the second part of which—The Loves of the Plants—was published anonymously in 1789, and the whole of which appeared in 1791) is a long poem in the decasyllabic rhymed couplet. Its merit lies in the genuine scientific enthusiasm and interest in nature which pervade it; and of any other poetic quality—except a certain, sometimes felicitous but oftener ill-placed, elaborated pomp of words— it may without injustice be said to be almost destitute. It was for the most part written laboriously, and polished with unsparing care, line by line, often as he rode from one patient to another, and it occupied the leisure hours of many years. The diction is artificial to a degree which renders it in emotional passages stilted and even absurd, and which makes Canning's clever caricature—The Loves of the Triangles—often remarkably like the poem it satirizes; in some passages, however, it is not without a stately appropriateness. Gnomes, sylphs, and nereids are introduced on almost every page, and personification is carried to an extraordinary excess. Thus he describes the Loves of the Plants according to the Linnsean system by means of a most ingenious but misplaced and amusing personification of each plant, and often even of the parts of the plant. It is significant that botanical notes are added to the poem, and that its eulogies of scientific men are frequent. Darwin's mind was in fact rather that of a man of science than that of a poet.

His most important scientific work is his Zoonomia (1794-6), which contains a system of pathology, and a treatise on generation, in which Darwin, in the words of his famous grandson, " anticipated the views and erroneous grounds of opinions of Lamarck." The essence of Darwin's views is contained in the following passage, which he follows up with the conclusion " that one and the same kind of living filaments is and has been the cause of all organic life:"—

"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 these improvements by generation to its posterity, world without end!"

Observations on the Zoonomia were published by Thomas Brown, the psychologist (Edinburgh, 1798). In 1799 Darwin published his Phytologia, or the Philosophy of Agriculture and Gardening (1799), in which he states his opinion that plants have sensation and volition. A paper on Female Education in Boarding Schools (1797) completes the list of his works. A slight account of Darwin's life was published by Anna Seward in 1804.

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