Erasmus Darwin

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Erasmus Darwin : biography

12 December 1731 – 18 April 1802

Family tree

Appearances

  • Charles Sheffield, an author noted largely for hard science fiction, wrote a number of stories featuring Darwin in a manner quite similar to Sherlock Holmes. These stories were collected in a book, The Amazing Dr. Darwin.
  • Darwin’s opposition to slavery in poetry was included by Benjamin Zephaniah in a reading. This inspired the establishment of the , whose album includes quotations from Erasmus "Ras" Darwin, his grandson Charles Darwin and Haile Selassie.
  • The forgetting of Erasmus’ designs for a rocket is a major plot point in Stephan Baxter’s tale of alternate universes, Manifold: Origin.
  • Phrases from Darwin’s poem The Botanic Garden are used as chapter headings in The Pornographer of Vienna by Lewis Crofts.
  • British poet J.H. Prynne took on the pseudonym Erasmus W. Darwin for his "plant time" bulletins in the pages of Bean News (1972).
  • A building on the Nottingham Trent University Clifton Campus is named after him. It is the centre for science teaching, academic offices and study space.
  • Erasmus Darwin appears as a character in Sergey Lukyanenko’s novel New Watch as a Dark Other and a prophet living in Regent’s Park Estate.

Writings

Botanical works

Darwin formed the Lichfield Botanical Society in order to translate the works of the Swedish botanist Carolus Linnaeus from Latin into English. This took seven years. The result was two publications: A System of Vegetables between 1783 and 1785, and The Families of Plants in 1787. In these volumes, Darwin coined many of the English names of plants that we use today.

Darwin then wrote The Loves of the Plants, a long poem, which was a popular rendering of Linnaeus’ works. Darwin also wrote Economy of Vegetation, and together the two were published as The Botanic Garden.

Zoonomia

Darwin’s most important scientific work, Zoonomia (1794–1796), contains a system of pathology and a chapter on ‘Generation’. In the latter, he anticipated some of the views of Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, which foreshadowed the modern theory of evolution. Erasmus Darwin’s works were read and commented on by his grandson Charles Darwin the naturalist. Erasmus Darwin based his theories on David Hartley’s psychological theory of associationism.Allen, Richard C. 1999. David Hartley on human nature. Albany, N.Y.: SUNY Press. ISBN 0-7914-4233-0 The essence of his views is contained in the following passage, which he follows up with the conclusion that one and the same kind of living filament 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 those improvements by generation to its posterity, world without end!

Erasmus Darwin also anticipated natural selection in Zoönomia mainly when writing about the "three great objects of desire" for every organism: "lust, hunger, and security." Another remarkable foresight written in Zoönomia that relates to natural selection is Erasmus’ thoughts on how a species propagated itself. Erasmus’ idea that "the strongest and most active animal should propagate the species, which should thence become improved" was almost identical to the future theory of survival of the fittest.

Erasmus Darwin was familiar with the earlier proto-evolutionary thinking of James Burnett, Lord Monboddo, and cited him in his 1803 work Temple of Nature.