Erasmus Darwin

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Erasmus Darwin : biography

12 December 1731 – 18 April 1802

Poem on evolution

Erasmus Darwin offered the first glimpse of his theory of evolution, obliquely, in a question at the end of a long footnote to his popular poem The Loves of the Plants (1789), which was republished throughout the 1790s in several editions as The Botanic Garden. His poetic concept was to anthropomorphize the stamen (male) and pistil (female) sexual organs, as bride and groom. In this stanza on the flower Curcuma (also Flax and Turmeric) the "youths" are infertile, and he devotes the footnote to other examples of neutered organs in flowers, insect castes, and finally associates this more broadly with many popular and well-known cases of vestigial organs (male nipples, the third and fourth wings of flies, etc.)

Woo’d with long care, CURCUMA cold and shy Meets her fond husband with averted eye: Four beardless youths the obdurate beauty move With soft attentions of Platonic love.

Darwin’s final long poem, The Temple of Nature, was published posthumously in 1803. The poem was originally titled The Origin of Society. It is considered his best poetic work. It centres on his own conception of evolution. The poem traces the progression of life from micro-organisms to civilized society.

His poetry was admired by Wordsworth, although Coleridge was intensely critical, writing, "I absolutely nauseate Darwin’s poem". It often made reference to his interests in science; for example botany and steam engines.

Education of women

The last two leaves of Darwin’s A plan for the conduct of female education in boarding schools (1797) contain a book list, an apology for the work, and an advert for "Miss Parkers School". The work probably resulted from his liaison with Mary Parker. The school advertised on the last page is the one he set up in Ashbourne, Derbyshire for their two illegitimate children, Susanna and Mary.

Darwin regretted that a good education had not been generally available to women in Britain in his time, and drew on the ideas of Locke, Rousseau, and Genlis in organising his thoughts. Addressing the education of middle class girls, Darwin argued that amorous romance novels were inappropriate and that they should seek simplicity in dress. He contends that young women should be educated in schools, rather than privately at home, and learn appropriate subjects. These subjects include physiognomy, physical exercise, botany, chemistry, mineralogy, and experimental philosophy. They should familiarize themselves with arts and manufactures through visits to sites like Coalbrookdale, and Wedgwood’s potteries; they should learn how to handle money, and study modern languages. Darwin’s educational philosophy took the view that men and women should have different, but complementary capabilities, skills, spheres, and interests.DNB entry for Erasmus Darwin. Oxford. In the context of the times, this program may be read as a modernising influence.

Lunar Society

The Lunar Society: these dates indicate the year in which Darwin became friends with these people, who, in turn, became members of the Lunar Society. The Lunar Society existed from 1765 to 1813.

Before 1765:

  • Matthew Boulton, originally a buckle maker in Birmingham
  • John Whitehurst of Derby, maker of clocks and scientific instruments, pioneer of geology

After 1765:

  • Josiah Wedgwood, potter 1765
  • Dr. William Small, 1765, man of science, formerly Professor of Natural Philosophy at the College of William and Mary, where Thomas Jefferson was an appreciative pupil
  • Richard Lovell Edgeworth, 1766, inventor
  • James Watt, 1767, improver of steam engine
  • James Keir, 1767, pioneer of the chemical industry
  • Thomas Day, 1768, eccentric and author
  • Dr. William Withering, 1775, the death of Dr. Small left an opening for a physician in the group.
  • Joseph Priestley, 1780, experimental chemist and discoverer of many substances.
  • Samuel Galton, 1782, a Quaker gunmaker with a taste for science, took Darwin’s place after Darwin moved to Derby.

Darwin also established a lifelong friendship with Benjamin Franklin, who shared Darwin’s support for the American and French revolutions. The Lunar Society was instrumental as an intellectual driving force behind England’s Industrial Revolution.

The members of the Lunar Society, and especially Darwin, opposed the slave trade. He attacked it in The Botanic Garden (1789–1791), and in The Loves of Plants (1789) and The Economy of Vegetation (1791).