Darwin, Erasmus

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Darwin, Erasmus (1731-1802): English Scientist and Physician.

Grandfather of Francis Galton and of Charles Darwin whose evolutionary views he partly anticipated. After his study at Cambridge University, Erasmus Darwin practiced medicine at Lichfield and Derby. Darwin’s main work is Zoonomia or the Laws of Life (2 vols., 1794-96), in which he opposed the view that every new individual is already fully formed in the reproductive cell. Instead he argued that the egg is relatively undifferentiated and that the developing organism draws materials from its surroundings to generate new parts. Darwin later extended this view by claiming that life itself originated from a single ‘primal filament’ and that organisms developed through the ages to meet the conditions of their environment. He also expressed his views on the origin and development of life in two poems: The Botanical Garden (1789) and The Temple of Nature (1803). Although Darwin was very proud of both of them, the two poems were not taken seriously by his contemporaries. His speculative account of evolution, however, foreshadowed the more systematic accounts of Chevalier de Lamarck and Charles Darwin. For instance, the ideas of the transfer of inherited characteristics and of a struggle for existence are already lively depicted in The Temple of Nature. Darwin’s evolutionary account of the origin of man did not cause him to doubt the existence of God as the “Great Architect” of the universe. In Zoonomia (vol. 1, sect. 1), he explained that God was the “Great First Cause” who infused spirit and life into the primal filament, thereby giving it the potential to evolve.

Further Reading:

King-Hele, Desmond. Erasmus Darwin and the Romantic, 1986.

Cornelis DeWaal

Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis