My friends know that Erasmus Darwin is one of my heroes. Much less well known than his grandson Charles, and whose work is of course far more ephemeral, nevertheless he is a true Renaissance Man – or more strictly an Enlightenment Man. When a couple of years ago I was invited to appear on Radio 4’s A Good Read, the biography of him by Desmond King-Hele, Erasmus Darwin A Life of Unequalled Achievement was my natural choice. If you don’t know the format of the programme, and I certainly didn’t until the invitation to join in turned up in my inbox, two invitees join the presenter (in my case Kate Mosse) to discuss each other’s choices. So, I had to choose a book which wouldn’t be too impenetrable for non-scientists (the other invitee on my programme turned out to be the gardener Alys Fowler) although I was determined to choose a science book. I guess the programme counts as a form of Public Awareness of Science/Outreach activity; that was certainly how I saw it.
When I had first read the book I was just stunned by the character who emerged from it. Everyone has heard of Charles Darwin, but his grandfather turns out to be every bit as interesting a character. Indeed I would say in terms of character, rather than influence and impact, more so. By profession he was a physician, and a very successful one, so that towards the end of his life he was even being sought by the King, although he refused to go to London. He lived all his life in the Midlands where he was much involved with the early stages of the industrial revolution, being friends with many of the key players including James Watt of steam engine fame. What this book brings out, in a relaxed kind of way, is just how much he did across an enormous range of fields, and what a larger than life character he must have been. Erasmus Darwin also features in the much more widely-read book The Lunar Men by Jenny Uglow, but as he is only one of the Men of the title, he doesn’t come across anything like so vividly in that book.
As a scientist in the 21st century, all one can hope to do is be an expert in a rather narrow field. Not true of Erasmus Darwin who in his spare time, as it were, and beyond his day job of physicking did so much. Some of it would these days be termed ‘entrepreneurial’ such as writing pamphlets (anonymously, because he feared it would damage his status as a physician) to advocate canals, or designing a boat lift. He designed and built a copying machine which clearly worked; he got involved with some iron works – somewhat at arm’s length – since good quality nails were so vital to the developing economy. And so it goes on. Through his friends in the Lunar Society, of which he was a key member, there were many opportunities to tie in with industry and industrialists such as Wedgewood and Boulton. He was one of the leading lights of this group of influential men, clearly very charismatic despite a pronounced stutter. He was also involved with ‘purer’ science. Of particular note was his work on gases – stemming from his interest in steam engines with Watt – and meteorology. Much of his work was way ahead of his time, and often not now associated with his name. His System of Vegetables was a scholarly translation of Linnaeus, very thorough and introducing a variety of new words into the English language, which are still there (bract and leaflet for instance).
But much of his science was less scholarly, more original and apparently highly intuitive so that it was almost inspired guesswork which turned out to be right long afterwards. As King-Hele (himself an eminent physicist) puts it
‘Erasmus sparkles with illuminating insights that I cannot explain.’
This is certainly the case in terms of his ideas about evolution. He temporarily inserted on his coat of arms the motto ‘e conchis omnia’ – everything from shells – to indicate, rather quietly, that he thought there was some ‘primary filament’ from which all life was derived. But the establishment, in the form of his neighbour in Lichfield Canon Seward, quickly put a stop to this. Nevertheless in his later life he came back to the ideas and developed them in his poetry.
Perhaps in some ways this is the most surprising part of his character overall. He finally ‘comes out’ as a poet, having initially feared that this would impact on the trust people had in him as a doctor, and produces an enormous poem called the Botanic Garden. I love the turn of phrase that King-Hele introduces at this point:
‘he was a sexy poet, presenting a bizarre tale of gaudily dressed characters engrossed in various forms of polygamy’
referring to his poem the Loves of the Plants (one half of the Botanic Garden), which was a serious attempt to present the Linnaean classification system of plants in verse form. Suddenly he was catapulted into being the foremost poet of his day, one to whom the Romantics such as Wordsworth and Coleridge owed a significant debt, although they subsequently turned against him. I can’t find myself in sympathy with the limited bits of poetry quoted in the book, rhyming couplets tend to leave me cold. Nevertheless it is remarkable that he can express ideas hinting at evolution in a sextuplet, 50 odd years before his grandson published his own much better formed ideas on the subject:
‘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 poets who had been encouraged and inspired by him subsequently turned against him, as did Society more generally, because he was a true man of the Enlightenment, a deist not an orthodox Christian, who opposed slavery, supported female education and both the American and French revolutions. As society got nervous about the impact of the changes in France and the war with Napoleon, someone who had openly and in his poems supported the revolution became suspect. A rather sad end to his life.
Looking at Erasmus Darwin from the vantage point of a 21st century scientist, I can only be staggered by the tremendous breadth of his interests and the energy he devoted to it – and he was able to do this because he had sufficient wealth to build neat bits of apparatus at home, and time to travel around the Midlands to converse with friends like the Wedgewood’s. He comes alive in the book as a bon-viveur, a polymath, a great friend – and indeed lover – but also a caring family man who mourned the untimely deaths of his first wife and two of his sons. It is not coincidental that the first time I ever commented on a blog it was to stick up for him. I certainly feel Erasmus Darwin was a true hero and superman, rather in the mould of Peter Wimsey in terms of the breadth of his capabilities though without ever having played in the Varsity Match at Lords. But he was a real-life hero, whose influence may be less obvious than his grandson’s, although it is nevertheless very real.
Erasmus Darwin Books
A System of Vegetables – translation of Linnaeus allegedly by a Botanical Society in Lichfield. And later The Families of Plants
The Botanic Garden Anonymous I (Published second) The Economy of Vegetation
II The Loves of the Plants
Zoonomia or The loves of organic life
A plan for the conduct of female education in boarding schools
Phytologia or the Philosphy of Agriculture and Gardening
The Temple of Nature or the Origin of Society.