1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Darwin, Erasmus

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3891091911 Encyclopædia Britannica, Volume 7 — Darwin, Erasmus

DARWIN, ERASMUS (1731–1802), English man of science and poet, was born at Elton, in Nottinghamshire, on the 12th of December 1731. After studying at St John’s College, Cambridge, and at Edinburgh, he settled in 1756 as a physician at Nottingham, but meeting with little success he moved in the following year to Lichfield. There he gained a large practice, and did much, both by example and by more direct effort, to diminish drunkenness among the lower classes. In 1781 he removed to Derby, where he died suddenly on the 18th of 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 artificial character of the diction renders it in emotional passages stilted and even absurd, and 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 Linnaean 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. Erasmus 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 (1794–1796), which contains a system of pathology, and a treatise on generation, in which he, in the words of his famous grandson, Charles Robert Darwin, “anticipated the views and erroneous grounds of opinions of Lamarck.” 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 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!”

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.

Robert Waring Darwin (1766–1848), his third son by his first marriage, a doctor at Shrewsbury, was the father of the famous Charles Darwin; and Violetta, his eldest daughter by his second marriage, was the mother of Francis Galton.

See Anna Seward, Memoirs of the Life of Dr Darwin (1804); and Charles Darwin, Life of Erasmus Darwin, an introduction to an essay on his works by Ernst Krause (1879).