Erasmus Darwin, one of the leading intellectuals of eighteenth-century England, died on this day in 1802; and his grandson Charles Darwin died eighty years and a day later. Principally a physician and natural philosopher, Erasmus Darwin made pioneering contributions to the theory and practice of a wide range of sciences, though he is now most famous for being among the first to tentatively voice some of the ideas his grandson would spend his career pursuing. In his influential Zoonomia: or the Laws of Organic Life (1794), Erasmus wonders if it would “be too bold to imagine that all warm-blooded animals have arisen from one living filament”; in “The Temple of Nature,” perhaps feeling protected by the license granted to poetry, he goes further:
Organic life beneath the shoreless waves
Was born and nurs’d in ocean’s pearly caves;
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….
Shortly before his death, Charles published a short biography of and tribute to his grandfather. Modern editors of The Life of Erasmus Darwin note that, when it first appeared, some 15 percent of Charles’s original text had been cut, as directed by his daughter, Henrietta (and agreed to by Charles). The following passage, from the book’s concluding pages, was perhaps excised because it seems to condemn as blind and un-Christian those who saw sins in the grandfather, and who might visit them upon the grandson:
His energy was unbounded. In his day he was esteemed a great poet. As a physician, he was eminent in the noble art of alleviating suffering. He was in advance of his time in urging sanitary arrangements and in inculcating temperance. He was opposed to any restraint of the insane, excepting as far as was absolutely necessary. He strongly advised a tender system of education.… He earnestly admired philanthropy, and abhorred slavery. But he was unorthodox; and as soon as the grave closed over him he was grossly and often calumniated. Such was the state of Christian feeling in this country at the beginning of the present century; we may at least hope that nothing of the kind now prevails.
Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.