Evolving Darwins

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, “Would it be to 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…?”

Such musings earn Erasmus a chapter in Rebecca Stott’s recent Darwin’s Ghosts, which tracks the evolution of evolutionary theory across the centuries and around the world. Stott begins with Aristotle on the Isle of Lesbos, where the young philosopher, then a political refugee and as interested in biology as ideas, spent two years collecting observations on the wildlife:

Those lecture notes — expanded and added to — eventually became some of the most influential books about the natural world of all time: Aristotle’s Parts of Animals, The History of Animals, and On the Generation of Animals. They contained the very first systematic and empiricist studies of nature, the very first attempts to decipher nature’s codes. All of Aristotle’s great philosophical works — his ideas on governance, metaphysics, ethics, logic, and rhetoric — were inflected by the great zoological project that he began on Lesbos.

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.