Monday, September 14, 2020

The Life of Erasmus Darwin by Charles Darwin and Ernst Krause

The grandfather of evolution
Erasmus Darwin
Before Charles Darwin formulated the theory of evolution by natural selection for his landmark book On the Origin of Species, the Darwin name had already achieved renown in England’s scientific circles due to the work of his grandfather Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802). In February 1879, the German journal Kosmos published a paper written by biologist Ernst Krause on “The Scientific Works of Erasmus Darwin.” Later that year, Krause’s paper, accompanied by a “Preliminary Notice” written by Charles Darwin, was published in book form as The Life of Erasmus Darwin. The Preliminary Notice is more than just a preface, however, and is in fact even longer than Krause’s paper.

Erasmus Darwin was a practicing physician, but he did not limit his scientific pursuits to the field of medicine. His favored discipline was botany, and he published several scientific texts on the subject, the most important being his Zoonomia of 1794. He was also a poet. In the late 18th and 19th century, poetry was a legitimate medium through which to convey scientific and philosophical theories. Such didactic poems were written in verse with extensive footnotes in prose. Erasmus’s poems, such as The Loves of Plants, consist largely of visual descriptions of nature. Through such poems he also articulated his broader system of natural philosophy based largely on materialistic causes, in opposition to the elaborate paeans to intelligent design written by most of the biologists of his era. Erasmus was a founding member of the Lunar Society, a sort of learned illuminati in London. As Charles and Krause describe him, Erasmus comes across as a sort of English Ben Franklin, with whom he corresponded. Like Franklin, Erasmus was also an inventor, though Charles points out that he failed to follow through on many of his ideas.

Leaving the examination of Erasmus’s scientific accomplishments to Krause, Charles provides mostly biographical and genealogical information on Erasmus, as well as a discussion of his career as a physician. Charles strives to give the reader a sense of his grandfather’s personality and values by reproducing Erasmus’s correspondence with friends, professional colleagues, and family members. A friend and colleague of Erasmus’s, Anna Seward, had previously published a biography that was somewhat unflattering. Here Charles refutes Seward’s allegations and even attacks her character. While one does learn quite a bit about Erasmus from Charles’s biographical sketch, there’s definitely a degree of family bias to his account, as well as quite a few tangential digressions that would only be of interest to a Darwin cousin.

Krause is more successful in his essay on Erasmus’s career as a biologist. Probably at least two-thirds of Krause’s essay, however, consists of extensive quotes from Erasmus’s published writings. Krause believes that Erasmus deserves far more recognition for the development of the theory of evolution than he typically receives. He asserts that what we typically think of as Lamarckism, the evolutionary theory of Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, was actually Erasmus Darwin’s idea. To call it Darwinism, however, would certainly be confusing, since Charles Darwin disproved Lamarckian evolution when he discovered the mechanism of natural selection.

Rather than a full biography, The Life of Erasmus Darwin is more of a jumble of facts and opinions about the man. One does, however, learn quite a bit about his contributions to the history of science, and Krause’s essay provides a good overview of his system of natural philosophy.

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