P.S. to “That Other Darwin”

In my previous post, I certainly didn’t mean to “diss” Charles Darwin by calling him the “consummate hedgehog.” The world of ideas must have its hedgehogs as well as its foxes. It is true that Charles’s überfox grandfather Erasmus anticipated a lot of evolutionary theory, including Natural Selection, many years before Charles got around to it. Charles’s contemporary, Alfred Russel Wallace, also figured out the basics. But neither Erasmus nor Wallace gathered the sheer weight of evidence needed to make their ideas stick. It took the world’s greatest hedgehog to do that.

And Charles came by his ideas the hard way, with no noticeable influence from his grandfather. True, he read a book by Erasmus when he was seventeen “in which similar views are maintained, but without producing any effect on me.”

Charles’s way was longer and more tortuous. To begin with, he had to let himself be amazed and puzzled by the sheer diversity of life he observed during his youthful, legendary, worldwide journey aboard HMS Beagle.

In an age in which the first two chapters of Genesis were almost unanimously accepted as the final authority on natural history, what was young Charles to suppose upon seeing his first platypus in Australia? Why would an all-creating God scatter such anomalous creatures in entirely different parts of the world? His earliest speculation was about as far from evolution as you can get:

An unbeliever in every thing beyond his own reason might exclaim, “Two distinct Creators must have been at work; their object, however, has been the same, and certainly the end in each case is complete.”

“Two distinct Creators”! It was as heretical an idea as Natural Selection would later prove to be. But young Darwin was not an “unbeliever”—not yet, anyway. Soon after his encounter with the freakishly odd platypus, he took comfort in noticing that the Australian antlion larva was very similar to a European species. Such a resemblance, he thought, could be no cosmic coincidence:

Now what would the sceptic say to this? Would any two workmen ever have hit upon so beautiful, so simple, and yet so artificial a contrivance? It cannot be thought so: one Hand has surely worked throughout the universe.

“One hand” creating, of course, in a manner consistent with Genesis. But Charles Darwin’s Story was just getting started.



That Other Darwin

Here are a few lines to celebrate National Poetry Month

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.

This poetic description of biological evolution was written by Darwin—not Charles Darwin, but his grandfather, Erasmus. And they appear in his poetic masterpiece, The Temple of Nature, posthumously published in 1803.

Erasmus Darwin formulated ideas about evolution (including Natural Selection) during the late eighteenth century, and proposed that all earthly life was descended from a “single living filament”—pretty much the orthodox view of today’s science. His grandson wouldn’t get around to publishing On the Origin of Species, now considered the founding text of evolutionary theory, until 1859.

I just finished re-reading Desmond King-Hele’s inspiring biography, Erasmus Darwin: A Life of Unequalled Achievement. It brought to mind my post of last year about proverbial foxes and hedgehogs. Remember the words of the ancient Greek poet Archilochus?

“The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.”

If Charles Darwin was the consummate hedgehog, devoting decades at a crack to the single idea of Natural Selection, then Erasmus Darwin was the ultimate fox—a veritable überfox whose accomplishments ranged across all disciplines, all areas of knowledge. Consider just a smattering of facts about him:

He was longtime friends of Joseph Priestley, James Watt, Josiah Wedgewood, and most of the other the intellectual giants of his time. While he maintained a thirty-year friendship with Benjamin Franklin, the great Samuel Johnson was too daunted by Darwin’s genius to have much to do with him.

Erasmus was a philosopher-scientist of the first order, and a member of Britain’s Royal Society. He invented a copying machine and a voice synthesizer. He understood the electrical nature of nerve impulses before Luigi Galvani and Alessandro Volta performed their experiments with frogs’ legs and muscle contractions. He explained the formation of clouds, cold and warm fronts, and the basics of photosynthesis. He was a pioneer in understanding oxygen; he described how the heart and lungs oxygenize blood, and proposed that water was made up of oxygen and hydrogen.

He was a humanitarian who opposed slavery. As a physician, he gave free medical service to the poor. He was an early feminist who advocated education for girls and women, and he insisted on referring to our species as “humankind” instead of “mankind.” Although an Englishman, he was courageously pro-American during the Revolutionary War and supported the French Revolution. A committed freethinker, he advocated a secular morality based on compassion, and he felt touched and honored when the Pope condemned one of his books.

He was also more than a bit of a prophet. He proposed rockets powered by liquid fuel, a goal unrealized until the twentieth century. He dreamed up an internal combustion engine (one which would not pollute!) and designed a steering mechanism that would eventually be used in early automobiles. Some of his speculations are prescient of black holes, the Big Bang, and the DNA molecule.

All this is just the tip of the iceberg—and by the way, he had fascinating ideas about icebergs!

But here’s what I find most interesting. During much of the 1790s, Erasmus Darwin was considered the greatest living poet in the English language. His poetry and ideas were central to founding the Romantic movement, influencing Coleridge, WordsworthShelley, KeatsGoethe, and Sir Walter Scott. William Blake admired Darwin and designed engravings for his poetry. “Dr. Darwin” is cited (albeit erroneously) in the very first sentence of the preface to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. And unlike too many poets from his own age until today, he saw nothing incongruous or philistine about putting forth scientific ideas in verse.

What I like most about Erasmus Darwin is his kindness, good cheer, and optimism. Although, like his grandson, he understood that evolution was spurred by a ruthless struggle for survival, he believed that this struggle was ultimately aimed at “organic happiness” or “the Bliss of Being.” And so I’ll close with these joy-affirming lines from The Temple of Nature:

Shout round the globe, how Reproduction strives
With vanquish’d Death—and Happiness survives;
How Life increasing peoples every clime,
And young renascent Nature conquers Time.