The Darwin before Darwin: Erasmus Darwin, Visionary Science, and Romantic Poetry

By Page, Michael | Papers on Language & Literature, Spring 2005 | Go to article overview

The Darwin before Darwin: Erasmus Darwin, Visionary Science, and Romantic Poetry


Page, Michael, Papers on Language & Literature


Erasmus Darwin was at the center of the ideas and activities that drove the industrial revolution in the late eighteenth century out of which the scientific worldview developed. His friends and fellow members of the Lunar Society make up what Francis Klingender called "a kind of general staff for the industrial revolution" (35). The core group consisted of Darwin, Dr. William Small, Matthew Boulton, John Whitehurst, Josiah Wedgwood, James Watt, James Keir, Richard Lovell Edgeworth, and Thomas Day. In addition, as Desmond King-Hele suggests, although he rarely was in the Birmingham area, Benjamin Franklin can be thought of as a symbolic founding father of the group because of the influence he had as inventor, scientific experimenter, and political radical (Life of Unequalled 80). Subsequent permanent Lunar Society members included Joseph Priestley, Samuel Galton, William Withering, John Baskerville, and William Murdock. Thus, most of the leading minds of the era were connected with the society. According to King-Hele, "the Lunar Society was one of those self-igniting groups whose illuminating ideas stimulate the individual members, and the professional scientists in the Society benefited greatly from the speculations of the others" (Erasmus Darwin 25). Darwin's speculations and diverse observations energized many of the practical industrialists like Boulton, Watt, Wedgwood, and Galton. Darwin and his friends were men with a vision of the future in which change and development inevitably fueled ideas and innovation. (1)

Darwin's scientific thought was vital to this new scientific spirit. Because of the way Darwin translated this new vision for a wider audience in his poems, it is no exaggeration to see him as the prophet for the scientific worldview that came to dominate the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. As Klingender notes,

The importance of Erasmus Darwin for the intellectual history of the last decade of the eighteenth century rests on his didactic poems. In them he transmitted to educated readers, wherever the English language was understood, that enthusiasm for science and the belief in the perfectibility of human affairs which inspired the members of the Lunar Society. (35)

As we will see, Darwin's poetic panegyrics on his Lunar associates James Brindley and Joseph Priestly, and on the incomparable Franklin, show how Darwin energized the scientific zeitgeist. Furthermore, Darwin's evolutionary theory, as developed in his poetry, begins the scientific debate that dominates the nineteenth century. Roy Porter contends that "Darwin's vision of evolution had potent ideological implications. His writings amount to an early and full vindication of industrial society, rationalized through a social biology" (444). As industrial society developed on into the nineteenth century, the Darwinian paradigm would be revamped by another Darwin (Charles) to justify even more fully the machinations of industrialism. But as Porter further points out, Erasmus's theory was not wholly the dreaded mechanistic version that reduced human beings to mere machines in a biological clockwork world:

indeed, he was concerned to rescue man from the aspersion of being nothing more than a machine. He stressed man's inner energies and drives, both the capacity and the need to learn, the inventiveness and adaptiveness of homo faber, the man who makes himself. Darwin offered a vision of man for the machine age, but not of man the machine. (445)

Nevertheless, in celebrating the accomplishments of his industrial friends, as we shall see, Darwin unwittingly laid the groundwork for the reductionistic views of those who would follow.

Darwin's evolutionary views are, however, broader in scope than those of his grandson's generation, even though they are not as comprehensively articulated, for he possesses not only a keen sense of the biological process, but also a deep sense of cosmic, geological, social, and historical evolutionary processes. …

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