Erasmus Darwin: Sex, Science, and Serendipity

By Jenkins, Ellen J. | Canadian Journal of History, Winter 2013 | Go to article overview

Erasmus Darwin: Sex, Science, and Serendipity


Jenkins, Ellen J., Canadian Journal of History


Erasmus Darwin: Sex, Science, and Serendipity, by Patricia Fara. Oxford, UK, Oxford University Press, 2012. xii, 322 pp. $34.95 US (cloth).

Erasmus Darwin, physician, botanist, philosopher, inventor, and poet, was one of the outstanding intellectuals of eighteenth-century England in an era noted for men of intellectual brilliance. Among his many interests were education for women, social reform, liberty, and the abolition of slavery. As one of the founders of the Lunar Society, he was a colleague of such giants of the British industrial revolution as Josiah Wedgwood, Matthew Boulton, James Watt, and Joseph Priestley. Nowadays, however, relatively few people have heard of him, instead associating the family surname with his grandson, Charles. According to Patricia Fara, Erasmus Darwin's reputation faded because he entertained controversial ideas that were, in the era of the French Revolution, suspiciously radical and unpopular with the British political and social establishment. And there was one more factor: Darwin was a terrible poet.

Fara, whose books include Science: A Four Thousand Year History (Oxford, 2009), Pandora's Breeches: Women, Science and Power (London, 2004), and Newton: The Making of Genius (New York, 2002), focuses upon making the history of science intelligible for readers who specialize in neither history nor science, and she explains that for the present work, she decided to try out "other ways of writing history" (p. 1). In Erasmus Darwin, Fara organizes her examination of the polymath's life and career around the framework of three poems written by Darwin, "The Loves of the Plants," "The Economy of Vegetation," and "The Temple of Nature," plus a parody written by his conservative detractors, "The Loves of the Triangles." Fara describes the progress of her research, provides plainspoken commentary upon her reactions to the overwrought quality of Darwin's poetry, and divulges the truth about her field of endeavor--that the practice of history is not at all precise and, instead, follows a meandering path full of accidental discoveries, "false trails," and "jettisoned chapters" (p. 253). The result is a lively, readable, and illuminating social history, though, regrettably, when Fara points out that she has "fictionalized" parts of her progression, the early admission takes the edge off the reader's anticipation of this alternative history.

Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802) was a sociable Midlands doctor who incorporated his radical ideas about natural philosophy, politics, and social reform into florid and sexually suggestive scientific poems that also presaged his grandson's interest in natural selection and biological adaptation. An adherent of the botanical classification system of Carl Linnaeus, whose taxonomy was based upon reproductive organs and thus was too lurid, in British opinion, for the gentle feminine pastime of gardening, Darwin translated the Linnaean Systema Vegetabilium from Latin, publishing A System of Vegetables in 1783. …

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