“Would it be too 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, which the great First Cause endued with animality, with the power of acquiring new parts, attended with new propensities, directed by irritations, sensations, volitions and associations….”
If we are asked to guess who first wrote these lines, quite a few might name Darwin, and in this they would be right. However, if they had in mind the author of On Origin of Species, they would be wrong, because the long line was written by Erasmus Darwin (born: 1731) in hia Zoonomia which was published in 1794: more than sixty years before Charles Darwin’s classic.
Grandfather Erasmus began as a physician; he was a scientific thinker, and man of letters too. He was given to versifying a little too often, going into rhyming rhapsodies on plants and leaves, evoking ancient mysteries and mythologies. Thus, in a poem entitled The Temple of Nature (1802), he wrote:
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.
Prosody-sensitive critics were not sympathetic to Darwin’s ventures into verses, They saw no need for couplets of decasyllabic meters to reflect on botany. One of them is said to have published a poetic parody of Erasmus.
Erasmus Darwin also hypothesized, like ancient Hindu and Jain thinkers, and some present-day horticultural enthusiasts, that plants could feel and in fact have a will.
He was a liberal thinker who applauded the French Revolution and spoke out against slavery. He was one of the few 18th century thinkers who toyed with the idea of a species evolving: a radical notion in those days when, in the minds of most, we were created in one single stroke in our present forms and features. To even imagine that there was a time when our very, very distant ancestors were not humans was indeed a weird departure from standard texts and thought. So, though he was a deist, he was looked upon as an atheist by many of his contemporaries.
February 22, 2011