Tory attacks on Darwin’s politics and their effect on his poetic reputation

Decorated initial E

rasmus Darwin's poetic reputation eventually declined following the publication of Wordsworth and Coleridge’s Lyrical Ballads in 1798, but this was not the sole reason for his becoming unfashionable. The efforts of a young Tory ideologue (and later Prime Minister), George Canning, who founded a paper called the The Anti-Jacobin Weekly Examiner also helped to change attitudes towards Darwin. Jacobinism was a term of abuse which was used against those who supported social or political reform on the grounds that this would lead to all manner of catastrophe in Britain, up to and including violent revolution. Canning and a small number of his friends met in secret to produce an eight-page newspaper every Monday that included a section entitled "Lies, Misrepresentations and Mistakes," which attacked both French and English radicals. There followed a satirical poem, one of which, “The Loves of the Triangles,” mocked three of Darwin's works: The Loves of the Plants, The Economy of Vegetation and Zoonomia: the Loves of the Triangles, which was published in three parts, contained footnotes of the type that Darwin had used in his poems, and it satirised his plodding style to great effect. The number three had great significance too because it resonated with the tripartite slogan of the French revolution, "liberty, equality and fraternity".

The Anti-Jacobin also attacked other elements of what Canning and his associates regarded as modernising influences, including the geometrical and mathematical basis of some of the French reforms. These included the re-organisation of the old French provinces with a geometrical grid: in order to set out the grid surveyors had to map the country using a method known as triangulation. In addition two French astronomers were completing a survey to determine the diameter of the Earth through the poles, and from this to create a new unit of measure, the meter. This was all part of wider reform of French government, society, and education which placed great emphasis on mathematics and engineering: in England, then as now, engineering was considered by some to be a relatively low status occupation. The French revolutionaries not only wanted to overturn society, they wanted to change the calendar, religion, currency, units of measure, — that is, they wanted to make a complete break with the past, especially the old monarchy and aristocracy, indeed, everything that conservatives held dear.

Canning and his friends associated radicals in England with the extremist revolutionaries in France and in so doing discredited them, and they were prepared to go to any lengths in order to do so. Darwin and the supporters of reform had advocated peaceful, lawful change, but pointing to the recent events in Paris, Canning and his friends claimed that any such changes would inevitably lead to violent revolution and atheism. This Tory propaganda assault on Darwin contributed both to the collapse of his reputation as a poet and to a loss support for his evolutionary ideas. It further ensured that for decades his name would be regarded with at best suspicion and at worst associated with materialism, atheism, and violent revolution in the minds of the upper ranks of society. In the final years before his death in 1802, he was deeply concerned for his family, because he was being subject to the equivalent of a modern tabloid newspaper campaign to discredit him. His son Robert, who became a very successful medical doctor, refused to discuss evolution in public and drummed into his own children, including his son Charles, the dangers of any ideas associated with it. Before Darwin died The Anti-Jacobin ceased publication but was replaced by another sheet The Anti-Jacobin Review that was secretly subsidised by the government in order to continue publishing propaganda against political radicals, including Darwin. The impact of Canning's campaign and the ideas that Darwin had supported was to affect members of his family until the middle years of the nineteenth century.

The Temple of Nature was not a publishing success: in the same year William Paley had published his Natural Theology, which many regarded as the Church of England's reply to Zoonomia and Darwin's other evolutionary writings. Paley argued that the organic world was so well integrated and co-ordinated that this necessarily implied the existence of a designer, and that "Design must have had a designer. That designer must have been a person. That person is GOD"(1).

Erasmus Darwin’s influence on nineteenth-century authors

Nonetheless, despite all these continual attacks, Darwin had a major influence in the nineteenth century, even though his name was not often mentioned in polite circles One indication of Darwin’s continuing high reputation despite Tory attacks on him appears in G. L. Craik's History of English Literature (3rd edn. 1866), which devoted eighteen pages to him while giving three to Byron, nine to Shakespeare, and twelve to Milton! Mary Shelly, a fellow radical, admitted her debt to Darwin in her novel Fnrankenstein in her introduction in 1818: “The event on which this fiction is founded has been supposed, by Dr. Darwin, and some of the physiological writers of Germany, as not of impossible occurrence.” Coleridge and Wordsworth, who had supported the French revolutionaries before the Terror, were loathe to admit the effect he had had on their own poetry, though given their fundamental opposition to Darwin’s neoclassical versification and diction, they may not even realized any influence.

Darwin probably influenced many important authors who wrote about evolution in the early decades of the nineteenth century, including Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (Philosophie Zoologique (1809) and Animaux sans Vertebrates (1815), in the latter he showed that humans and chimpanzees have a common ancestor, link), Robert Chambers (Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, George Coombe (Constitutions of Man link), Herbert Spencer (Social Statics - this had also been heavily influenced by Chambers).

Erasmus darwin’s influence upon his grandson’s theory of evolution

That many, if not most, of Charles Darwin's personal interests and ideas can traced back to his grandfather is not in doubt, but it was not a simple connection. By the younger Darwin's own admission he had read Zoonomia before he had gone to Edinburgh to study medicine, but when he heard his tutor Grant talking about the similar ideas of Lamarck he was surprised. It was only later when he returned to his grandfather's works that he fully appreciated their value, although he constantly tried to distance himself from them and claim that his own were different, even though they were not. For example, although Charles Darwin was to claim that until he had carried out experiments on how far the seeds of plants could be carried across the sea nobody knew how far they could travel and still germinate, his grandfather had carried out just such experiments and included the results in a footnote in the Loves of the Plants (Canto I, line 226). Very many ideas and observations of the younger Darwin can be found in his grandfather's works. In recent decades many historians of science and scientists in the English-speaking world have been reluctant to recognise the importance of E. Darwin's contributions to evolutionary ideas, no doubt in part because his grandson was also reluctant to admit his deep debt to this immensely important source. Thanks to the work of D. King-Hele, his most recent and comprehensive biographer, and now to other historians, that view has started to change. Earlier commentators knew of the debt that the grandson owed the grandfather:


Almost every single work of the younger Darwin may be paralleled by at least a chapter in the works of his ancestor…we must…admit that {Erasmus Darwin} was the first who proposed and consistently carried out, a well-rounded theory with regard to the development of the living world. [Krause 140]

Krause went on to write that he regarded the elder Darwin to be the greatest Englishman to have lived in the eighteenth century. It is an opinion with which it is difficult to disagree.


Darwin E. The Botanic Garden, part 1 The Economy of Vegetation, J. Johnson, London 1792. Project Gutenberg. April 11 2016.

Darwin E. The Botanic Garden Part 2 The Loves of the Plants, J. Jackson, Lichfield for J. Johnson, London 1789. Project Gutenberg. April 11 2016.

Darwin E Zoonomia; or The Laws of Organic Life Part I J. Johnson 1794. Internet Archive. April 11 2016.

Darwin E. Zoonomia; or The Laws of Organic Life Parts II and III 1796 J. Johnson 1798, Internet Archive. April 11 2016.

Darwin E Phytologia: or the Philosophy of Agriculture and Gardening, J. Johnson, London 1800. April 11 2016.

Darwin E. The Temple of Nature, or The Origins of Society, J. Johnson London 1803. April 11 2016.

Fara P, Erasmus Darwin: Sex, Science and Serendipity, Oxford University Press, 2012.

King-Hele D. Doctor of Revolution, The Life and Genuis of Erasmus Darwin, Faber and Faber, London, 1977.

King-Hele D. Erasmus Darwin: A Life of Unparalleled Achievement, Giles de la Mare Publishers, London 1999.

King-Hele D. Erasmus Darwin and Evolution, Stuart Harris, Sheffield, 2014.

Krause E. Erasmus Darwin with a Preliminary Notice by Charles Darwin, Murray, 1879.

Lovtrup S. Darwinism: The Refutation of a Myth, Croom Helm, 1987.

Paley W. Natural Theology; or Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity Collected from the Appearances of Nature., accessed 4. 11. 16

Powers, J. Evolution Evolving, "The First 'Darwinian Revolution," iOpening Books, Derby, 2013.

Smith C.U.M. and R Arnott eds, The Genuis of Erasmus Darwin, Ashgate, 2005.

Uglow J. The Lunar Men,: The Friends who made the Future, Faber and Faber, London, 2002.

Last modified 5 November 2016