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

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rasmus Darwin's poetic reputation declined following the publication of Wordsworth and Coleridge’s Lyrical Ballads in 1798, but the rise of Romantic poetry was not the sole reason for his becoming unfashionable. 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. The title of his publication referred to Jacobinism, a term of abuse 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, symbolized by the excesses of the Jacobins in France. Canning and a small number of his friends secretly met weekly to produce the eight-page newspaper. Published every Monday, it 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 satirised his plodding style to great effect. The number three had additional significance because it resonated with the tripartite slogan of the French revolution, "liberty, equality and fraternity."

The Anti-Jacobin also attacked what Canning and his associates regarded as modernising influences. They took particular aim at the geometrical and mathematical basis of some of the French reforms. These reforms included re-organisation of the French provinces according to a geometrical grid and creating a new unit of measure, the meter. These activities were all part of wider reform of French government, society, and education which placed great emphasis on mathematics and engineering. In France, sweeping changes were proposed to the calendar, to religion, to currency, and to units of measure, among other things. The aim was to make a complete break with the past, especially the old monarchy and aristocracy -- indeed, everything that conservatives held dear. The technocratic tenor of these reforms did not translate well across the Channel where, then as now, engineering was considered by some to be a relatively low-status occupation, and scientific interests were sometimes regarded with ambivalence.

Associating radicals in England with the extremist revolutionaries in France, Canning and his friends were prepared to go to any lengths in order to discredit the former. Darwin and the supporters of reform had advocated peaceful, lawful change. 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 contributed both to the collapse of Darwin's 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 suspicion and 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, Darwin 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. It was replaced by The Anti-Jacobin Review which 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

Despite these relentless attacks, and although his name was not often mentioned in polite circles, Darwin remained an important figure through the nineteenth century. One indication of Darwin’s continuing influence appeared in G. L. Craik's History of English Literature. The third edition (1866) devoted eighteen pages to Darwin while giving three to Byron, nine to Shakespeare, and twelve to Milton! Mary Shelley, a fellow radical, admitted her debt to Darwin in her novel Frankenstein. In her 1818 introduction to the book, she wrote: "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 loath to admit Darwin's effect on their own poetry. Their fundamental opposition to Darwin’s neoclassical versification and diction may have blinded them to such influence in any event.

Darwin probably influenced many important authors who wrote about evolution in the early decades of the nineteenth century. Jean-Baptiste Lamarck's Philosophie Zoologique (1809) and Animaux sans Vertebrates (1815) are two examples; in the latter, Lamarck showed that humans and chimpanzees have a common ancestor. Robert Chambers' Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, George Coombe's Constitutions of Man, and Herbert Spencer's Social Statics are among these works that may have been influenced by Darwin.

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. Nevertheless he constantly tried to distance himself from his grandfather's ideas and to 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 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 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.


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Last modified 23 April 2018