[Tom Hart has generously shared with the readers of the Victorian Web the preceding materials from his ongoing project, Anti-Darwin: The Literary and Philosophical Opposition to Darwinism. He welcomes comments, which can be directed to him at tehart@aol.com.]

Erasmus Darwin, the grandfather of Charles, deserves credit for his belief in the possibility of the development of species. In the preface to Back to Methuselah, George Bernard Shaw, describes Erasmus Darwin as one of the originators of evolutionary theory and quotes the following passage from the first volume of Zoonomia:

The late Mr. David Hume, in his posthumous works, places the powers of generation much above those of our boasted reason; and adds, that reason can only make a machine, as a clock or a ship, but the power of generation makes the maker of the machine; and probably from having observed, that the greatest part of the earth had been formed out of organic recrements; as the immense beds of limestone, chalk, marble, from the shells of fish; and the extensive provinces of clay, sandstone, ironstone, coals from decomposed vegetables; all of which have been first produced by generation, or by the secretions of organic life; he concludes, that the world itself might have been generated, rather than created; that is, it might have been gradually produced from very small beginnings, increasing by the activity of its inherent principles, rather than by a sudden of evolution of the whole by the Almighty fiat.--What a magnificent idea of the infinite power of THE GREAT ARCHITECT! THE CAUSE OF CAUSES! PARENT OF PARENTS! ENS ENTIUM! [Note: The OED cites "unrolling" as the first meaning of "evolution." This is the meaning E. Darwin intends here. The process unrolls through the divine decree, "fiat."]

For if we may compare infinities, it would seem to require a greater infinity of power to cause the causes of effects, than to cause the effects themselves. This idea is analogous to the improving excellence observable in every part of the creation; such as in the progressive increase of the solid or habitable parts of the earth from water; and in the progressive increase of the wisdom and happiness of its inhabitants; and is consonant to the idea of our present situation being a state of probation, which by our exertion we may improve, and are consequently responsible for our actions. [Zoonomia, I, 509, quoted in Shaw, II, xxi]

The most obvious thing in this passage is the length of the initial sentence, which is actually several sentences joined into one. Within the great length of the first sentence Darwin first proposes that reason is inferior to generation. The reasoning being that generation produces the cause of the effect rather than the effect itself. The byproducts of generation are linked in series. First, the sedimentary rocks (limestone, chalk, marble) are described as coming from the "shells of fish." Another series of minerals is linked to vegetable decomposition. The first paragraph then ends with the exclamatory phrases cited above. "The great architect," is reminiscent of Blake's frontispiece toEurope, which shows Urizen laying out the world with a compass. It also encompasses that view of deity as a designer that was present in Newton. The "cause of causes" harkens back to the Aristotelian/Thomistic definition of God as the prime mover who sets all things in motion. The linkage in this paragraph puts generation, reproduction, into the realm of a causality that is willed by a God who is Himself causeless.

Darwin then implicitly postulates that the direct creation of life is one infinity, and the capacity to cause the generation of life is another infinity. He then pronounces the second kind of infinity greater than the first, because it subsumes the first kind into itself. He then shows a moderate Pelagianism in describing "improving excellence," in the entire realm of creation and the "progressive increase" of both the solid parts of the earth, and "the wisdom and happiness" of the earth's peoples. A view that is remarkably optimistic considering the contemporary events in Europe. The Pelagianism, which in theology is the belief that salvation is possible by one's own efforts, is present in his optimistic description of the "present situation" as a time of "probation" that can be improved by the exertions of mankind. The fact of the capacity for improvement has as its logical consequence, for Darwin, the responsibility of mankind for its actions.

Gillian Beer has said that language "puts man at the center of signification" (53). Further, the very idea of agency, which is inherent in language, implies purpose and teleology regardless of whether the author accepts the idea that an organism is "willing" or striving to change. Erasmus Darwin falls into this linguistic trap when he writes "The colours of many animals seem adapted to their purposes of concealing themselves either to avoid danger, or to spring upon their prey" (Erasmus Darwin, 510). The copulative "seem" establishes a link between the "animals" and "their purposes." The attribution of purpose, however, carries with it certain very specific ideas. These ideas are intellect, the ability, in part, to formulate a goal or a wish that is accepted as good, and will, the ability to carry out the ideas formulated in the intellect. That he conveys the impression that the animal in some sense wills, and has a purpose of its own is confirmed when, after listing numerous examples of adaptation, he posits a final cause. "The final cause of these colours is easily understood, as they serve some purposes of the animal, but the efficient cause would seem almost beyond conjecture." Here he appears to be invoking the Aristotelian concepts of causation, which recognizes final, efficient, material, and formal causation. Final causation is the purpose, the end (telos) towards which something tends. In this case the telos of the animal is either attack or defense.

When he speaks of the coloring of egg shells, he attributes the color to "the imagination of the female parent"(511). This leads into a discussion of "mules," or more generally speaking cross species hybrids. He includes in his discussion "the progeny produced between a white man and a black woman." He attributes the "mixture of the two" to "the peculiar form of the particles of nutriment supplied to the embryon by the mother at the early period of its existence, and their peculiar stimulus." He believes that because the effect "is uniform and consistent" like the mules, it "cannot therefore be ascribed to the imagination of either of the parents"(514-5). Any effects to the embryo, however, are limited to the period of time before the embryo has acquired a placenta (515).

The elder Darwin believed that the process of evolution was due to "the power of acquiring new parts, attended with new propensities, directed by irritations, sensations, volitions, and associations; and thus possessing the faculty of continuing to improve by its own inherent activity, and of delivering down those improvements to by generation to its posterity, world without end" (572). It has usually been asserted that both Lamarck and Erasmus Darwin believed in evolution by an effort of the will. Loren Eiseley, however, contests this and asserts that the "striving" that both believed in is largely unconscious. Erasmus Darwin does, however, ascribe imagination to an animal such as such as horses and asses. So he does seem to believe in a mental life, or sorts, for vertebrate animals at the very least. It can be argued that the imagination of the animal affects and modifies its unconscious striving. Whether the "striving" is conscious or unconscious, teleology and purposefulness are inherent in Erasmus Darwin's views on evolution.

Related Material


Beer Gillian. Darwin's Plots: Evolutionary Narrative in Darwin, George Eliot and Nineteenth-Century Fiction. London, 1985.

Darwin, Erasmus. Zoonomia. 2 vols. London: 1794.

Shaw, George Bernard. Back to Methuselah. Collected Plays With Prefaces. New York, 1960.

Last modified 2000; link added 11 November 2016