On This Mountain

Entry by: GCLE

31st March 2015

On this mountain the seeds of a great idea germinated, the idea later cultivated by Charles Darwin that all life on our planet evolved by “Natural Selection”. The mountain was Erasmus Darwin, grandfather of Charles.

There were indeed numerous foothills around, including one in ancient Greece. Empedocles suggested that life developed gradually, plants preceded animals and more perfect forms replaced the imperfect, which died out. And there was Lamarck, but Erasmus not only wrote “all vegetables and animals now existing were originally derived from the smallest microscopic ones, formed by spontaneous vitality” but also suggested that “the strongest and most active animal should propagate the species which should thence become improved.” These words contain the basic concepts of Charles’ book “The Origin of Species”

Charles could never have spoken to his grandfather who died seven years before Charles was born, but he would have been familiar with grandfather’s works which were so well known that his “Zoonomia” was placed on the ‘Index of Prohibited Books’. Fortunately the Index was a weaker weapon than the Church was able to wield against Galileo. “Zoonomia” was 1377 pages of wise discourse on almost every intellectual topic.

Erasmus Darwin was a country doctor who lived not far from Birmingham, and was so sought after, that in 1771 his income was a thousand pounds a year. He was a significant poet, inventor and scientist, and his friends included Joseph Priestly, James Watt and the great Benjamin Franklin who spent eighteen years prior to the American Revolution in England. Erasmus also had a family connection to Josiah Wedgwood the famous potter, who actually became the other grandfather of Charles.

Erasmus’ love life was not insignificant. His first wife Mary was given to fits of hysteria, for which she was treated with opium and wine. She became an alcoholic and died at thirty one. Five of her children survived infancy and after she died he produced two daughters with his young son’s governess. These later established a school for girls, perhaps inspired by their father’s advocacy for the better education of women. Then he met Elizabeth Pole, the illegitimate daughter of the second Earl of Portmore. She was a young rich, witty, attractive widow and although wooed by the eligible bachelors around, she married this middle aged, overweight, heavily pock-marked fellow; (his painters mercifully smoothed his face). She brought three children to the marriage, and with Erasmus produced seven more. His two daughters and her now ten children lived happily together.

Erasmus died suddenly at the age of 70 probably from a heart attack because by then he was obese – indeed a mountain of a man.