Erasmus Darwin

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Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802)


The paternal grandfather of Charles Darwin, Erasmus Darwin wrote Zoonomia: or the Laws of Organic Life (1794), for which he was accused of atheism. He was, however, a philosophic naturalist, physician, and deist. He had a theory about the origin of all life which anticipated the current “primeval soul” hypothesis of many current scientists, including the Russian biochemist, A. I. Oparin. The Vatican prohibited the reading of his works in 1817.

In 1879, Ernest Krause in a biography said of Darwin, “He was the first who proposed and consistently carried out a well-rounded theory with regard to the development of the living world—a merit which shines forth more brilliantly when we compare it with the vacillating and confused attempts of Buffon, Linnaeus, and Goethe. It is the idea of a power working from within the organisms to improve their natural position.” This is an idea which, developed by Lamarck, was modified by his grandson into the doctrine of natural selection. The idea of “the descent of man” from a simian species had been broached before him by Buffon and Helvétius in France, and Lords Kames and Monboddo in Scotland. According to A. Benn, Darwin, rather than a deist, was an atheist along with Bentham, Godwin, and Charles Fox. But Darwin did believe in “the Great Architect” of the cosmos, a “Great First Cause” which breathed life into the primal filament, giving it the potentiality to evolve. Even the Unitarians were too orthodox for him, and, in fact, he described Unitarianism as a feather-bed to catch a falling Christian.

Often unnoticed is the first sentence of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s preface to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. As Stephen Jay Gould and others have pointed out, “he had, in order to justify Dr. Frankenstein’s experiment, alluded to Erasmus Darwin’s atheistical view on the possibility of quickening matter by electricity.”

Darwin’s death was singularly peaceful. “At about seven o’clock,” said his grandson, “he was seized with a violent shivering ill, and went into the kitchen to warm himself. He retired to his study, lay on the sofa, became faint and cold, and was moved into an armchair, where, without pain or emotion of any kind, he expired a little before nine o’clock.” To a friend a few years prior, he had written, “When I think of dying it is always without pain or fear.”

{BDF; CE; EU, H. James Birx; FO; HAB; JM; JMR; JMRH; RAT; RSR; TRI; TYD}

Charles Robert Darwin (1809 - 1882)


One of the greatest rationalists of all time, Darwin established the theory of organic evolution known as Darwinism. He also is one of the most misunderstood authors. His father, a 350-pound jolly gentleman, once said of his son that he “cared for nothing but shooting, dogs, and rat-catching,” and his school records show that as a child Darwin was lazy and a poor student.

While studying theology at Cambridge University, he changed his field of interest to something more interesting: beetles. Later, and not divulging his heart palpitations, Darwin was accepted as an unpaid naturalist on H.M.S. Beagle, which was bound for South America and from which he recorded data over a five-year period (1831—1836) that resulted in the formulating of his concept of evolution.

His views were defended by Huxley in England, Haeckel in Germany, Vladimir Kovalevski in Russia, and Asa Gray in America. Although accused of believing that man descended from apes, Darwin held, as defined by Webster,

  • that natural selection favors the survival of some variations over others, that new species have arisen and may continue to arise by these processes, and that widely divergent groups of plants and animals have arisen from the same ancestors.

The Descent of Man (1871) supplemented and elaborated upon the structure of his theory of what he termed The Origin of Species. (For an earlier theorist about evolution, see entry for Anaximandros.)

Darwin married his first cousin, Emma Wedgwood, who was descended as he was from the pottery patriarch Josiah Wedgwood. After his five years exploring South America and being seasick during many of his travels, Darwin lived sixteen miles from London at Down House in Kent, where in a wheeled armchair in his study there he wrote Origin of Species. The place also was something of a refuge from London’s dirt and violence, an ideal place for the semi-invalid he became. As to what his physical problem was, physicians even today are unsure. He may have suffered from a blood parasite, or maybe some strong psychosomatic component was his problem.

Concerning religion, Darwin wrote,

  • The mystery of the beginning of all things is insoluble by us, and I for one must be content to remain an Agnostic.

Unitarians have claimed him as one of their group, but upon his death it was Francis Galton, his cousin, who helped arrange Darwin’s burial in Westminster Abbey. The Canon of St. Paul’s, with some “discomfort and misgiving,” allowed the burial, mainly because of pressure from Huxley, the Canon of Westminster, the Dean of Westminster, the president of the Royal Society, journalists, scientists, and any number of preachers who at this point, according to Adrian Desmond and James Moore in Darwin, vied with each other for the honor of praising the “agnostic in the abbey.” They also state that it was Lyell’s newly published Principles of Geology that convinced Darwin of evolutionary naturalism and led him slowly but inexorably away from Christianity.

Darwin, according to a Herman Hausheer, a theologian of the 1940s, “proposed to reconcile evolution with traditional ethics through the concept of adaptation. He never could bring himself to regard natural selection as a means in the hands of Providence. First a theist and later an agnostic, Darwin rejected religion when he assumed that religion depended upon a definite scientific view. Those who see in Darwinism the final destruction of religion fail to realize that religion does not rest upon a hypothesis concerning the origin of living beings any more than that it rests upon an Aristotelian-Ptolemaic cosmology. Organized religion undermines its own existence by affiliating itself with and demanding of its members a blind subscription to any scientific system. Living religion has no biology and cosmology. It does not rest upon unexplainable natural events, but upon the experience of the heart.”

Numerous other apologists continue to try to explain the profound challenge Darwin’s concepts brought to theism. Darwin’s Autobiography (published 1887) describes his change from having a naive acceptance of Christianity to becoming a reluctant agnostic to the point in which he “gradually came to disbelieve Christianity” and wondered why everyone else had not, also. He adds, “I have steadily endeavored to keep my mind free, so as to give up any hypothesis however much beloved (and I cannot resist forming one on every subject), as soon as facts are shown to be opposed to it.”

To a German student in 1879, Darwin wrote, “Science has nothing to do with Christ, except in so far as the habit of scientific research makes a man cautious in admitting evidence. For myself I do not believe that there ever has been any revelation.” In his Life and Letters, he relates that between 1836 and 1842 he had come to see “that the Old Testament was no more to be trusted than the sacred books of the Hindoos.” He rejected design and said, “I for one must be content to remain an agnostic.”

The essence of Darwin’s philosophy was that organized complexity has arisen from primeval simplicity, entirely without the help of any designer or pre-existing cause. Others can deny this, and do, but the theory of natural selection remains the major theory for explaining fully the wonders of nature. We humans are a bundle of design compromises, The Economist (29 July 1995) wrote in appreciation of Darwin’s views, “engaged in an endless arms race between parasites and their host. Our bodies - evolved in the African savannah - are poorly adapted to the modern world. We are tyrannised by the side-effects of genes selected for benefits we have yet to discover.”

The continued evolution of his theories, as evidenced by numbers of current books on the subject, show Darwinism is a unifying theory that is being used to look at old problems in new ways. Physicians, for example, should be cautious about routinely treating symptoms; they should know that using aspirin will bring down the fever in chickenpox and comfort the sufferer, but that will seriously prolong the infection. Looking at human beings and their illnesses as the products of a long evolutionary history is in itself a salutary exercise. Darwin, the failed doctor, is wisely being consulted by contemporary doctors, among others, who understand the significance of his ideas.

Chided by individuals who misunderstood his theory, Darwin fought back: “For my part, I would as soon be descended from a baboon as from a savage who mistreats his enemies, treats his wives like slaves, and is haunted by the grossest superstitions.” “For myself,” he wrote, “I do not believe in any revelation. As for a future life, every man must judge for himself between conflicting vague probabilities.” He professed himself an agnostic, regarding the problem of the universe as beyond our solution. Robert Lewins, M.D., knew Darwin personally, and had discussed this question with him. Darwin was much less reticent to Lewins than he had shown himself in a letter to Haeckel. In answer to a direct question “as to the bearing of his researches on the existence of an anima, or soul in man, he distinctly stated that, in his opinion, a vital or spiritual principle, apart from inherent somatic (bodily) energy, had no more locus standing in the human than in the other races of the animal kingdom.”

In reviewing Matt Ridley’s The Origins of Virtue: Human Instincts and the Evolution of Cooperation (1998), Frank J. Sulloway in The New York Review of Books, 9 April 1998) commented about ongoing controversies over the Darwinian perspectives which Ridley’s work brings up:

  • In this often heated debate, it does not really help for adversaries to argue about whether human behavior is genetically or culturally determined (it is both); about whether human consciousness invalidates the effects of natural selection (consciousness is natural selection’s most remarkable product, not its antithesis); about whether Darwinian theory robs us of our free will (it clearly does not); or about whether Darwinians can be usefully divided into narrow-minded “ultras,” who attribute everything to natural selection, and open-minded “pluralists” (they cannot be so divided). Critical empiricism, not debating skills on either side, will ultimately resolve these controversies. As Charles Darwin taught us more than a century ago, openness to diverse lines of evidence and a dogged dedication to hypothesis testing are the enduring Darwinian virtues.

In The Darwin Legend (1995), James Moore wrote that the reports of Darwin’s deathbed conversion, although often repeated, are without substance. Francis Darwin told T. H. Huxley in 1887 that any such allegations were “false and without any kind of foundation,” calling such stories “a work of imagination.” He affirmed that his father died an agnostic. Of his sons, Sir Francis became a leading botanist, Sir George Howard a distinguished astronomer at Cambridge, and two others became successful engineers. All, stated Joseph McCabe, were agnostics.

His eldest son, Francis, wrote the following concerning his father’s death:

  • No special change occurred during the beginning of April, but on Saturday 15th he was seized with giddiness while sitting at dinner in the evening, and fainted in an attempt to reach his sofa. On the 17th he was again better, and in my temporary absence recorded for me the progress of an experiment in which I was engaged. During the night of April 18th, about a quarter to twelve, he had a severe attack and passed into a faint, from which he was brought back to consciousness with great difficulty. He seemed to recognize the approach of death, and said, ‘I am not the least afraid to die.’ All the next morning he suffered from terrible nausea and faintness, and hardly rallied before the end came.”

Darwin is buried in Westminster Abbey, London. The gravestone is a floor slab with name and vital dates. As recently as 1916, Sir Francis had to refute a lying story about his father’s agonizing deathbed, and the story cropped up again, with embellishments, in The Churchman’s Magazine (1925).

{See entry for Erasmus Darwin. A recent work on Darwinism is Daniel C. Dennett’s Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meaning of Life (1995), in which Darwinism is favorably seen as a corrosive acid that is capable of dissolving many of our earlier beliefs in sociology and philosophy. A major biography, reviewed in The New York Review of Books (4 April 1996) by Stephen Jay Gould, is Janet Browne’s Charles Darwin: Voyaging [1996].

BDF; CE; Stephen Jay Gould, Rocks of Ages; HNS2; JM; JMRH; PUT; RAT; TRI; TYD}

George Howard Darwin [Sir] (1845—1912)


Darwin, the second son of Charles Darwin, taught astronomy at Cambridge. He wrote the accepted theory of the moon’s origin.


Francis Darwin [Sir] (1848—1925)


Darwin, the third son of Charles Darwin, taught botany at Cambridge and was President of the British Association in 1908. Besides the biography of his father, Darwin wrote many papers on botany and in 1919 sent a cordial greeting to the Rationalist Press Association dinner.


Leonard Darwin [Major] (15 January 1850 - 26 March 1943)


Darwin, the youngest son of Charles Darwin, was in the Staff Intelligence Department of the War Office from 1885 to 1890. He was President of the Royal Geographical Society, Chairman of the Eugenics Education Society, and Treasurer of the National Committee for Combating Venereal Diseases.



Because of the thinking of Erasmus and Charles Darwin, Darwinism according to Prof. Anthony O'Hear of the University of Bradford, as quoted in The Oxford Companion to Philosophy, refers to

  • any view which sees the development of species, including the human species, as the result of competition among and within species, which weeds out the less fit. The mechanism fuelling this process is that of the selective retention by the environment of those individuals who have particular genetically based features which give them competitive advantage over their fellows. They then transmit these features to their offspring.

O'Hear adds,

  • Since in nature genetically based variations within species arise randomly, Darwinism is a non-teleological theory of order: the variations chosen by the environment and which fit it were not designed to do so, nor did they arise in direct reponse to environmental pressure (contra Lamarck). The absence of teleological explanation means that it cannot be applied directly to developments in human society or culture.

As originally formulated, according to the Columbia Encyclopedia,

  • Darwinism did not distinguish beween acquired characteristics, which are inheritable. Modern knowledge of heredity - epecially the concept of mutation, which provides an explanation of how variations may arise - has supplemented and modified the theory, but in its basic outline Darrwinism is now universally accepted by scientists.


Randolph M. Nesse and George C. Williams, in Why We Get Sick (1995), argue that the human body is adapted to life as hunters and gathers in the Paleolithic communities of 100,000 years ago. Although our way of life has changed since then, they state, our genetics have not. In the Stone Age, humans enjoyed finding the rare sweet and fat foods; today, we find it difficult to suppress that ancient reflex.

Their “Darwinian medicine” treats the symptoms differently. Although a physician might try to bring down a fever or counter an allergic reaction, the Darwinian approach is that the fever is a defense mechanism for putting bacteria at a disadvantage, that suppressing it may prolong the disease although admittedly bringing comfort to a sufferer. Deans of medicine point out that the concepts of Darwinian medicine cannot be tested rigorously.

As critiqued by journalist Nicholas Wade, “Physicians seek immediate causes (what infectious agent is making this patient sick?), whereas evolutionists seek ultimate causes (what genetic adaptation has made humans vulnerable to this disease?).”

{Nicholas Wade, “Ask Dr. Darwin,” The New York Times Magazine, 19 Feb 1995}

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