Erasmus Darwin

The development of life

Erasmus DarwinErasmus Darwin (1731-1802), the grandfather of Charles Darwin, was born in Nottinghamshire, educated at Cambridge and practised as a physician in Lichfield, Staffordshire, where he also established a botanical garden. He was also a founder member of the Lunar Society, a group of scientists, inventors and manufacturers who met in Birmingham and who played a central role in the development of the Industrial Revolution in the West Midlands. He was a poet as well as a physician, and published two long poems, namely The Loves of the Plants (1789) and The Economy of Vegetation (1791) - while The Temple of Nature, or The Origin of Society, was published posthumously in 1803. In these poems and in his prose work Zoonomia (1794-96), Darwin:

  • writes about the nature of organic life
  • sets out a theory of its development that anticipates the evolutionary ideas that his grandson Charles published in On the Origin of Species (1859).

Use by Mary Shelley

Erasmus Darwin's name is to be found in the first sentence of the Preface to Frankenstein as an authority who thinks that the central event of the story – Victor Frankenstein's animation of his creature – is ‘of not impossible occurrence'. Darwin, of course, died in 1802 and therefore could not have read Frankenstein and given his opinion as to its probability. What Percy Shelley (who wrote the Preface for Mary) is referring to is the idea of live matter emerging from dead matter. He has in mind Darwin's report on how a mixture of flour and water in his laboratory appeared to come to life by a process of spontaneous generation, and Mary Shelley herself refers to this incident in her 1831 Introduction to the novel.

For Darwin, spontaneous generation was certainly one means by which life might emerge. Other means included:

  • those organisms and species that reproduce by a solitary paternal process
  • reproduction by hermaphroditic creatures.

However, he believed that, in evolutionary terms, these were crude mechanisms and that:

  • sexual reproduction, requiring the contributions of both a male and female parent, was the most advanced evolutionary level of reproduction
  • the process by which this means of reproduction had developed had been slow and gradual.

Indeed, as Charles Darwin would argue, nearly sixty years after his grandfather's death, it was a process that had emerged over many millions of years.

Victor Frankenstein's intervention

Victor Frankenstein is too impatient, ambitious and self-centred to accept the slow pace of evolution:

  • his intervention in natural processes, which, from a Christian point of view, usurps the power of creation reserved for God, is in Darwin's terms a disruption of those processes
  • by using chemical means to put together his creature, he short-circuits the natural cycle required for the creation of new life, and the result of his experiment is, in effect, an evolutionary step backwards.
Scan and go

Scan on your mobile for direct link.