Darwinizing Before Darwin
Posted by Richard Conniff on April 18, 2011
Before Charles Darwin was even born,the word “darwinizing” was already a pejorative, in some circles. Samuel Taylor Coleridge used it to disparage the abstruse theorizing of Darwin’s grandfather Erasmus. Today is the anniversary of Erasmus Darwin’s death in 1802 and to mark the occasion, here’s how I describe him in The Species Seekers:
As the industrial revolution gathered force, new mines, quarries, and canals sliced open the countryside, exposing past geological ages. Erasmus Darwin, son of Robert and grandfather of Charles, visited one such excavation near Nottingham in 1767 to observe “the Goddess of Minerals naked, as she lay on her inmost bowers,” with belemnites, ammonites, and “numerous other petrified shells” wantonly strewn across the fresh-cut banks.
Darwin, a physician, poet, and philosopher, was a likable figure–fat, florid, pockmarked, with a ready smile and a voluptuary’s heart. (How else could he have turned a canal excavation into a naked Goddess?) He loved food, and, in a cockeyed foreshadowing of his grandson’s ideas about natural selection, his favorite nostrum for patients was “Eat or be eaten.” He had a deep faith in human progress (not least in his own family). The sight of fossil shells and other primitive creatures recovered from oblivion made him think about progress in the natural world, too. Years later, in his 1794 book Zoonomia, he would venture the “transmutationist” idea that over the course of “perhaps millions of ages … all warm-blooded animals have arisen from one living filament,” with successive generations acquiring new traits and passing down improvements to posterity. But for the moment, he expressed his belief in the common descent of species more simply, by having a motto painted like a bumper sticker on his carriage door: “E conchis omnia” (“Everything from shells”).
Even that smacked of heresy, to some. A local clergyman mocked Darwin in verse: “Great wizard he! by magic spells/ Can all things raise from cockle shells.” Long before Charles Darwin was born, the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge coined the term “darwinizing” to mock this sort of evolutionary theorizing. Fear of offending patients soon caused Erasmus Darwin to display his new motto only on his bookplate, rather than in the high street.