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The Legacy of Erasmus Darwin

Image: Erasmus Darwin, by Joseph Wright of Derby, via Wikimedia Commons.

Editor’s note: We are delighted to present a series by Neil Thomas, Reader Emeritus at the University of Durham, “Natural Selection: Discovery or Invention?” Find the full series here. Professor Thomas’s recent book is Taking Leave of Darwin: A Longtime Agnostic Discovers the Case for Design (Discovery Institute Press).

The kinship of ideas between Charles Darwin and his grandfather, Erasmus, was something of an open secret in the 19th century. In the course of his lengthy review of the Origin of Species, Oxford’s bishop, Samuel Wilberforce, wrote: “If we go back two generations we find the ingenious grandsire of the author of the Origin of Species speculating on the same subject, and almost in the same manner with his more daring grandson.”1

The Temple of Nature

Although Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species was not published until 1859, an abbreviated literary template for it may be claimed to have been in existence by the 1790s in the shape of a series of quaintly ornate poetic meditations penned by Erasmus Darwin. This is best illustrated by the oft-cited passage where Erasmus describes the emergence of life forms in a process of what we would now term spontaneous generation. That abiogenetic moment would be followed by successive evolutionary stages in which the intellectual scaffolding of his grandson’s Origin of Species is clearly visible:

Organic Life beneath the shoreless waves

Was born and nurs’d in Ocean’s pearly caves;

First forms minute, unseen by spheric glass [=microscope]

Move on the mud, or pierce the watery mass:

These as successive generations bloom.

New powers acquire, and larger limbs assume;

Whence countless groups of vegetation spring,

And breathing realms of fin, and feet, and wing.

Thus the tall Oak, the giant of the wood,

Which bears Britannia’s thunders on the flood;

The Whale, unmeasured monster of the main,

The lordly lion, monarch of the plain,

The eagle soaring in the realms of air,

Whose eye undazzled drinks the polar glare,

Imperious man, who rules the bestial crowd,

Of language, reason, and reflection proud,

With brow erect who scorns this earthy sod,

And styles himself the image of his God;

Arose from rudiments of form and sense,

An embryon point, or microscopic ens!2

Erasmus even touched on the theory of natural selection when he concluded that the strongest and most active animals would propagate the species, so strengthening the race as a whole, all of which indicates that the younger Darwin’s work had clear overlaps with that of his grandfather.

Next, “Myth-Making and Malthus.”


  1. “On the Origin of Species,” Quarterly Review, no number (1860), pp. 225-264, here p. 237.
  2. Erasmus Darwin, The Temple of Nature, facsimile of 1803 edition (Aldershot: Scolar Press, 1973), canto 1, ll. 295-315.  

Neil Thomas

Neil Thomas is a Reader Emeritus in the University of Durham, England and a longtime member of the British Rationalist Association. He studied Classical Studies and European Languages at the universities of Oxford, Munich and Cardiff before taking up his post in the German section of the School of European Languages and Literatures at Durham University in 1976. There his teaching involved a broad spectrum of specialisms including Germanic philology, medieval literature, the literature and philosophy of the Enlightenment and modern German history and literature. He also taught modules on the propagandist use of the German language used both by the Nazis and by the functionaries of the old German Democratic Republic. He published over 40 articles in a number of refereed journals and a half dozen single-authored books, the last of which were Reading the Nibelungenlied (1995), Diu Crone and the Medieval Arthurian Cycle (2002) and Wirnt von Gravenberg's 'Wigalois'. Intertextuality and Interpretation (2005). He also edited a number of volumes including Myth and its Legacy in European Literature (1996) and German Studies at the Millennium (1999). He was the British Brach President of the International Arthurian Society (2002-5) and remains a member of a number of learned societies.



abiogenesisbiologyBritanniaCharles Darwindivine imageeagleErasmus DarwinevolutionHistorylionmicroscopenatural selectionNatural Selection: Discovery or Invention? (series)Origin of SpeciesSamuel WilberforceThe Temple of Naturewhale