In a post yesterday I began exploring how justified the new atheists’ appropriation of Darwinian ideas is. Consideration of Erasmus Darwin’s writings suggests that his unbelief could well have been father to the thought in the matter of his evolutionary speculations. He was certainly more prone to gratuitous displays of atheistical dissent than was his grandson Charles. This was clearly shown in what turned out to be an amusing “own goal” he scored against himself arising from the provocative inscription he once chose to have embossed on the exterior of his coach. The offending words, “E Conchis Omnia” (everything comes from seashells), suggested rather too unambiguously to many orthodox believers that humans had originally developed from creatures crawling along the seabed. One is here reminded irresistibly of Richard Dawkins paying to have atheistic messages emblazoned on the sides of London buses.
Unsurprisingly, Erasmus’s all-too transparent subtext was not lost on a Lichfield neighbor of his, a Church dignitary by the name of Canon Seward. Seward, offended by the idea that sea shells could be thought to be the ancestors of humans, attacked the exhibitionistic show of (philosophical) materialism in a satirical poem, comparing Erasmus with Epicurus and Lucretius, the arch-materialists of the Classical past:
He [=Erasmus] too renounces the Creator,
And forms all sense from senseless matter
Makes man start up from dead fish bones,
As old Deucalion did from stones.1
Predictably, Erasmus was before long obliged to remove the inscription from his coach, fearing loss of revenue from his medical practice were he not to do so.
We have recently been made aware of the power of “cancel culture” even in our own day. Against the backdrop of a decidedly more persecuting age,2 Erasmus was thenceforth obliged to make the outward claim that he was a theist, but his abiogenetic conception of the beginning of the world and the subsequent wholly natural processes of evolution he postulated were advanced in suspiciously ambiguous terms which might (tactically) be termed “two-faced,” as the following words indicate:
Would it be too bold to imagine, that in the great length of time, since the earth began to exist, perhaps millions of ages before the commencement of the history of mankind, would it be too bold to imagine, that all warm-blooded animals have arisen from one living filament, which THE GREAT FIRST CAUSE endued with animality, with the power of acquiring new parts, attended with new propensities, directed by irritations, sensations, volitions, and associations; and thus possessing the faculty of continuing to improve by its own inherent activity, and of delivering down those improvements by generation to its posterity, world without end!3
The passage advances an awkward, logically contradictory hybrid of spontaneous generation and divine creation. Erasmus wishes to assure readers that this process was initiated under God’s superintendence, yet the phrase “which THE FIRST GREAT CAUSE endued with animality” seems to be something of a parenthesis which might be omitted without injuring the flow of his sentence. This in turn indicates that it might have been an interpolation tacked on pro forma to avert clerical ire. The truthfulness of his theistic claims must then remain highly moot, all the more so since his philosophical conjectures were unorthodox and very often, in 18th-century terms, sacrilegious.
Erasmus Darwin thought a jaunty form of Augustan verse traditionally associated with lighter themes4 was the best cover for his rather outré poetical effusions on evolution. It became especially imperative for people holding views like those of Erasmus to dissemble after the French Revolution of 1789 and the Terror which followed it. From that time onward there grew up a genuine fear of any emulation of French science whose practitioners, rightly or wrongly, were suspected of instrumentalizing their science to further insurrectionary political goals. Understandably then, against the background of the climate of fear, we must often read between the lines in order to get to Erasmus’s true meaning.
Atheism, Political Emancipation, Revolution
As Jennifer Hecht has observed, evolution before the advent of Charles Darwin was closely linked to the subjects of politics and religion. Those who believed in transmutation of species tended to be on the side of the religious doubters, and on the Left politically.5 It was commonly supposed that, if you believed in an autonomous, self-fashioning, and self-sustaining Nature (which of course remains the dominant understanding to our own day) there would arise a corresponding impulse to define yourself as the independent product of natural processes rather than as the designed creation of a supernatural master. Freedom and independence would be supremely important factors to you and you would be keen to throw off any shackles of dependency. So inseparable were the domains of radical politics and atheism in post-Enlightenment understanding that the remarkable Thomas Paine, the intellectual godfather of the campaign to free “English America” from British rule, wrote in his Age of Reason an extended critique of the improbabilities and narrative inconsistencies of the Bible and, at other times of his supremely varied career, played a part in the American War of Independence and served as an elected representative in the French Convention after the success of the Revolution of 1789.
If then, as figures as various as Freud and Jacques Monod have claimed, belief in the divine was a response to human feelings of insecurity and contingency, then that revolutionary declaration of independence from the divine which we term atheism must surely count as a response to the countervailing human desire for untrammeled personal freedom. That aspiration had its political correlative in the desire to rise up against the forces of overbearing overlordship (secular or divine) and so attain to the position of being able to weave one’s own destiny.
Such was the guiding spirit of the age in which Erasmus Darwin grew to maturity and which became the crucible of so many revolutionary impulses. By dint of an “assimilation of Biblical and theological elements to secular frames of reference”6 progress was, in Enlightenment thinking, imagined as being achievable in historical time (as opposed to the distant chiliastic, on-the-stroke-of-Doomsday hope offered by Christian apocalyptic). The ultimate effect of this large change of perspective from divine to secular was to translate Scriptural prophecy rather freely into preemptive revolutionary action — people “doing it for themselves” to improve their condition by the form of direct action which could do away with the need for apocalyptic hopes. As the contemporary examples of the American and French revolutions showed, this could involve bloodshed, yet the pious hope was that the violence would have a cleansing effect which would ultimately lead to the greater good.
As the late Roy Porter observed, it was Erasmus whose “man-centred view of man making himself” resulted in his “Promethean vision of infinite possibilities. God had become a distant cause of causes; what counted was man acting in Nature. The theodicy, the master narrative, had become secularized.”7 His was a very new form of secular cosmogony in explicit opposition to the older European master narrative enshrined in the Bible and the 12 books of John Milton’s Paradise Lost. It is perhaps otiose to remark that the ancient Greeks might have called this hubris.
Next, “Darwin and the Loss of the Enlightenment Paradigm.”
- In Greek mythology Deucalion was the son of Prometheus. With his wife Pyrrha he survived a flood sent by Zeus to punish human wickedness; they were then instructed to throw stones over their shoulders, and these turned into humans to repopulate the world. By this reference Seward doubtless meant to arraign Erasmus for adhering to what Wordsworth would later refer as a ‘creed outworn’ (as opposed to Christianity). See Desmond King-Hele, Erasmus Darwin and Evolution (Sheffield: Stuart Harris, 2014), p. 153.
- Erasmus had misgivings about publishing his poem Zoonomia or the Laws of Organic Life because he feared accusations of heresy, and, indeed, when it was published, it occasioned much ecclesiastical opprobrium. In 1817 the Italian translation was even placed on the Papal Index of proscribed books.
- Zoonomia or the Laws of Organic Life, two volumes (London: J. Johnson, 1794-6), volume 1, p. 505.
- Such as Alexander Pope’s mock-heroic “Rape of the Lock” (1712/14).
- Jennifer Hecht, Doubt: A History (New York: HarperOne, 2003), p. 402.
- M. H. Abrams, Natural Supernaturalism. Tradition and Revolution in Romantic Literature (New York: Norton, 1971), p.64.
- Roy Porter, Enlightenment. Britain and the Creation of the Modern World (London: Penguin, 2001), p. 445.