One of the weird facts about historical research (or maybe just about life in general) is that once a person or idea has come to your attention you find references to him/it/them everywhere. In a footnote. As a tangential character is a study of something else. The subject of a new book sitting on the front table at your local bookstore.
The upside is that there is always a new subject clamoring for my attention. The downside is that sometimes it feels like I’m being stalked. Right now, Erasmus Darwin is tracking me down.
I’ve been vaguely aware for a long time that Erasmus Darwin was Charles Darwin’s grandfather and wrote some funky poetry about botany, but I never gave him much thought. Then a friend of mine raved about a study of Erasmus with the engaging subtitle of Sex, Science and Serendipity.* I wrote it down on the ever expanding To-Be-Read-Someday list and went on my merry way. A few days later, Mr. Darwin appeared in a book I was reading on a totally different subject. Then it happened again. Soon it felt like I couldn’t even think about eighteenth century England without tripping over at least one reference to Erasmus Darwin–physician, poet, botanist, and proponent of progress.
It turns out that Erasmus Darwin was an Enlightenment figure of some importance–if an idea was going around he was sure to catch it. He was a founding member of the Lunar Society, an informal group of influential scientific entrepreneurs that included, among others, James Watt (who harnessed the power of steam), Joseph Priestly (who discovered oxygen), and Josiah Wedgwood (innovative potter, social reformer, and, incidentally, Charles Darwin’s other grandfather). He promoted new technologies not only with his wallet but with his words–writing heroic couplets celebrating the scientific accomplishments of others.** He invented a speaking machine, a copying machine and a steering mechanism for his carriage that was adopted for automobiles 130 years later. He supported the French Revolution, campaigned for education for women and the abolition of slavery, and developed an early theory of evolution.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge, himself no slouch in the polymath department, credited Erasmus with “perhaps a greater range of knowledge than any other man in Europe.”
Mr. Darwin, I look forward to getting to know you better..
* Patricia Fara. Erasmus Darwin: Sex, Science and Serendipity . Available in a bookstore near you, or at least by special order, depending on the bookstore.
** He also wrote The Loves of the Plants, a long poem about Linnaean classifications. It was later republished as part of a two-part work titled The Botanic Garden, illustrated by William Blake and Henry Fuseli. I have not read it, but I assume that it is weird. Because really, how could it not be?