"Erasmus Darwin" Transcript

By Mark Sundaram

Welcome to the Endless Knot! This week we’re doing something a little different: instead of examining a single word, we’re having a look at a person whose innovations include both language and science, Erasmus Darwin. No, not Charles, his grandfather Erasmus!

Erasmus Darwin: doctor, scientist, inventor, poet, innovator, organizer, promoter of others, coiner of new words, and all around polymath. He was the grandfather of the more famous Charles Darwin, evolutionary scientist, and of the somewhat less famous Francis Galton, a polymath in his own right. He was also one of the leading minds of the English Enlightenment and one of the driving forces of the English Industrial revolution, an 18th century “renaissance man”, who has even been described by some as England’s Leonardo Da Vinci—in part because of his tendency to come up with ideas that wouldn’t actually be put into practice until centuries later. In many ways, though, Erasmus Darwin’s most important role was as a connector of ideas, people, and fields—he created learned societies and dining clubs, had extensive and wide-ranging networks of friends, and devoted much of his energy to communicating his knowledge to the wider public. My own interest in Darwin lies not so much in the deeper etymologies of the words he created—so I won’t be tracing many of those—but in the way his career highlights the connection between new ideas and inventions (in science and elsewhere) and the need for new words or new uses of words to describe them. This is a fundamental and significant driver of language change.

In addition to being a medical doctor and a man of science, Erasmus Darwin had a literary flair, though he was rather self-conscious about his literary endeavours and sometimes published his work anonymously. His literary output included poetry, mostly about nature and science, and he was actually considered to be one of the most influential poets of the 1790s.
In his writings, Darwin coined many words and new senses of old words, some of which made it into regular use. He ranks in the top third of the sources quoted in the Oxford English Dictionary, and provides 204 first examples of a word or meaning. So Darwin was a significant linguistic innovator, and in his poem The Temple of Nature he even speculated about the origins of language. But what sorts of words were these? Well, he was prolific at verbing nouns, such as “to cauldron” (put in a cauldron), “to horizon” (furnish or bound with a horizon), and “to lantern” (to furnish or light with a lantern). He also produced new forms of words such as “acutish” (somewhat acute), “blubbery”, “brineless”, “freightless”, and “refreeze”. If you’re “red-blooded” and “air-breathing” you might have to worry about “vampirism”, thanks to Dr Darwin. If that doesn’t impress you, you might be amused to know that he was the first person to use the word “bottom” to refer to a person’s rear end. Of course he also coined a number of scientific terms, such as “aeration”, “alluviation”, and “anemology” (the study of winds) and is responsible for a number of botanical terms such as “sap-wood” and “milk parsley”. Some of his terms didn’t catch on quite as well, such as “devaporate” instead of “condense”, and “somnambulation” instead of “sleepwalking”. He suggested “branks” (probably from a Scots word for a kind of gag for a scold) instead of “the mumps” but to no avail, but he is the coiner of “tonsillitis” which previously had been referred to by such terms as squinsy, strangullion, and prunella, so thank goodness for that.

And speaking of tonsillitis, Dr Darwin was perhaps one of the most renowned and successful medical doctors of his day, largely due to his sympathetic bedside manner and no-nonsense approach. For the most part he eschewed nostrums and other such superstitious quackery, emphasizing things like exercise, proper diet, and abstention from alcohol. Though he was a rather obese man himself (so much so that he had a special cutaway table allowing him to sit closer to his food, and when on his medical rounds, he would send his driver, also a very large man, into the houses first to make sure the floors would hold), after a bout of gout he gave up alcohol much to the improvement of his health, and henceforth became an advocate of teetotalling. He was so taken with Jacob Schweppe’s carbonated mineral water (yes that Schweppe), that he recommended it for its health giving effects. Oh, and by the way, he was the first to use the verb “to carbonate”. He was so well-thought-of as a medical man, that no less a personage than King George III offered him the job of official royal physician, which he turned down, and instead produced his great medical and scientific work Zoonomia, identifying and describing many diseases, and providing a general description of the life sciences.

Of course the name Darwin immediately calls to mind evolution through natural selection, because of the theories of Erasmus’s famous grandson Charles. Well, Darwin senior had his own musings about the evolution of all species from one source through the process of natural selection, first expressed in that medical and scientific treatise Zoonomia. As he wrote in his final great poem on evolution from the origins of life to civilizations, The Temple of Nature:
Organic Life beneath the shoreless waves
Was born, and nurs’d in Ocean’s pearly caves;
First forms minute, unseen by spheric gas,
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.
That word “acquired” in the biological sense was a Darwin coinage, by the way. The elder Darwin seems to have believed that organisms could pass along characteristics acquired during their lifetime, not just genetically encoded hereditary ones — well he wouldn’t have had a sense of genetics as such. But this idea, now referred to as Lamarckism after its proponent Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, and rejected by grandson Charles, is in some ways now being reconsidered, in the guise of epigenetics which suggests that lived experience can have some impact on the way genes are expressed in descendants. But Erasmus did also seem to presage the idea of natural selection, stating in his Zoonomia that organisms competed out of “lust, hunger, and security” and that “the strongest and most active animal should propagate the species, which should thence become improved”, and clearly championed the idea that all life sprang from a single “living filament”. And the family motto that Erasmus Darwin adopted was “e chonchis omnia”, everything from shells, which, though he was forced to remove it from the side of his carriage by a paranoid church canon, he kept in his bookplates, in books no doubt read by grandson Charles.

However Darwin’s main claim to fame in biology circles is in botany. Wanting to isolate his medical reputation from his literary endeavours, he set up the Litchfield Botanical Society as a front for his publications on botany, and his first project in that regard was to translate into English the works of botanist and taxonomist Carl Linnaeus in the form of, believe it or not, a long poem, The Loves of Plants. In addition to outlining Linnaeus’s classification system, Darwin explained plant reproduction by personifying the plants and describing their, shall we say, amorous activities. Needless to say, this caused some controversy and raised eyebrows in straightlaced 18th century England. I mean, women were reading this stuff! Shocking! Well, Darwin was a progressive thinker and didn’t see the need to shield women or other non-specialist readers from accurate scientific knowledge, even about sex. That’s why he wrote all of this as a poem. And in writing about the sex lives of plants, Darwin coined the phrases “sexual reproduction” and “sexual propagation”, being the first person to use the English word “sexual” in this biological sense. This poem was paired with another more general and theoretical scientific poem called The Economy of Vegetation under the joint title The Botanic Garden. Though nominally botanical, this book covered wide ranging topics on science and industry. And in other writings, Darwin seems to be the first to clearly describe the process of photosynthesis, using carbon dioxide, water, and sunlight to produce food for the plant and give off oxygen, and also suggests the importance of chemical fertilizers, such as nitrogen. In writing these poems Darwin wanted to use plain English words wherever possible rather than Latinate jargon, and found newly coined English compound words more expressive than the Latin. And to make sure he got the vocabulary right, he even consulted famed lexicographer Samuel Johnson.

Darwin was the chief organizer of the Lunar society, a group of scientists and industrialists who were the driving force behind the English Industrial Revolution, so called because of their habit of holding their dinner meetings at the full moon, so they could find their way home in those days before street lighting. Darwin was known as a sociable man and a great supporter of the work of his friends, and his fellow Lunarticks, as they were sometimes called, included the likes of James Watt (of steam engine fame), Joseph Priestly (the discoverer of oxygen), and Josiah Wedgwood (of pottery fame). Wedgwood later became a Darwin relation by the marriage of the former’s daughter to the latter’s son, founding the great Darwin Wedgwood family, whose wealth, it could be said, made possible Charles Darwin’s voyages compiling evidence to support his evolutionary theory. Erasmus Darwin invented a horizontal windmill to power Wedgwood’s machinery, and also worked with Wedgwood’s business partner Matthew Boulton on the study of gasses, expressing the ideal gas law some 20 years earlier than its “official” discovery. He was also interested in the electrical research being conducted by the scientific community, coining the term “electrical” to refer to people working on the new science, thus eventually giving electrical engineers their name.

Darwin also had his eye on the big picture, cosmology that is, suggesting in The Economy of Vegetation that the universe might be cyclical in nature, alternating between a sort of Big Bang and Big Crunch, long before these 20th century terms came into use, describing how “Suns sink on suns, and systems systems crush” and then eventually Nature “soars and shines, another and the same.” In his quest to understand the cosmos, he designed a multi mirror telescope, that used many smaller mirrors to get around the difficulty of building one large perfect mirror, a system which would only be put into use and first constructed in 1979 in Arizona.

And Darwin has another roundabout connection to modern space science; he was the first to use the word “hydrogen” borrowing Antoine Lavoisier’s term from French, formed from Greek meaning “water generating” because when it was burned, or in other words combined with oxygen, it produced water. Appropriate too, since Darwin was quick to recognize hydrogen’s utility as a highly combustible gas, envisioning both a hydrogen internal combustion engine, and a hydrogen-oxygen rocket engine, long before liquid fuelled rocket engines became a reality, after Konstantin Tsiolkovsky developed the necessary equations in the 19th century and Robert Goddard first successfully built one in the 20th.

Now, Darwin would often hand off his ideas to others to develop rather than bring them to fruition himself, as, again, he was worried for his reputation as a doctor, not wanting to be known as a mad inventor; these ideas didn’t always get developed, however. One such idea was Darwin’s copying machine, which he called a “polygrapher”. It was based on the pantograph system, but greatly improved, and though we don’t have Darwin’s prototype itself, a copy made by it does survive and it is indeed difficult to distinguish it from the original. The person he gave it to turned out not to have the funds to patent and market it; this was one Charles Greville, a politician and collector of minerals, plants, artworks, and briefly the notoriously picturesque Emma, Lady Hamilton, who later on became the mistress of Lord Nelson. But as a footnote to the story, the friendly rivalry among the members of the Lunar Society led James Watt to try to one-up his friend by inventing a copy press, which was capable of making a copy of an already existing document, and became one of the primary copying devices in use until the 20th century, manufactured, of course, by James Watt & Co. As yet another footnote, years later Darwin’s other famous grandson, Francis Galton, invented another duplicating system, called the cyclostyle, capable of sending an image through the telegraph system as a mathematical code, and then reproducing it on the other end (foreshadowing computer graphics); it was based in part on Edison’s electric pen duplicating device, developed further by David Gestetner, which itself became the basis for the 20th century mimeograph machine.

In addition to duplicating human writing, Darwin also tried his hand at duplicating human speech, this time as a sort of bet, once again demonstrating the good-natured rivalry amongst the Lunarticks. His friend Matthew Boulton was to pay Darwin the sum of £1000 for devising a machine which could recite the Lord’s Payer, the Creed, and the Ten Commandments. While he didn’t manage anything so elaborate, he did purportedly build a machine operated by bellows with artificial tongue and lips capable of convincingly pronouncing “mama”, “papa”, “map”, and “pam”, a milestone on the road to speech synthesis. Some time later, a man named Charles Wheatstone constructed a similar set-up. Wheatstone’s other claims to fame include the invention of the first practical telegraph system, the concertina, and the stereoscope which allowed for 3D pictures. Wheatstone also came up with a way of accurately measuring the speed of an electrical signal in a wire, the method later used to measure the speed of light. And he invented the Playfair Cipher, used right up to WWII, named after his friend Lyon Playfair, the man to first suggest the use of chemical warfare. Erasmus Darwin would not have approved of that last development.

Erasmus Darwin’s writings, particularly The Botanic Garden and Zoonomia, became a sort of literary guide to science, and were especially influential on the back-to-nature crowd we call the Romantics. Wordsworth and Coleridge, though critical of his old-fashioned 18th century style of poetry in heroic couplets, were nevertheless deeply influenced by Darwin’s natural science. Darwin’s scientific poetry was the popular science of its day, and one might compare him to contemporary science communicators, such as Carl Sagan, James Burke, Bill Nye, or Neil deGrasse Tyson, in terms of his effect on the popular interest and understanding of science.
Perhaps most notably, Mary Shelley was inspired to write Frankenstein, with its reanimated corpse, by an experiment described in The Temple of Nature. (Mary may well have met Darwin as a girl, as her father William Godwin knew him.) Years later, she recalled: “Many and long were the conversations between Lord Byron and Shelley, to which I was a devout but nearly silent listener. ... They talked of the experiments of Dr. Darwin,… who preserved a piece of vermicelli in a glass case, till by some extraordinary means it began to move with voluntary motion.” She may have confused vorticella, a microscopic organism, with vermicelli the pasta, or she may have been remembering an actual pasta-based experiment that he did indeed describe. Either way, Darwin did speculate about the spontaneous generation of life. And after all, he put some effort into the mechanical replication of living things, as with his speaking machine and an attempt at making a mechanical bird; and his most famous poem starts with theories about the creation of the world and life. Mary Shelley’s other inspiration for the novel was the story of creation of Adam and Eve as told by Milton in Paradise Lost, which is specifically referenced in the novel. Paradise Lost also in part inspired Joseph Haydn’s great oratorio The Creation, for which poet Anne Hunter nee Home wrote a libretto, which also describes the creation of the planets, including, I suppose, the newly discovered planet Uranus, which its discoverer William Herschel initially named Georgium Sidus “George’s star” after his patron King George III (who you remember wanted Darwin as his personal physician). Haydn, being a bit of an astronomy fan boy, visited Herschel, as did novelist Fanny Burney, who along with poet and libretticist Home, was close friends with Samuel Johnson, a man who liked to surround himself with the intellectual women of the day, and whom you remember was consulted by Darwin about scientific vocabulary. As it turns out Anne Home’s husband, John Hunter, was a noted Scottish surgeon who brought the scientific method into medicine, and was teacher and friend to Edward Jenner, developer of the smallpox vaccine, an idea that had initially been brought into England from Turkey by Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, another close friend of Johnson (who by the way was no great fan of Milton’s poetry). And this kind of interconnectedness is indicative of Darwin’s central role in the popularization of science. Strangely, though, Darwin himself never really had a notion of the germ theory of disease.

Of course there are other forerunners to Erasmus Darwin in the role of science communicator, such as the Roman poet Lucretius, who wrote “On the Nature of Things”, a poem that explained the atomic theory of Democritus, the creation of the world, and Epicurean philosophy; he turned to poetry to spread his message more widely among his Roman contemporaries because its sweetness would help make the ‘bitter’ science palatable, just as (he said) doctors put honey on a cup to make children drink their medicine. This use of poetry as a teaching tool was not original to Lucretius, but his poem was certainly an important influence on Darwin’s own choice of poetry as a popularizing medium. Other forerunners include those who translated Isaac Newton’s writingsfor the general public, such as John Newbery who wrote a children’s book version in 1761.
And notably, after Darwin there was the British Association for the Advancement of Science, established in 1831 “to obtain a greater degree of national attention to the objects of science”, and Michael Faraday, an inspiration to the likes of Neil deGrasse Tyson and Brian Cox, who instituted the Royal Institution’s Annual Christmas Lectures, one of the most famous popular science outreaches. Speaking of Faraday, by the way, he was responsible for conveying the discoveries of Charles Wheatstone (remember him) to the larger world, particularly as he moved away from teaching and engaged mostly in research.

In keeping with his desire to spread knowledge more widely, Erasmus Darwin was keenly interested in education,  particularly the education of women. He even wrote a treatise on the education of women for the benefit of his two illegitimate schoolteacher daughters Susanna and Mary Parker, which was remarkably practical, and included scientific topics such as botany, chemistry, and mineralogy, as well as a knowledge of manufacturing and industry, and how to manage finances. And Darwin counted among his friends a number of women with an interest in science, including Anna Seward and Maria Jacson. Seward, known as the Swan of Lichfield, had a close, possibly romantic relationship with Honora Sneyd, another Darwin friend who shared his concerns about women’s education, also writing on the subject. She later married Lunar Society member Richard Edgeworth who came up with, though like Darwin often did, failed to develop, the idea of the caterpillar track, which he described as “a cart that carried its own road”.

So, Erasmus Darwin was a central pivot point for a wide range of scientific discoveries, inventions, language change, and social progress. And perhaps the driving force of his work, a creative impulse and a desire to connect and communicate, can best be summed up in his own words: “Enlist imagination under the banner of science”. It’s that inspiration that still drives many science communicators today, and I’ll end with one who, like Darwin, combines poetry and science: Baba Brinkman, science rapper, whose ‘peer-reviewed’ Rap Guide to Evolution and other albums show us the continuing value of looking for connections, not divisions, between areas of knowledge.

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