Evolutionary poetry

Erasmus Darwin prefigured his grandson by writing poetry about a world of plants and animals that changes over time. He even has the idea that some species drive others extinct via competition, which was far out for the 18th Century. People at that time were convinced that species were eternal, all created at once, and existing forever.

He was one of the most prominent physicians of his age, and wrote poetry in his spare time. His last epic poem, published after his death, is called The Temple of Nature.

In the following exerpt, Erasmus theorizes that once there were only males, and their offspring were not nurtured. Then imagination brought forth the gentleness of the female, and they sheltered and protected their young, thus their kind survived and the old male-only species died out.

In these lone births no tender mothers blend
Their genial powers to nourish or defend;
No nutrient streams from Beauty’s orbs improve
These orphan babes of solitary love;
Birth after birth the line unchanging runs,
And fathers live transmitted in their sons;
Each passing year beholds the unvarying kinds,
The same their manners, and the same their minds.
Till, as erelong successive buds decay,
And insect-shoals successive pass away,
Increasing wants the pregnant parents vex
With the fond wish to form a softer sex;
Whose milky rills with pure ambrosial food
Might charm and cherish their expected brood.
The potent wish in the productive hour
Calls to its aid Imagination’s power,
O’er embryon throngs with mystic charm presides,
And sex from sex the nascent world divides,
With soft affections warms the callow trains,
And gives to laughing Love his nymphs and swains;
Whose mingling virtues interweave at length
The mother’s beauty with the father’s strength.

“So erst in Paradise creation’s LORD,
As the first leaves of holy writ record,
From Adam’s rib, who press’d the flowery grove,
And dreamt delighted of untasted love,
To cheer and charm his solitary mind,
Form’d a new sex, the MOTHER OF MANKIND.

“WHERE no new Sex with glands nutritious feeds,
Nurs’d in her womb, the solitary breeds;
No Mother’s care their early steps directs,
Warms in her bosom, with her wings protects;
The clime unkind, or noxious food instills
To embryon nerves hereditary ills;
The feeble births acquired diseases chase,
Till Death extinguish the degenerate race.

Comment: The remarkable thing about Erasmus’s theory is that he anticipates survival of the fittest, and that it’s the fittest species, not the fittest individuals that he’s describing. This is in an age when there is not yet an archaeologial record of extinct species, and scientists the world over believe that species are forever — no such thing as extinction.

It’s curious that his idea of how new anatomical features arise is through the “mystical charm” of imagination. This is distinct from either Lamarckian “use and disuse” or neo-Darwinian “random mutation”.

It’s funny to us that he should conceive the ancestral hermaphroditic type as male.

Lastly, he seems to conflate sex with mammary glands. Certainly he must know that there are whole classes (fish, amphibians and reptiles, not to mention plants) that have sex but don’t nurture their young. Why should you need two different phenotypes to introduce nurturing of the young?

Post a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s