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Darwin, Erasmus

Entry updated 10 October 2022. Tagged: Author.

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(1731-1802) UK physician, philosopher, inventor and poet; grandfather of Charles Darwin (1809-1882) and of Francis Galton. Though he was noted as an inventor of devices (both built and theoretical) from water pumps to speaking machines to a mechanical bird (see Inventions), and though his work as an advocate of the sexual classificatory system of Carolus Linnaeus (1707-1778) (see Biology) was of considerable importance, it is for his speculative Poetry that Darwin is of interest to the sf field. In particular, The Loves of the Plants (1789) anonymous, which was incorporated into The Botanic Garden: A Poem, in Two Parts [for full title see Checklist below] (1791; rev 2017 2vols), conveys through its wooden though occasionally powerful couplets – and a narrative which, reversing Ovid, treats plants as people – a serious speculative message about the chronological depth of Evolution clearly presaging the revolutionary thoughts of his grandson. Extracts from this and other verse by Darwin are included, perhaps unjustly, in The Stuffed Owl: An Anthology of Bad Verse (anth 1930; exp 1930; exp 1948), edited by D B Wyndham Lewis and Charles Lee (1870-1956).

Darwin's prose work Zoonomia; Or, The Laws of Organic Life (1794; exp 1796 2vols; further exp 1801 4vols), and the posthumously published poem The Temple of Nature; Or, The Origin of Society (1803), both extend the argument, with a wealth of technological and scientific imagery evocative of imagined processes of Evolution. The extent to which science fired Darwin's imagination, together with his contemporary popularity, make him an important figure in Proto SF and his work an early outstanding success in terms of sf Prediction. He belonged to the period when the imagery of science first entered the consciousness of laymen in general. In his Erasmus Darwin sequence, comprising Erasmus Magister (coll of linked stories 1982) and The Amazing Dr Darwin (coll of linked stories 2002), Charles Sheffield made him into a kind of scientific investigator. [JC/PN]

Erasmus Darwin

born near Nottingham, Nottinghamshire: 12 December 1731

died Breadsall Priory, Derbyshire: 18 April 1802


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