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Charles Darwin’s Grandfather – The True Founder of Evolutionary Theory?

Taryn Smee

When Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species in 1859, it opened up a dialogue that would change our understanding of life on earth.

As one of the key thinkers behind natural selection, his role in the advancement of human knowledge cannot but understated.

Darwin biographer Joseph Carell describes On the Origin of Species as “one of the two or three most significant works of all time — one of those works that fundamentally and permanently alter our vision of the world.”

Charles Darwin c. 1881.

Charles Darwin c. 1881.

Ideas, just like species, evolve over time and Darwin’s revolutionary concepts did not exist in a vacuum.

Around 50 years before Darwin’s trip on the HMS Beagle, his grandfather Erasmus Darwin published his thoughts on evolution, a theory we now know today as the survival of the fittest.

HMS Beagle

HMS Beagle

Erasmus Darwin was born the youngest of seven children in Nottinghamshire, England in 1731. The son of a physician and lawyer, he went onto study classics and mathematics at Cambridge then had three years of medical training at the University of Edinburgh.

It’s not clear whether he finished his medical degree but he ran a successful medical practice in Lichfield, Staffordshire for more than fifty years, earning a fellowship from the Royal Society.

Portrait of Erasmus Darwin by Joseph Wright of Derby (1792).

Portrait of Erasmus Darwin by Joseph Wright of Derby (1792).

His practice was so successful that George III invited him to be his Royal Physician, a position he declined.

The elder Darwin fully embraced the ideas of the Enlightenment and was a founding member of the Lunar Society, an informal but influential dinner club that supported the French and American revolutions, supported the abolition of slavery, and was one of the driving forces behind the industrial revolution.

Erasmus Darwin House, Lichfield, England. Photo by Bs0u10e01 CC BY-SA 3.0

Erasmus Darwin House, Lichfield, England. Photo by Bs0u10e01 CC BY-SA 3.0

He was also a supporter of education for girls, helping to fund a boarding school set up by two of his daughters.

Erasmus Darwin was a prolific experimenter and is acknowledged as the creator of the Ackerman Linkage steerage system which is still used in cars today.

He also invented a horizontal windmill, a copying machine, a voice machine, and several weather monitoring instruments.

Erasmus Darwin oil on canvas, probably 1770s.

Erasmus Darwin oil on canvas, probably 1770s.

Darwin also hypothesized a hydrogen-oxygen rocket engine characterized by an elongated combustion chamber and expansion nozzle.

Darwin didn’t get to test this theory in his lifetime and it would take another 100 years before the works of scientists like Konstantin Tsiolkovsky would make rocket propulsion a reality.

Darwin’s hypothesis did, however, successfully show that the volume of hydrogen needed to be greater than the volume of oxygen and his general theory is still being used today by NASA.

Erasmus Darwin’s holograph manuscript. Photo by Wellcome Images CC BY 4.0

Erasmus Darwin’s holograph manuscript. Photo by Wellcome Images CC BY 4.0

When Erasmus was not inventing, he turned his eye to transcribing and writing textbooks. His most notable work is the first Latin to English translation of the Systema Vegetabilium, an influential system of plant classification based modern botany.

Darwin was also a passionate natural scientist and was the first person to understand and describe the process of photosynthesis and to describe the formation of clouds.

Darwin is described by the team at Erasmus Darwin house as “friendly, generous, sociable, full of teasing humor, and, according to his friend James Keir, ‘paid little regard to authority.’”

Title page to ‘Letter to Erasmus Darwin…,’ 1793. Photo by Wellcome Images CC BY 4.0

Title page to ‘Letter to Erasmus Darwin…,’ 1793. Photo by Wellcome Images CC BY 4.0

His reputation has at various times been attacked or revered depending on who is in charge of the narrative.

Erasmus Darwin has been called an exploitative capitalist and lost favor among his critics due to his religious skepticism.

To his fans, he was a major thinker whose work would influence Romantic thinkers such as Lord Byron and Mary Shelley and is seen as the true forefather of evolutionary theory.

Read another story from us: Charles Darwin, the father of the theory of evolution, was married to his first cousin

Although Erasmus Darwin died seven years before the birth of his more famous grandson, we know that Charles Darwin studied the works of his grandfather with great interest and this helped inform his own ideas of evolution as a young man.