Erasmus Darwin


Erasmus Darwin was a prominent British intellectual, physician, and scientist. He worked on developing a ‘speaking machine’ and on a way to classify diseases so that they would lend themselves better to treatment. He was among the first to create aspects of a theory of evolution, providing his grandson, Charles Darwin, with a set of ideas from which to build his theory of natural selection.

Darwin offered a four-part categorization system for classifying diseases based on their causes. The categories were: irritation, sensation, volition and association. Diseases of irritation arose from external sources, diseases of sensation were caused by such factors as excess pain or pleasure, while diseases of volition were caused by desire or aversion and diseases of association were caused when symptoms in one disease or area were caused by diseases in another.

Darwin’s view of disease included emotional problems, such as anger, boredom and sentimental love. These emotional-based diseases were listed alongside physical ailments such as mumps and measles. For boredom, Darwin recommended, amongst other things, the study of science, which he thought "supplies an inexhaustible source of pleasurable novelty, and relieves ennui by the exertions it occasions."

Stuttering, according to Darwin, was a disease of association in which the motor associations between speech sounds broke down. He saw the breakdown as being caused by emotions. Darwin puts it this way:

Titubatio linguae [is] an impediment of speech…owing to the associations of the motions of the organs of speech being interrupted or dissevered by ill-employed sensation or sensitive motions, as by awe, bashfulness, ambition of shining, or fear of not succeeding, and the person uses voluntary efforts in vain to regain the broken associations (E. Darwin, 1818, p. 423).

Darwin went on to give a specific example of a stuttering problem:

The broken association is generally between the first consonant and the succeeding vowel; as in endeavouring to pronounce the word parable, the p is volunarily repeated again and again, but the remainder of the word does not follow, because the association between ti and the next vowel is dissevered (E. Darwin, 1818, p. 423).

Following from his association theory, Erasmus Darwin’s proposed a cure for stuttering:

The art of curing this defect is to cause the stammerer to repeat the word, which he finds difficult to speak, eight or ten times with the initial letter, in a strong voice, or with an aspirate before it, as arable or harable; and at length to speak it softly with the initial letter p, parable. This should be practiced for weeks or months upon every word, which the stammerer hesitates in pronouncing. To this should be added much commerce with mankind, in order to acquire a carelessness about the opinions of others (E. Darwin, 1818, p. 423).

Darwin stuttered himself and is said to have a positive attitude toward his problem.

Darwin was a proponent of the work of Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus. He translated Linnaeus’s work from Latin into English. This seven-year project was published in two A system of vegetables and The families of plants. In the course of his translation, Darwin coined many of today’s English names of plants.

His best-known work was called Zoönomia (1794–1796). This two-volume medical work included contained a three-part system of pathology by which he classified commonly found diseases. Zoonomia also contains ideas relating to the theory of evolution that were later more fully developed by his grandson, Charles Darwin.

Would it be too bold to imagine that, in the great length of time since the earth began to exist, perhaps millions of ages before the commencement of the history of mankind would it be too bold to imagine that all warm-blooded animals have arisen from one living filament, which the great First Cause endued with animality, with the power of acquiring new parts, attended with new propensities, directed by irritations, sensations, volitions and associations, and thus possessing the faculty of continuing to improve by its own inherent activity, and of delivering down these improvements by generation to its posterity, world without end!

Darwin was also interested in the phonetic system of language. In the course of his phonetic studies, he created a speech synthesizer.

Writings of Erasmus Darwin, arranged chronologically

Darwin Erasmus (1783). A Botanical Society at Lichfield. A System of Vegetables, according to their classes, orders... translated from the 13th edition of Linnaeus’ Systema Vegetabiliium. 2 vols. Lichfield, J. Jackson, for Leigh and Sotheby, London.

Darwin, Erasmus (1787). A Botanical Society at Lichfield. The Families of Plants with their natural characters...Translated from the last edition of Linnaeus’ Genera Plantarum. 1787, Lichfield, J. Jackson, for J. Johnson, London.

Darwin, Erasmus (1789) The loves of the plants. London, J. Johnson

Darwin, Erasmus (1791). The botanic garden, Part I, The Economy of Vegetation. London, J. Johnson.

Darwin, Erasmus (1796). Zoonomia; Or, the laws of organic life. Volume I. London, J. Johnson. Retrieved June 20, 2010.

Darwin, Erasmus (1797). A plan for the conduct of female education in boarding schools. J. Johnson, Derby.

Darwin, Erasmus (1800) Phytologia; or, The philosophy of agriculture and gardening. London, J. Johnson.

Darwin, Erasmus (1806) The temple of nature; or, The origin of society. London, J. Johnson.

Darwin, Erasmus (1818). Zoonomia; Or the laws of organic life. Volume 2, Part 2. 4th edition. Philadelphia, PA: Edward Early. Google books: Retrieved June 20, 2010.

Writings about Erasmus Darwin

King-Hele, D. (1963) Erasmus Darwin. New York: Scribner's.

King-Hele, D. (1977). Doctor of revolution: The life and genius of Erasmus Darwin. London: Faber and Faber.

King-Hele, D. (Ed.) (1968) The essential writings of Erasmus Darwin. London, MacGibbon & Kee.

Porter, Roy (1989). 'Erasmus Darwin: doctor of evolution?' In James R. Moore (Ed.) History, humanity and evolution: Essays for John C. Greene.

Seward, Anna 1804. Memoirs of the life of Dr. Darwin.

Smith, Christopher Upham Murray (2005). The Genius of Erasmus Darwin. Ashgate Publishing.