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prominent English physician, grandfather of the naturalist Charles Darwin and the biologist Francis Galton.
Educated at the universities of Cambridge (1750–54) and Edinburgh (1754–56), Darwin opened a successful medical practice in Lichfield. He soon built a reputation as a practitioner of such talent that George III offered him a position as his personal physician in London. Darwin declined to make the move, however.
A freethinker and radical, Darwin often wrote his opinions and scientific thoughts in verse. In Zoonomia or the Laws of Organic Life (1794–96) he advanced his own concepts of evolution, which were similar to those of J.-B. Lamarck. He believed that species modified themselves by adapting to their environment in a purposive way. It is as a transitional figure that Erasmus Darwin is primarily important. He embodied the attitudes and values of 18th-century materialism, but his conclusions concerning evolution were drawn from simple observation and were rejected by the more sophisticated of the 19th-century scientists, his grandson Charles foremost among them. His major works also include A Plan for the Conduct of Female Education in Boarding Schools (1797) and Phytologia, or the Philosophy of Agriculture and Gardening (1800).
Dr. Erasmus Darwin, who, while he lived, enjoyed the widest popularity as a poet, the rhymed couplets of his Botanic Garden being quoted everywhere with admiration.
But even though he lacked the highest art of the versifier, Darwin had the imagination of a poet coupled with profound scientific knowledge. "Can it be," he said, "that one form of organism has developed from another; that different species are really but modified descendants of one parent stock?" The alluring thought nestled in his mind and was nurtured there, and grew in a fixed belief, which was given fuller expression in his books Zoönomia and in the posthumous Temple of Nature.
Here is his rendering of the idea as versified in the Temple of Nature:
"Organic life beneath the shoreless waves
Was born, and nursed in Ocean's pearly caves;
First forms minute, unseen by spheric glass,
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.
"Thus the tall Oak, the giant of the wood,
Which bears Britannia's thunders on the flood;
The Whale, unmeasured monster of the main;
The lordly lion, monarch of the plain;
The eagle, soaring in the realms of air,
Whose eye, undazzled, drinks the solar glare;
Imperious man, who rules the bestial crowd,
Of language, reason, and reflection proud,
With brow erect, who scorns this earthy sod,
And styles himself the image of his God --
Arose from rudiments of form and sense,
An embryon point or microscopic ens!"
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