IV. BIOLOGY: ERASMUS DARWIN

Biology did not, as yet, do as well in England as physics, chemistry, and geography; these were akin and helpful to industry and commerce; but biology revealed the tragedy as well as the splendor of life, and troubled religious belief.

Erasmus Darwin, grandfather of Charles, has already received our homage,*but he was a spark in the brilliance of this age, since it saw the publication of his Botanic Garden (1792), Zoonomia (1794–96), and The Temple of Nature (1803). These books were all written from an evolutionary point of view. They agreed with Lamarck in basing the theory upon the hope that adaptive habits and organs, developed by desire and effort, might, if strengthened through many generations, be written transmissibly upon nerves and flesh. The genial doctor, who bore a great name fore and aft, sought to reconcile evolution with religion by suggesting that all animal life had begun with “one living filament which the first great Cause imbued with animality,” leaving it to “improve by its own inherent activity, and to deliver down these improvements by generation to posterity, world without end.”8

The perennial debate between religion and science, though muted in this age, entered into the once guarded realm of psychology as Hartley and Priestley prepared a physiological interpretation of the association of ideas, and as anatomists progressively revealed the correlation between body and mind. In 1811 Charles Bell published A New Idea of the Anatomy of the Brain, in which he seemed to prove that specific parts of the nervous system convey sense impressions to specific parts of the brain, and specific nerves carry motor impulses to specific organs of response. The phenomena of hypnotism, increasingly abundant, seemed to indicate a physiological transformation of sensation into idea into action. The effects of opium and other drugs in inducing sleep, affecting dreams, stimulating the imagination and weakening the will (as in Coleridge and De Quincey) further called in question the freedom of the will, reducing it to the algebraic sum of competing images or impulses. And the rising status, scientific dispute, and social standing of the medical profession, compared with the lowered status and reduced vitality of the Anglican clergy, seemed to reflect the secret spread of religious indifference, or doubt, or unbelief.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!