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A History of Science
Henry Smith Williams 
Tome I
Tome II
Tome III Tome IV

Book 4, chapter VI
Theories of organic evolution
Erasmus Darwin
Williams
Just at the time when this thought was taking form in Goethe's brain, the same idea was germinating in the mind of another philosopher, an Englishman of international fame, 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. And posterity repudiating the verse which makes the body of the book, yet grants permanent value to the book itself, because, forsooth, its copious explanatory foot-notes furnish an outline of the status of almost every department of science of the time.

But even though he lacked the highest art of the versifier, Darwin had, beyond peradventure, the imagination of a poet coupled with profound scientific knowledge; and it was his poetic insight, correlating organisms seemingly diverse in structure and imbuing the lowliest flower with a vital personality, which led him to suspect that there are no lines of demarcation in nature. "Can it be," he queries, "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 Zoonomia 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!"[2]

Here, clearly enough, is the idea of evolution. But in that day there was little proof forthcoming of its validity that could satisfy any one but a poet, and when Erasmus Darwin died, in 1802, the idea of transmutation of species was still but an unsubstantiated dream.

It was a dream, however, which was not confined to Goethe and Darwin. Even earlier the idea had come more or less vaguely to another great dreamer - and worker - of Germany, Immanuel Kant, and to several great Frenchmen, including De Maillet, Maupertuis, Robinet, and the famous naturalist Buffon - a man who had the imagination of a poet, though his message was couched in most artistic prose. Not long after the middle of the eighteenth century Buffon had put forward the idea of transmutation of species, and he reiterated it from time to time from then on till his death in 1788. But the time was not yet ripe for the idea of transmutation of species to burst its bonds.

And yet this idea, in a modified or undeveloped form, had taken strange hold upon the generation that was upon the scene at the close of the eighteenth century. Vast numbers of hitherto unknown species of animals had been recently discovered in previously unexplored regions of the globe, and the wise men were sorely puzzled to account for the disposal of all of these at the time of the deluge. It simplified matters greatly to suppose that many existing species had been developed since the episode of the ark by modification of the original pairs. The remoter bearings of such a theory were overlooked for the time, and the idea that American animals and birds, for example, were modified descendants of Old-World forms - the jaguar of the leopard, the puma of the lion, and so on - became a current belief with that class of humanity who accept almost any statement as true that harmonizes with their prejudices without realizing its implications.

Thus it is recorded with eclat that the discovery of the close proximity of America at the northwest with Asia removes all difficulties as to the origin of the Occidental faunas and floras, since Oriental species might easily have found their way to America on the ice, and have been modified as we find them by "the well-known influence of climate." And the persons who gave expression to this idea never dreamed of its real significance. In truth, here was the doctrine of evolution in a nutshell, and, because its ultimate bearings were not clear, it seemed the most natural of doctrines. But most of the persons who advanced it would have turned from it aghast could they have realized its import. As it was, however, only here and there a man like Buffon reasoned far enough to inquire what might be the limits of such assumed transmutation; and only here and there a Darwin or a Goethe reached the conviction that there are no limits.


 

 

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© Serge Jodra, 2006. - Reproduction interdite.