Monday, November 06, 2006

Pre-Darwinists (6) Erasmus Darwin

Erasmus Darwin
The Temple of Nature

Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802), paternal grandfather of Charles Darwin and maternal grandfather of Francis Galton, had a medical degree from Edingburgh Medical School and practiced as a physician. In the beginning with little success, but later Darwin became quite successful, and King George III even offered him the position as Royal Physician, but he declined.

Darwin wrote extensively about medicine and botany, invented several mechanical devices, including a minute, artificial bird, and he even wrote evolutionary poems.

No wonder that Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley in the Preface to Frankenstein or the Modern Prometheus (1818) could write:

The event on which this fiction is founded has been supposed, by Dr. Darwin, and some of the physiological writers of Germany, as not of impossible occurrence. I shall not be supposed as according the remotest degree of serious faith to such an imagination; yet, in assuming it as the basis of a work of fancy, I have not considered myself as merely weaving a series of supernatural terrors. The event on which the interest of the story depends is exempt from the disadvantages of a mere tale of spectres or enchantment. It was recommended by the novelty of the situations which it develops; and, however impossible as a physical fact, affords a point of view to the imagination for the delineating of human passions more comprehensive and commanding than any which the ordinary relations of existing events can yield.

The gory details about Erasmus Darwin's love life can be read on the Wikipedia page.

Darwin was a member of the Lunar Society, which according to the Wikipedia article was a "discussion club of prominent industrialists, natural philosophers and intellectuals who met regularly between 1765 and 1813 in Birmingham, England". Antoine Lavoisier and Bemjamin Franklin frequently corresponded with members of the society, and all in all, the society was very influental in promoting Enlightenment ideas in England.

While an evolutionist, Darwin maintained God as the first cause, and in the poem The Temple of Nature, Nature is described as the daughter of God and just like God's Wisdom in Proverbs 8, she is the actual creator, an expression of divine Love and Sympathy. More precisely, God had established the natural laws, by which not only nature, but also human society was regulated, and, therefore, by studying nature, we can learn how to improve society.

The same idea was put forth in the earlier work Zoönomia, where Darwin employs an analogy between the development of a living organism from a 'living filament', which grows by absorbing nutrients from its environment, and the origin of life from an original living filament, from which new forms have grown successively and in the process changed their environment; that is Darwin sees geological history as a result of biological history.


Erasmus Darwin's most important scientific work is Zoönomia; or the Laws of Organic Life (1794-96), called Zoönomia for short.

It is dedicated to "the candid and ingenious Members of the College of Physicians, of the Royal Philosophical Society, of the Two Universities, and to all those, who study the Operations of the Mind as a Science, or who practice Medicine as a Profession". As this dedication together with the subtitle of the book indicate, psychology was for Darwin part of physiology.

In Section XIV, "Of the Production of Ideas", Darwin writes:

Some philosophers have divided all created beings into material and immaterial: the former including all that part of being, which obeys the mechanic laws of action and reaction, but which can begin no motion of itself; the other is the cause of all motion, and is either termed the power of gravity, or of specific attraction, or the spirit of animation. This immaterial agent is supposed to exist in or with matter, but to be quite distinct from it, and to be equally capable of existence, after the matter, which now possesses it, is decomposed.

Note here the interesting mentioning of the "power of gravity" together with the "spirit of animation", where by the latter is meant, in dualistic metaphysique, the soul that moves the physical body around, but it is also the receiver of sensual impressions. That is, the soul is both moved by and the mover of the body. That the spirit of animation can exist separate from the body is supported by analogy:

Nor is this theory ill supported by analogy, since heat, electricity, and magnetism, can be given to or taken from a piece of iron; and must therefore exist, whether separated from the metal, or combined with it. From a parity of reasoning, the spirit of animation, would appear to be capable of existing as well separately from the body as with it.

Darwin then proceeds to say that all these powers might not be immaterial, but may consist of matter of a finer kind, and that only God, the ultimate cause of all motion, need to be immaterial, so he clarifies:

By the words spirit of animation or sensorial power, I mean only that animal life, which mankind possesses in common with brutes, and in some degree even with ve3getables, and leave the consideration of the immortal part of us, which is the object of religion, to those who treat of revelation.

That is, for Darwin science and religion are, what have come to be known as "non-overlapping magisteria". They are still integrated, though, since the object of science is to discover the natural laws, impressed by God on nature, and therefore, the status of God as the first mover is not questioned.

Material bodies cannot exist at the same time at the same place. Darwin uses the example of pressing an ivory ball between his hands; the ball will resist being compressed. Since the spirit of animation is able to move physical objects, such as limbs of animals, and it is itself moved by matter such as light and odour, the spirit of animation must have the property of solidity, at least be able to assume that property; otherwise it would simply pass through or be passed through:

If the spirit of animation was always necessarily penetrable, it could not influence or be influenced by the solidity of common matter; they would exist together, but could not detrude each other from the part of space, where they exist; that is, they could not communicate motion to each other. No two things can influence or affect each other, which have not some property common to both of them; for to influence or affect another body is to give or communicate some property to it, that it had not before; but how can one body give that to another, which it does not possess itself?—The words imply, that they must agree in having the power or faculty of possessing some common property. Thus if one body removes another from the part of space, that it possesses, it must have the power of occupying that space itself: and if one body communicates heat or motion to another, it follows, that they have alike the property of possessing heat or motion.

That is, if the spirit of animation displaces a physical object, it must itself be able to occupy the now vacant space. By the same principle, Darwin concludes that the spirit of animation must be able to possess other material properties:

Hence the spirit of animation at the time it communicates or receives motion from solid bodies, must itself possess some property of solidity. And in consequence at the time it receives other kinds of motion from light, it must possess that property, which light possesses, to communicate that kind of motion; and for which no language has a name, unless it may be termed Visibility. And at the time it is stimulated into other kinds of animal motion by the particles of sapid and odorous bodies affecting the senses of taste and smell, it must resemble these particles of flavour, and of odour, in possessing some similar or correspondent property; and for which language has no name, unless we may use the words Saporosity and Odorosity for those common properties, which are possessed by our organs of taste and smell, and by the particles of sapid and odorous bodies; as the words Tangibility and Audibility may express the common property possessed by our organs of touch, and of hearing, and by the solid bodies, or their vibrations, which affect those organs.

That is, the spirit of animation must have the ability to take on the properties of the external stimuli. The point here being that our senses do provide a reliable impression of the external world - assuming it exists, that is. Because we can experience all the same impressions without any immediate external stimuli, such as in dreams; however, Darwin states, in our waking hours we can compare the impressions from one sense with that of others:

Thus if the idea of the sweetness of sugar should be excited in our dreams, the whiteness and hardness of it occur at the same time by association; and we believe a material lump of sugar present before us. But if, in our waking hours, the idea of the sweetness of sugar occurs to us, the stimuli of surrounding objects, as the edge of the table, on which we press, or green colour of the grass, on which we tread, prevent the other ideas of the hardness and whiteness of the sugar from being exerted by association. Or if they should occur, we voluntarily compare them with the irritative ideas of the table or grass above mentioned, and detect their fallacy. We can thus distinguish the ideas caused by the stimuli of external objects from those, which are introduced by association, sensation, or volition; and during our waking hours can thus acquire a knowledge of the external world.

That is, when we are awake, an imagined stimulus from one sense will not be combined with associated stimuli from other senses, because there are external stimuli for those sense, and these take precedence. With the example given, we may imagine tasting the sweetness of sugar, but seeing the green grass instead of white sugar tells us that there really is no sugar. Again, this appears to be based on the same argumentation of solidity as above, at least by analogy. The stimulus of the green grass pushes away the associated whiteness of the sugar.

In Section XV, "Of Classes of Ideas", Darwin writes about free will:

In respect to freewill, it is certain, that we cannot will to think of a new train of ideas, without previously thinking of the first link of it; as I cannot will to think of a black swan, without previously thinking of a black swan. But if I now think of a tail, I can voluntarily recollect all animals, which have tails; my will is so far free, that I can pursue the ideas linked to this idea of tail, as far as my knowledge of the subject extends; but to will without motive is to will without desire or aversion; which is as absurd as to feel without pleasure or pain; they are both solecisms in the terms. So far are we governed by the catenations of motions, which affect both the body and the mind of man, and which begin with our irritability, and end with it.

The point here is the analogy between a physical sensation such as feeling pleasure or pain, which must have been excited by the senses, and the will as dependent on desire or aversion; that is, the will is dependent on emotions.

In Section XVI, "Of Instinct", Darwin writes:

But all those actions of men or animals, that are attended with consciousness, and seem neither to have been directed by their appetites, taught by their experience, nor deduced from observation or tradition, have been referred to the power of instinct. And this power has been explained to be a divine something, a kind of inspiration; whilst the poor animal, that possesses it, has been thought little better than a machine!

The irksomeness, that attends a continued attitude of the body, or the pains, that we receive from heat, cold, hunger, or other injurious circumstances, excite us to general locomotion: and our senses are so formed and constituted by the hand of nature, that certain objects present us with pleasure, others with pain, and we are induced to approach and embrace these, to avoid and abhor those, as such sensations direct us.

That is, instinct is not a "divine something" that controls a machine (the body); instinctive behavior is provoked by certain stimuli and consists in certain reactions to them. Just as David Hume, and, for that matter, Aristotle, Darwin operates with the "hand of nature" in a creative rôle without here giving any precise description of, how that hand has operated. With Richard Dawkins we might today say that it is the hand of The Blind Watchmaker; but Darwin doesn't go into any details here. In The Temple of Nature, however, he gives some more details about that hand of nature.

In Section XXXIX, "Of Generation", Darwin writes:

I conceive the primordium, or rudiment of the embryon, as secreted from the blood of the parent, to consist of a simple living filament as a muscular fibre; which I suppose to be an extremity of a nerve of loco-motion, as a fibre of the retina is an extremity of a nerve of sensation; as for instance one of the fibrils, which compose the mouth of an absorbent vessel; I suppose this living filament, of whatever form it may be, whether sphere, cube, or cylinder, to be endued with the capability of being excited into action by certain kinds of stimulus. By the stimulus of the surrounding fluid, in which it is received from the male, it may bend into a ring; and thus form the beginning of a tube. Such moving filaments, and such rings, are described by those, who have attended to microscopic animalcula. This living ring may now embrace or absorb a nutritive particle of the fluid, in which it swims; and by drawing it into its pores, or joining it by compression to its extremities, may increase its own length or crassitude; and by degrees the living ring may become a living tube.

Notice here that this "living filament", as Darwin calls it, is supposed to be an "extremity of a nerve of loco-motion," that is, it obeys the laws of motion described above and is therefore "endued with the capability of being excited into action by certain kinds of stimulus." As the embryon acquires new organs, it also acquires new sensibilities to stimuli and therefore a new mode of action:

With every new change, therefore, of organic form, or addition of organic parts, I suppose a new kind of irritability or of sensibility to be produced; such varieties of irritability or of sensibility exist in our adult state in the glands; every one of which is furnished with an irritability, or a taste, or appetency, and a consequent mode of action peculiar to itself.

That is, this living filament, first produced by the male parent, changes dependent on the nutrive particles in the fluid, wherein it is inserted, thus acquiring new organs that in turn may respond to new stimuli. This leads Darwin to suggest that life might have a similar origin, from such a living filament. It is not quite common descent, since Darwin doesn't assume that there was only one, but maybe a few of them that crossed with each other, and from these hybrids the many species now existing have come.

Darwin mentions other ways for organisms to aquire properties, both before and after their birth, and that even those acquired after the birth are inherited. Adding to that the great age of the earth again leads Darwin to suggest that life might have arisen from a few living filaments, originally endued with the ability to acquire news parts:

From thus meditating on the great similarity of the structure of the warm-blooded animals, and at the same time of the great changes they undergo both before and after their nativity; and by considering in how minute a portion of time many of the changes of animals above described have been produced; 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 those improvements by generation to its posterity, world without end!

The Aristotelean idea here of a first cause, when that is thought of as a deity, that had set it all in motion is also called providentionalism referring to that the deity by its providence has set up conditions that would lead to the intended purpose without further intervention from the deity. The opposite idea is thus called interventionalism referring to that the deity directly controls events from time to time.

Darwin refers to David Hume's posthumous book Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (1779):

The late Mr. David Hume, in his posthumous works, places the powers of generation much above those of our boasted reason; and adds, that reason can only make a machine, as a clock or a ship, but the power of generation makes the maker of the machine; and probably from having observed, that the greatest part of the earth has been formed out of organic recrements; as the immense beds of limestone, chalk, marble, from the shells of fish; and the extensive provinces of clay, sandstone, ironstone, coals, from decomposed vegetables; all which have been first produced by generation, or by the secretions of organic life; he concludes that the world itself might have been generated, rather than created; that is, it might have been gradually produced from very small beginnings, increasing by the activity of its inherent principles, rather than by a sudden evolution of the whole by the Almighty fire.—What a magnificent idea of the infinite power of the Great Architect! the Cause of Causes! Tarent of Parents! Ens Entium!

In Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, Hume writes:

But what is this vegetation and generation of which you talk? said Demea. Can you explain how they work, and lay out the details of that fine internal structure on which they depend?

I can do that, replied Philo, at least as well as Cleanthes can explain how reason works, or lay out in detail the internal structure on which it depends! But I don’t need to go into all that: it is enough that when I see an animal, I infer that it arose from generation, and am as sure of this as you are when you infer that a house arose from design. The words ‘generation’ and ‘reason’ serve merely to label certain powers and energies in nature. We know the effects of these powers, but have no grasp of their essence; and neither of them has a better claim that the other to be made a standard for the whole of nature.


Now it can’t be denied that order in nature is found by experience to come from vegetation and generation, as well as from reason. It is for me to choose whether to base my system of cosmogony on the former rather than on the latter. The choice seems entirely arbitrary. And when Cleanthes asks me what the cause is of my vegetative or generative faculty, I am equally entitled to ask him what causes his reasoning principle. We have agreed to pass up these questions on both sides, and in our present context it is in his interests to stick to this agreement. Judging by our limited and imperfect experience, generation has some privileges over reason: for we see every day reason arise from generation - for example, my reason, which has in its causal ancestry my parent’s begetting of me - but never see generation arise from reason.

Demea and Philo together with Cleanthes are the participants in the dialogues (or trialogues, as they would then more properly be called), where Philo most represents Hume himself. Philo's point here is that our experience cannot tell us whether the universe was caused by reason or by generation; but at least he can claim that his own reason arose by generation, while we never see generation arise from reason.

Also Philo, even if accepting the universe to have come around by divine design, claims that this does not imply the existence of only one god:

And what shadow of an argument, continued Philo, can you produce, from your hypothesis, to prove that God is onebeing? A great many men join together to build a house or ship, to found and develop a city, to create a commonwealth; why couldn’t several gods combine in designing and making a world? This would only serve to make divine activities more like human ones. By sharing the work among several gods we can reduce still further the attributes of each one of them; we can get rid of that extensive power and knowledge which we have to suppose the one God to possess (if there is only one) - that extent of power and knowledge which, according to you, serves merely to weaken the argument for God’s existence. And if such foolish, vicious creatures as men can often unite in forming and carrying out one plan, how much could that be done by those gods or semi-gods whom we may suppose to be quite a lot more perfect than we are?

So, Hume might not have been the best choice as a supporter of Darwin's theory. However, Darwin is not concerned with such argumentation and therefore proceeds:

For if we may compare infinities, it would seem to require a greater infinity of power to cause the causes of effects, than to cause the effects themselves. This idea is analogous to the improving excellence observable in every part of the creation; such as in the progressive increase of the solid or habitable parts of the earth from water; and in the progressive increase of the wisdom and happiness of its inhabitants; and is consonant to the idea of our present situation being a state of probation, which by our exertions we may improve, and are consequently responsible for our actions.

Hume might not have agreed quite with this; but Darwin's idea is that God is made even greater by being "the cause of causes", than if he had created everything directly, and he sees an analogy between this and "the improving excellence observable in every part of the creation", and he even derives personal responsibility from it: "our present situation being a state of probation, which by our exertions we may improve, and are consequently responsible for our actions". That is, evolution for Darwin is also moral evolution, whereby is meant that we have the choice to improve our state of probation and therefore are responsible for that state ourselves.

Recapitulating this section, Darwin writes:

1. A certain quantity of nutritive particles are produced by the female parent before impregnation, which require no further digestion, secretion, or oxygenation. Such are seen in the unimpregnated eggs of birds, and in the unimpregnated seed-vessels of vegetables.

2. A living filament is produced by the male, which being inserted amidst these first nutritive particles, is stimulated into action by them; and in consequence of this action, some of the nutritive particles are embraced, and added to the original living filament; in the same manner as common nutrition is performed in the adult animal.

That is, the nutrition of the "living filament" is produced by the mother, but the filament itself is produced by the father. Therefore, Darwin claims, it is primarily the father that determines the form of the new animal. However, he ackowledges some exceptions from this rule:

5. In some cases by the nutriment originally deposited by the mother the filament acquires parts not exactly similar to those of the father, as in the production of mules and mulattoes. In other cases, the deficiency of this original nutriment causes deficiencies of the extreme parts of the fetus, which are last formed, as the fingers, toes, lips. In other cases, a duplicature of limbs are caused by the superabundance of this original nutritive fluid, as in the double yolks of eggs, and the chickens from them with four legs and four wings. But the production of other monsters, as those with two heads, or with parts placed in wrong situations, seems to arise from the imagination of the father being in some manner imitated by the extreme vessels of the seminal glands; as the colours of the spots on eggs, and the change of the colour of the hair and feathers of animals by domestication, may be caused in the same manner by the imagination of the mother.

Talk about a fertile imagination!

In General, therefore, the living filament begins with the propensities of the father; but these may be modified by the nutrition from the mother:

6. The living filament is a part of the father, and has therefore certain propensities, or appetencies, which belong to him; which may have been gradually acquired during a million of generations, even from the infancy of the habitable earth; and which now possesses such properties, as would render, by the apposition of nutritious particles, the new fetus exactly similar to the father; as occurs in the buds and bulbs of vegetables, and in the polypus, and tænia or tape-worm. But as the first nutriment is supplied by the mother, and therefore resembles such nutritive particles, as have been used for her own nutriment or growth, the progeny takes in part of the likeness of the mother.

Some hereditary propensities can be produced in one or two generations, though Darwin is not here clear about how that comes around:

Other similarity of the excitability, or of the form of the male parent, such as the broad or narrow shoulders, or such as constitute certain hereditary diseases, as scrophula, epilepsy, insanity, have their origin produced in one or perhaps two generations; as in the progeny of those who drink much vinous spirits; and those hereditary propensities cease again, as I have observed, if one or two sober generations succeed; otherwise the family becomes extinct.

And then there's the imagination that can alter the filament:

This living filament from the father is also liable to have its propensities, or appetencies, altered at the time of its production by the imagination of the male parent; the extremities of the seminal glands imitating the motions of the organs of sense; and thus the sex of the embryon is produced; which may be thus made a male or a female by affecting the imagination of the father at the time of impregnation.

In its further development, the filament, as a fetus, may be affected by the nutrients and oxygen supplied by the mother, as it acquires the organs for them:

7. After the fetus is thus completely formed together with its umbilical vessels and placenta, it is now supplied with a different kind of food, as appears by the difference of consistency of the different parts of the white of the egg, and of the liquor amnii, for it has now acquired organs for digestion or secretion, and for oxygenation, though they are as yet feeble; which can in some degree change, as well as select, the nutritive particles, which are now presented to it. But may yet be affected by the deficiency of the quantity of nutrition supplied by the mother, or by the degree of oxygenation supplied to its placenta by the maternal blood.

The point here being that the development of the filament is dependent on the quantity and quality of the available nutrition, including oxygen.

What goes for this filament, goes for life in general:

9. As the habitable parts of the earth have been, and continue to be, perpetually increasing by the production of sea-shells and corallines, and by the recrements of other animals, and vegetables; so from the beginning of the existence of this terraqueous globe, the animals, which inhabit it, have constantly improved, and are still in a state of progressive improvement.

That is, the habitable parts of the earth are increased by life itself, and likewise life inhabiting the earth has improved progressively. Life is here seen as one organism, a first great egg made living by divine love:

This idea of the gradual generation of all things seems to have been as familiar to the ancient philosophers as to the modern ones; and to have given rise to the beautiful hieroglyphic figure of the προτον ωον, or first great egg, produced by NIGHT, that is, whose origin is involved in obscurity, and animated by ερος, that is, by DIVINE LOVE; from whence proceeded all things which exist.

Darwin's Aristotelean way of thinking, of course, pops up again in the Conclusion of the section, where he states that "Cause and effect may be considered as the progression, or successive motions, of the parts of the great system of Nature." This chain of cause and effect leads bavk to God as the first cause:

6. This perpetual chain of causes and effects, whose first link is rivetted to the throne of GOD, divides itself into innumerable diverging branches, which, like the nerves arising from the brain, permeate the most minute and most remote extremities of the system, diffusing motion and sensation to the whole. As every cause is superior in power to the effect, which it has produced, so our idea of the power of the Almighty Creator becomes more elevated and sublime, as we trace the operations of nature from cause to cause, climbing up the links of these chains of being, till we ascend to the Great Source of all things.

Darwin, therefore, is not denying a creator, only that the creator has specially created all species right from the start. This in turn leads him to reject that it is blind chance that has constituted the material world, since the Creator has endowed matter with the properties necessary to form the combinations:

Hence the modern discoveries in chemistry and in geology, by having traced the causes of the combinations of bodies to remoter origins, as well as those in astronomy, which dignify the present age, contribute to enlarge and amplify our ideas of the power of the Great First Cause. And had those ancient philosophers, who contended that the world was formed from atoms, ascribed their combinations to certain immutable properties received from the hand of the Creator, such as general gravitation, chemical affinity, or animal appetency, instead of ascribing them to a blind chance; the doctrine of atoms, as constituting or composing the material world by the variety of their combinations, so far from leading the mind to atheism, would strengthen the demonstration of the existence of a Deity, as the first cause of all things; because the analogy resulting from our perpetual experience of cause and effect would have thus been exemplified through universal nature.

That is, God is indeed designer or architect, but he has designed the world so it will assemble itself without his continous direct intervention.

Darwin ends the section with quoting Psalms 19:1-5 and 104:24:

The heavens declare the glory of GOD, and the firmament sheweth his handywork! One day telleth another, and one night certifieth another; they have neither speech nor language, yet their voice is gone forth into all lands, and their words into the ends of the world. Manifold are thy works, O LORD! in wisdom hast thou made them all. Psal. xix. civ.

For Erasmus Darwin therefore, nature was still seen as the handywork of God, though indirectly: God as the architect or designer and Nature as the implementer of the divine architecture according to God's laws impressed upon Nature.

The Temple of Nature

The Temple of Nature; or, the Origin of Society: a Poem, with Philosophical Notes (1802) is a poem in four canta with additional thirteen "philosophical notes".

According to the Preface, the aim of this poem is "simply to amuse by bringing distinctly to the imagination the beautiful and sublime images of the operations of Nature in the order, as the Author believes, in which the progressive course of time presented them". The style of the poem mimics classical Greek poetic style, which the Preface explain by "[i]n the Eleusinian mysteries the philosophy of the works of Nature, with the origin and progress of society, are believed to have been taught by allegoric scenery explained by the Hierophant to the initiated".

Accordingly, Canto I, "Production of Life", starts with:

I. By firm immutable immortal laws
Impress'd on Nature by the Great First Cause,
Say, Muse! how rose from elemental strife
Organic forms, and kindled into life;
How Love and Sympathy with potent charm
Warm the cold heart, the lifted hand disarm;
Allure with pleasures, and alarm with pains,
And bind Society in golden chains.

Here we again meet the Great First Cause, who has impressed "firm immutable immortal laws" on "Nature" - nature here thought of as a being, a goddess. And we also meet the keywords 'Love' and 'Sympathy'.

A few stanzas later we enter the garden of Eden:

II. Where Eden's sacred bowers triumphant sprung,
By angels guarded, and by prophets sung,
Wav'd o'er the east in purple pride unfurl'd
And rock'd the golden cradle of the World;
Four sparkling currents lav'd with wandering tides
Their velvet avenues, and flowery sides;
On sun-bright lawns unclad the Graces stray'd,
And guiltless Cupids haunted every glade;
Till the fair Bride, forbidden shades among,
Heard unalarm'd the Tempter's serpent-tongue;
Eyed the sweet fruit, the mandate disobey'd,
And her fond Lord with sweeter smiles betray'd.

This mixture of biblical and Greek mythology may certainly not be to the amusement of everybody. Still, the biblical story of the Garden of Eden is certainly not denied, just enhanced with a few embellishments. A note to the fourth line says, "Cradle of the world, l. 36. The nations, which possess Europe and a part of Asia and of Africa, appear to have descended from one family; and to have had their origin near the banks of the Mediterranean, as probably in Syria, the site of Paradise, according to the Mosaic history." Darwin continues saying that this "seems highly probable from the similarity of the structure of the languages of these nations, and from their early possession of similar religions, customs, and arts, as well as from the most ancient histories extant." So, again, Darwin accepts the biblical account.

Two stanzas later begins the description of The Temple of Nature:

Here, high in air, unconscious of the storm
Thy temple, Nature, rears it's mystic form;
From earth to heav'n, unwrought by mortal toil,
Towers the vast fabric on the desert soil;
O'er many a league the ponderous domes extend,
And deep in earth the ribbed vaults descend;
A thousand jasper steps with circling sweep
Lead the slow votary up the winding steep;
Ten thousand piers, now join'd and now aloof,
Bear on their branching arms the fretted roof.

The Temple of Nature is, of course, nature herself, not a part of nature and not something outside of nature. The steps of the temple is the tracing backwards of the progression of Nature, both inorganic matter and life, all the way back to the first cause.

The altar of Nature is set in Eleusis, which is of course neither biblical nor scientific, but part of the poem.

Addressing the muse, the hierofant Urania says:

"First, if you can, celestial Guide! disclose
From what fair fountain mortal life arose,
Whence the fine nerve to move and feel assign'd,
Contractile fibre, and ethereal mind:

"How Love and Sympathy the bosom warm,
Allure with pleasure, and with pain alarm,
With soft affections weave the social plan,
And charm the listening Savage into Man."

That is, she asks the muse to explain how mortal life began, how nerves, muscle fibres, and mind came around, and how "Love and Sympathy" weave the social plan turning savages into civilized humans.

The muse begins her answer with:

"God the First Cause! — in this terrene abode
Young Nature lisps, she is the child of God.
From embryon births her changeful forms improve,
Grow, as they live, and strengthen as they move.

This is the same story as in Zoönomia; but there are a few details worth noticing. In Proverbs 8 we read the story of Wisdom:

Pro 8:23 I was set up from everlasting, from the beginning, Before the earth was.

Pro 8:24 When there were no depths, I was brought forth, When there were no fountains abounding with water.

Pro 8:25 Before the mountains were settled, Before the hills was I brought forth;

Pro 8:26 While as yet he had not made the earth, nor the fields, Nor the beginning of the dust of the world.

Pro 8:27 When he established the heavens, I was there: When he set a circle upon the face of the deep,

Pro 8:28 When he made firm the skies above, When the fountains of the deep became strong,

Pro 8:29 When he gave to the sea its bound, That the waters should not transgress his commandment, When he marked out the foundations of the earth;

Pro 8:30 Then I was by him, as a master workman; And I was daily his delight, Rejoicing always before him,

Pro 8:31 Rejoicing in his habitable earth; And my delight was with the sons of men.

The pre-existing Wisdom, possibly the inspiration of the Logos Hymn in the Gospel of John, is also the child of God, and as v. 30 states, she was the "master workman", when God created the world. It's the same idea that Darwin employs, just in a more modern setting - whereby I refer to the evolutionary ideas, not his sensual romanticism.

The priestess continues:

"Ere Time began, from flaming Chaos hurl'd
Rose the bright spheres, which form the circling world;
Earths from each sun with quick explosions burst,
And second planets issued from the first.
Then, whilst the sea at their coeval birth,
Surge over surge, involv'd the shoreless earth;
Nurs'd by warm sun-beams in primeval caves
Organic Life began beneath the waves.

This is also from the beginning, before time began, though else the description is different. Darwin operates with more than one sun, and from each sun "with quick explosions burst[s]", and from that first planet other planets are issued. I don't know, if that was the common cosmogonical theory of the time; but apparently it's what Darwin accepted for some reason. And he has life beginning "[n]urs'd by warm sun-beams" "beneath the waves".

The priestess continues her story:

"First Heat from chemic dissolution springs,
And gives to matter its eccentric wings:
With strong Repulsion parts the exploding mass,
Melts into lymph, or kindles into gas.
Attraction next, as earth or air subsides,
The ponderous atoms from the light divides,
Approaching parts with quick embrace combines,
Swells into spheres, and lengthens into lines.
Last, as fine goads the gluten-threads excite,
Cords grapple cords, and webs with webs unite;
And quick Contraction with ethereal flame
Lights into life the fibre-woven frame. —
Hence without parent by spontaneous birth
Rise the first specks of animated earth;
From Nature's womb the plant or insect swims,
And buds or breathes, with microscopic limbs.

This is a description of abiogenesis. As elsewhere, Darwin here gives a poetic description of his concepts, such as heat, repulsion, attraction, and contraction. A note to the first line says:

First Heat from chemic, l. 235. The matter of heat is an ethereal fluid, in which all things are immersed, and which constitutes the general power of repulsion; as appears in explosions which are produced by the sudden evolution of combined heat, and by the expansion of all bodies by the slower diffusion of it in its uncombined state. Without heat all the matter of the world would be condensed into a point by the power of attraction; and neither fluidity nor life could exist. There are also particular powers of repulsion, as those of magnetism and electricity, and of chemistry, such as oil and water; which last may be as numerous as the particular attractions which constitute chemical affinities; and may both of them exist as atmospheres round the individual particles of matter; see Botanic Garden, Bol. I. additional note VII. on elementary heat.

Heat is here correctly associated with motion, and all the other concepts are motional concepts, in concert with Darwin's general idea of translation everything into motion.

Darwin's description of abiogenesis isn't quite the current one; but since cells were first discovered in the 1830s, we should not expect too much anyway.

Interestingly, abiogenesis can be considered compatible with Genesis 1:

Gen 1:11 And God said, Let the earth put forth grass, herbs yielding seed, and fruit-trees bearing fruit after their kind, wherein is the seed thereof, upon the earth: and it was so.


Gen 1:20 And God said, Let the waters swarm with swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth in the open firmament of heaven.


Gen 1:24 And God said, Let the earth bring forth living creatures after their kind, cattle, and creeping things, and beasts of the earth after their kind: and it was so.

That is, God tells the earth and the waters to bring forth life. No evolution appears to be implied, though - but neither is it ruled out.

The priestess continues with the development of organs, and Darwin even claims that land is formed by life dimishing the water:

So Life's first powers arrest the winds and floods,
To bones convert them, or to shells, or woods;
Stretch the vast beds of argil, lime, and sand,
And from diminish'd oceans form the land!

A note to the secons line says:

And from diminish'd oceans, l. 268. The increase of the solid parts of the globe by the recrements of organic bodies, as limestone rocks form shells and bones, and the beds of clay, marl, coals, from decomposed woods, is now well known to those who have attended to modern geology; and Dr. Halley, and others, have endeavoured to show, with great probability, that the ocean has decreased in quanitity during the short time which human history has existed. Whence it appears, that the exertions of vegetable and animal life convert the fluid parts of the globe into solid ones; which is probably effected by combining the matter of heat with the other elements, instead of suffering it to remain simply diffused amongst them, which is a curious conjecture, and deserves further investigation.

This is quite interesting - the idea of organisms changing their own environment. This is, of course, still an important point in evolutionary theory; for instance that the atmosphere of the earth originally was oxygen-free, but early bacteria exhaled oxygen, which enabled oxygen-dependent life. It isn't quite this darwin writes about here, only about deology; but still the interaction between organisms and their environment is an important factor in evolution - environments are not established once and for all.

After this, the priestess moves to the mind:

"Next the long nerves unite their silver train,
And young Sensation permeates the brain;
Through each new sense the keen emotions dart,
Flush the young cheek, and swell the throbbing heart.
From pain and pleasure quick Volitions rise,
Lift the strong arm, or point the inquiring eyes;
With Reason's light bewilder'd Man direct,
And right and wrong with balance nice detect.
Last in thick swarms Associations spring,
Thoughts join to thoughts, to motions motions cling;
Whence in long trains of catenation flow
Imagined joy, and voluntary woe.

Again, it is the Zoönomia in poetic form.

The priestess recaps the whole story all the way to man:

Organic Life beneath the shoreless waves
Was born and nurs'd 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 earthly sod,
And styles himself the image of his God;
Arose from rudiments of form and sense,
An embryon point, or microscopic ens!

Despite the irony in the last three lines, it should be clear that Darwin's point is not to attack God, only to show that as all organisms, even oaks, whales, lions, eagles and humans, have started out as "[a]n embryon point," so why shouldn't life as such have started out that way?

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A Christian in Satanist clothes