Its rightful place in the world

Erasmus Darwin, after Joseph Wright

I love writing but sometimes I wonder if I love the research for my writing more…

Erasmus Darwin or Mr Enlightenment (1731-1802) was a complete joy to discover – what a mind! A founding member of the Lunar Society, Erasmus was a larger-than-life polymath, a doctor, inventor and published poet. The trouble was, it was hard to know where to start or indeed stop my research. My notebook filled up as I continued reading about Erasmus. Did he ever sleep?

At first I was drawn to his inventions, including his extraordinary speech synthesizer, but as I read on I couldn’t ignore his theories of biological evolution by means of natural selection (Zoonomia 1794). Written over a period of twenty plus years and published sixty five years before his grandson Charles published On the Origin of Species (1859), it seemed remarkable that I’d never heard of it before.

I’ve always loved The Little Monk’s speech in Brecht’s Life of Galileo: ‘What would my people say if I told them that they happen to be on a small knob of stone twisting endlessly through the void round a second rate star, just one among myriads?’.

Which is why I eventually chose to introduce Erasmus defending Zoonomia against the teaching of the church in A Toast to Truth and Nature:

‘I shall indeed publish my work Joseph. I am too old and hardened to fear a little abuse. If I am to believe in anything, it is that Zoonomia by Erasmus Darwin shall find its rightful place in the world. My ideas regarding organic life may startle some in today’s society but I am sure that successive generations will come to know the name of Darwin’.

I hope you’ll join us at Soho House for a picnic and a play as we raise our glasses together and toast a controversial but exceptional man.

Vanessa Oakes


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