COLUMN: Evolution theories ran in the Darwin family

Jackpot cave, Castleton
Jackpot cave, Castleton

I am sure you have heard of Charles Darwin – but did you know that his grandfather Erasmus Darwin was educated at Chesterfield Grammar School?

He started the Derby Philosophical Society when he moved there around 1783. It was this society which helped found the first library in Derby.

Erasmus was fascinated by evolution, like his more famous grandson, and wrote farsighted works on the subject.

His most important scientific work – Zoonomia – has ideas which are echoes of the modern theory of evolution – ‘the strongest and most active animal should propagate the species, which should thence become improved’ which sounds like the survival of the fittest.

One tale is that on a visit to one of Castleton’s caverns Erasmus slipped and grabbed a rock to steady his fall.

In it he saw ancient creatures and shells fossilised in the stone. This set him thinking about how they were living so long before man. Soon after he added to the family coat of arms the motto ‘Econchis omnia’ – everything from shells and three scallop shells.

In one of his poems, The Economy of Vegetation Canto II.IV, Erasmus refers to shells and caverns maybe remembering that day: ‘You then bade dissolving shells distil from the loose summits of each shatter’d hill, to each fine pore and dark interstice flow, and fill with liquid chalk the mass below. Whence sparry forms in dusky caverns gleam, with borrow’d light, and twice refract the beam’.

He painted the new motto on his carriage to promote his theory but some people didn’t like it, as it sounded as if things were created by accident and not from God.

To keep the peace he painted over it and used it on his bookplates instead.

Around 1766, Erasmus was involved in founding a group called the Lunar Society.

The members were scientists, industrialists and philosophers.

It was a great forum for discussion and ideas and was so named because they met on Monday nights nearest the full moon.

Members included Joseph Priestley, Josiah Wedgwood and Benjamin Franklin. It would have been amazing to be a fly on the wall at one of their meetings wouldn’t it?