Darwin presents a materialist account of the origins of life in chemical and heat-based processes of “parentless” spontaneous generation; there is no divine artiﬁcer evident, instead there is self-directed progress, whereby Nature’s “changeful forms improve.” With its emphasis on organisms self-willing change in response to environmental stimuli, Darwin’s hypothesis of development was similar to the work of Lamarck. But at the heart of the emerging worldview was an ambivalent acknowledgment of destruction, going hand in hand with copious reproductive power and development. In the fourth and ﬁnal Canto, Darwin presents the reader with an image of life decimated in “one great Slaughter-house the warring world” (E. Darwin 1973: IV, l. 66). In a world of struggle living things can never be, unconditionally, ends in themselves, for they also exist as potential food for other organisms: “With monstrous gape sephulcral whales devour / Shoals at a gulp, a million in an hour” (E. Darwin 1973: IV, l.61). The mouth of the whale is both a grave and a consumption mechanism on an industrial scale. Erasmus Darwin’s radical science was discredited by conservative satirical
attacks from the periodical The Anti-Jacobin, so his reputation, and the question of evolution, became embroiled in the political conﬂicts of the French Revolution. Yet Darwin had arrived, arguably, at a similar view of living struggle to that elaborated by the supposedly conservative Thomas Malthus, whose Essay on the Principle of Population had been published in 1798. Both Erasmus Darwin
and Malthus were important ﬁgures to the ﬁrst-generation Romantic poet, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who, though attracted to the work of both writers, vigorously resisted the materialist implications of Darwin’s work (Amigoni 2007: 34-37). Adrian Desmond’s research on early nineteenth-century Lamarckian theories of self-directed development establishes a complex of relations between a politically radical world of London medical practitioners who appropriated them, and the Coleridge-inspired “idealist” medical elite who feared the threat that “anarchic” Lamarckism seemed to pose to an already anxious English political and ecclesiastical establishment (Desmond 1989). Thus, when considering the relationship between evolution and literature before Charles Darwin, Erasmus Darwin’s legacy connects Augustan poetic tradition, materialist theories of life held among radical medical practitioners, and Coleridge’s romantic aesthetic and political theory, which was adopted as a source of opposition to both materialist transmutation, and its popularization in print (Amigoni 2007: 40-42). These conﬂicts and debates continued to animate the rather febrile context
into which the ﬁrst popular evolutionary work was received, the anonymously published Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation in 1844. This work brought together much of the science on which the theory of evolution, in its subsequent articulations, would come to depend: astronomy and cosmology (the “Nebular Hypothesis”); geology and earth science; palæontology and comparative anatomy; philology and anthropology; and embryology. Embryology was particularly important to the controversial theory of transmutational change that the text proposed. Starting from recapitulatory theory of the embryo (during early stages of development human embryos appear similar to embryos of “lower” life forms such as ﬁsh), it proposed that one lower organism could give birth to the more advanced “next stage” that had always been part of an idealized predetermined plan – so a Creator was “author” of the process that, after a ﬁrst cause, operated according to natural laws. The Vestiges is an important work because, even though it proposed an easily discredited mechanism of change, it demonstrated how many ﬁelds “transmutational” theory had to master and draw together in order to develop grounds for a theory of evolution. In achieving this, its literary drive and narrative powers have come, increasingly, to be recognized. Thus, its chapter on “Secondary Rocks” begins by drawing its reader into a community of understanding, reminding them that
We now enter upon a new great epoch in the history of our globe. There was now dry land. As a consequence of this fact, there was fresh water; for rain, instead of immediately returning to the sea, as formerly, was now gathered in channels of the earth, and became springs, rivers, and lakes. There was now a theatre for the existence of land plants and animals.