“Mere Matter:” Causality, Subjectivity and Aesthetic Form in Erasmus Darwin
University of Arizona
In his two-part medical treatise Zoonomia (1794-1796), Erasmus Darwin—physician, scientist, popular poet and grandfather of Charles Darwin—begins with a conception of living matter in order to envision an organic system of nature, in which the individual and the environment are not only interdependent, but also reciprocally determining. This essay contextualizes Darwin’s materialism within a wider debate over the status of “mere matter” in the Romantic era through a reading of section 39 of Zoonomia, “Of Generation,” alongside David Hartley’s psychological theories and Joseph Priestley’s thinking on the nature of matter. I argue that the perceived threat of materialism lies in the ways in which these systems of thought rethink the operation of causality, reorient conceptions of teleology, and thus rewrite the nature of the relationship between the human subject and material nature. A reading of the critical contemporary reactions to Darwin’s popular poetry further suggests that the same shifting conceptions of teleology, causality, and subjectivity drive Romantic era revolutions in aesthetic form.
In his two-part medical treatise Zoonomia (1794-1796), Erasmus Darwin—physician, scientist, popular poet and grandfather of Charles Darwin—begins with a conception of living matter in order to envision an organic system of nature, in which the individual and the environment are not only interdependent, but also reciprocally determining. In the Romantic era, efforts such as Darwin’s to collapse dualistic conceptions of mind and matter were not always given a sympathetic reading or understood on their own terms. Several French philosophers in the later eighteenth century had, after all, already outlined the extreme positions to which materialism could lead. For example, LaMettrie, upon surveying the work of the emerging field of physiology, concludes his 1748 Man a Machine with the invitation to “conclude boldly that man is a machine, and that in the whole universe there is but a single substance differently modified” (148). Likewise, the Baron D’Holbach begins his 1770 Systeme de la Nature with the declaration that “man is the work of nature: he exists in Nature: he is submitted to her laws: he cannot deliver himself from them; nor can he step beyond them even in thought” (13). These images of a man-machine imprisoned by natural laws haunted the reception of the work of thinkers like Darwin, whose poetry and prose was labeled by conservative critics in the tumultuous political climate of 1790’s Britain as “materialist,” a term that suggested complicity with French mechanism, Jacobinism, and atheism.
One source of this phenomenon was the conservative publication, The Anti-Jacobin, which singled out Zoonomia specifically for censure, characterizing Darwin’s work as “materialist,” atheist, and a threat to social institutions. The Anti-Jacobin also published a long poem, “The Progress of Man. A Didactic Poem,” which attacks dynamic matter theories more generally. I quote the opening passage of this parody at length in order to draw attention to the key issues relating to the debate over the relationship between mind and matter in this time period:
Whether some great, supreme o’er-ruling Power
Stretched forth its arm at nature’s natal hour,
Composed this mighty whole with plastic skill,
Wielding the jarring elements at will?
Or whether sprung from Chaos’ mingling storm,
The mass of matter started into form?
Or Chance o’er earth’s green lab spontaneous fling
The fruits of autumn and the flowers of spring?
Whether material substance unrefined,
Owns the strong impulse of instinctive mind,
Which to one centre points diverging lines,
Confounds, refracts, invig’rates, and combines?
Whether the joys of earth, the hopes of heaven,
By Man to God, or God to Man, were given?
If virtue leads to bliss, or vice to woe?
Who rules above? or who reside below?
Vain Questions all—shall Man presume to know?
A footnote accompanying this passage urges the reader to see “Godwin’s Enquirer; Darwin’s Zoonomia; Paine; Priestley, &c.&c.&c.; also all the French Encyclopedists.” In this footnote, the anonymous author conflates Darwin’s and his contemporary Joseph Priestley’s distinct theories of matter, implies their complicity with the political writings of Thomas Paine and William Godwin, and, most tellingly, invokes the specter of the man-machine by putting them all in the same category with the “French Encyclopedists.”
Priestley, a scientist and dissenting minister best known in the history of science for the description and naming of oxygen, writes in anticipation of this kind of response to his own matter theory: “it will stagger some persons, that so much of the business of thinking should be made to depend upon mere matter” (“Introductory Essays” 181). As it turns out, speculating about “mere matter” as the basis of human subjectivity did more than just “stagger some persons.” In Britain in the 1790s, Priestley’s ideas, taken along with his revolutionary sympathies, incited a riotous mob to burn his papers and scientific instruments, enough to drive him from London to the shores of the Americas. The author of “The Progress of Man” conflates materialist thinking with a particular political and religious threat while calling into question the validity of any intellectual enterprise that dares look into the nature of causality. Specifically, he attacks poetry as a medium for such inquiries, insisting that not only does “Man” have no business dealing with such matters, but also that poetry is a particularly presumptuous medium for doing so. Ironically, the Anti-Jacobin’s attack on materialist thinking only underscores the significance of literature for thinking through matters of “Chaos” and “Chance,” of “Matter” and “Man.” The theoretical implications of Darwin’s materialism, then, stretch beyond a localized set of political and religious concerns. His theory of development poses a more fundamental challenge to conceptions of subjectivity that begin with Cartesian conception of human agency dependent upon the separation of matter and an immaterial human spirit. I argue that the perceived threat of granting agency to “mere matter” lies in the ways in which materialist systems of thought revise the operation of causality, reorient conceptions of teleology, and rewrite the nature of the relationship between human subjectivity and material nature. Further, Darwin’s versification of his ideas and the intensity of the critical attention his poetry drew from his contemporaries attest to the crucial role that poetry played in Romantic era debates over matter, causality and subjectivity.
Erasmus Darwin’s work participates in a larger series of debates over nature of the relationship between life and organization that played into political and philosophical debates in Britain and Germany during the decades surrounding the French Revolution. In Zoonomia, Darwin posits human identity as a materially driven work in progress and makes the case for a self-generating universe, within which the human self is not a pre-existing, immutable free agent, but a subject that participates in its own process of development, a part subject to the forces of a larger whole. He advances a materialism predicated on a dynamic conception of matter, positing the individual as a part with the whole of a gradually generated, rather than a spontaneously created, nature. L.S. Jacyna outlines the stakes of this debate in Britain in terms of two dominant positions, immanence and transcendence, drawing connections between physiological ideas and other aspects of culture and arguing that “each of these conceptions was implicated in a more general philosophy of nature and man,” participating in a controversy “which had its roots in the political reality of the time” (312). Proponents of immanentism proposed that the vital force that characterizes living organisms was an emergent property of organized matter, while transcendentalists held that the vital force remained independent of the matter that it animates. Jacyna emphasizes that both positions are vitalistic, pointing to the crucial role of the concept of organization played in authors on either side along the rejection “the iatromechanical systems of the mid-eighteenth century” in favor of an insistence “upon the unique properties of living beings” (312). He argues that both immanentist and transcendentalist cosmologies seek ways to place restrictions on individual freedom, whether that restriction lies in the power wielded by a superadded Deity or the restraints placed on man considered as ultimately a material product of natural forces. In Self-Generation, Helmut Müller-Sievers stages a similar debate over the nature of life as it occurs in the conflict between preformationist and epigenetic theories of development in Germany, featuring Blumenbach’s articulation of a “vital force” (in German, Bildungstrieb, or formative drive) that separates living organisms from dead matter. Müller-Sievers argues that Immanuel Kant, by employing the analogy of epigenesis, expands this debate by introducing “an entirely new method of argumentation and legitimization...into a variety of discourses (47). As Denise Gigante argues, by the end of the eighteenth century, “discussions of formal development were inevitably linked to some version of vitality as power” (22). This “paradigm shift in the study of organic form,” inaugurated a vision of nature in which “life now denoted power, rather than structure” (16). This conception of life as power brings theories of matter to the forefront of Romantic-era conceptions of human agency.
In order to fully understand and characterize Darwin’s contribution to these discussions, it is helpful to situate his thinking amongst the materialisms of his contemporaries. In his study of nineteenth-century German biology, Timothy Lenoir emphasizes Kant’s contribution in arguing for the key role that teleological, goal-oriented thinking about biological systems played in scientific study during the Romantic era. He outlines several teleological systems, each stressing the “apparent priority of the whole over its parts” and offering a “middle ground between vitalism and reductionism” (9). These positions differ depending upon the extent that the vital agent or force operates actively upon or within the system. One position, which Lenoir calls “vital materialism” conceives of a vital force that is not an independent, superadded entity, but rather a property emerging from the complex organization of an organism or system. This position, while acknowledging the role of vital forces, rejects the notion of a purposive entity separate from the system, and seeks to explain the operations of the system through physical causes. Vital materialism recognizes “a dichotomy between inanimate matter and biological organization,” arguing that biological life cannot be reduced to, or explained exclusively in terms of, physical and chemical laws (10). In Lenoir’s schema, there is another strand of teleological thinking that takes the unique properties of organic nature a step further. The holist position, present in the philosophical tradition since Aristotle, states: “the universe is fundamentally biological. Not only is each part subservient to the organization of the whole, but there are only ‘biological’ laws” (10). Holist thinking allows the processes of life to transcend the order of physical laws, in effect, creating its own order.
It would be tempting to place Darwin’s system of nature within Lenoir’s model of vital materialism or perhaps even to categorize him as leaning towards a holist position. While both models are useful for describing the key bases of and modes of operation at work in these particular systems and for recognizing the prevalence of teleological thinking in the biological sciences of this period, there is a key element in Darwin’s system that unsettles either categorization. What if matter is not fully “inanimate?” What if the parts are not fully subservient to the whole and instead actively participate in its generation? In Romantic Organicism, Charles Armstrong defines an organic system in terms of a whole, which “has spirit, while that which is not a whole (or constitutes a counterfeit unity) lacks it.” According to Armstrong, the inclusion of spirit is what separates an organic from a merely mechanical unity, and is also the ground of the “idealist attack on the twin threats of British empiricism and French materialism.” He argues that, within the idealist tradition in Germany, “the empiricism of John Locke or the materialism of Julien LaMettrie is berated for lacking precisely a principle of a spiritual essence, which can give matter life” (14). Darwin rejects this antinomy between materialism and idealism by positing an organicism based on a conception of matter that does not need spirit to grant it life—by collapsing the distinction between matter and spirit, they begin with the radical conception that matter is already living.
Darwin’s conceptions of matter and organization, and the way in which they used them to support political agendas, owe a considerable debt to the eighteenth-century philosopher David Hartley. Hartley’s account of mental function 1749 Observations on Men, Manners, Times works to reconcile the post-Cartesian dualism of body and mind, grounding the philosophy of mind in the brain and the nervous system and providing explanations for human behavior through the interaction and organization of a system of muscles, nerves and fibers. In Hartley’s system, sense impressions are received and transmitted via nerves in a serious of mechanical vibrations, transmitted through Newtonian aether through “vibratiuncles,” powered by the forces of attraction and repulsion, in a process termed the “doctrine of vibrations.” Vibrations, infinitely divisible, are united through joint impressions, to form ideas, or “associations,” that are produced through the recollection of joint vibrations in a connected series. Hartley’s principle of association, with its suggestion of the influence of unconscious forces on human experience and action, made a deep impression on the literary culture of the 1790’s, one of the most prominent examples being its early influence on—and later rejection by—Coleridge. His rationalization of his early allegiance to Hartley in Chapter V of Biographia Literaria points to the ways in which Hartley’s system reduces human consciousness a chaos of random forces that ultimately limits human agency and argues against the reduction of human consciousness to a traceable chain of physical operations. Hartley’s system is, in this respect, the closest analogue in British thought to the clockwork vision of man held up by Enlightenment writers such as D’Holbach and LaMettrie, and was often interpreted, criticized, and attacked as such—as empty mechanism, with the accompanying side-effects of necessitarianism and atheism. With its suggestion of influence of accumulated unconscious forces on human behavior through the doctrine of associations and its perceived mechanization of mental function through the doctrine of vibrations, Hartley’s Observations simultaneously threatened the agency of the individual and the structure of institutional religion.
Given a closer reading on its own terms, Hartley’s system reveals than a passive series of “vibrations” and “vibratiuncles,” and to read it only in terms of the reduction of man to matter, of consciousness to random forces, is to miss its potential. As Coleridge recognizes in his own critique, the interrelationship of body and mind that Hartley proposes results in a complex picture of causality that allows for the gradual evolution of individual human consciousness. Moreover, this complexity does not necessarily equal chaos. In his extensive reading of Hartley’s work, Richard Allen describes a system that operates through an iterative process, tracing the progression of the mind through a series of developmental stages, beginning with simple self-interest and progressing to the moral sense through transformation and self-annihilation:
In Hartley’s psychological chemistry, a simple repetitive process generates a dynamic system: transferences of emotion among clusters of words, narratives, and symbols create the orientations of imagination, ambition, and self-interest sympathy, theopathy, and the moral sense. The crystal grows.
Allen’s reading recognizes the passive mechanical forces of Hartley’s physiological system as components of a dynamic system of consciousness guided by a teleological force. As the crystal grows, it plays an increasing role in determining the fate of its parts.
One way to describe the system of causes that underwrites Hartley’s system is to use what Lenoir calls a teleomechanical conception of causality, which he attributes to Kant’s recognition that of the incompatibility of “mechanical modes of explanation” and the “organic realm.” In order to find a way to express “how biological explanations could be both teleological and mechanical without being occult,” he conceives of a model of causality in which a linear combination of cause and effect is unthinkable because of their reciprocal determination (24). Instead of a chain of traceable causes, Kant conceives of a system of interdependent causes, in which the final cause is reciprocally the first. In fact, he argues in paragraphs 64-66 of the third Critique for the existence of “natural ends.” This key principle states: “an organized product of nature is that in which everything is an end and reciprocally a means as well. Nothing in it is vain, purposeless, or to be ascribed to a blind mechanism of nature” (47-8). For Kant, while mechanical explanations of nature can be useful, teleological explanation is necessary when engaging with biological organisms because human reason is not capable of constructing objects that conform to causal systems that transcend linear cause-and-effect relationships. Hartley’s system is implicitly underwritten by a teleomechanical conception of causality; even while it attempts to explain the operations of the mind through the operation of mechanical causes, the doctrine of association and the teleological trajectory of the system as a whole point to an unconscious realm of interdependent causes that evades the capacity of human reason.
With its suggestion of accumulated unconscious forces influencing human behavior through the doctrine of associations, its perceived mechanization of mental function through the doctrine of vibrations, and each of its mechanical vibrations working in service of the whole’s journey of improvement, Hartley’s system poses considerable challenges to models of subjectivity that begin with a stable, knowing, Cartesian agency. In order to develop these implications more fully, it is useful to turn to the work of Darwin’s friend and colleague Joseph Priestley’s to fully illuminate his remark about the perceived threat of speculating over “mere matter.” In Priestley’s Introductory Essays to Hartley’s Theory of the Human Mind, he acknowledges both of the concerns raised by Hartley’s work, granting that “it will stagger some persons, that so much of the business of thinking should be made to depend upon mere matter, as the doctrine of vibrations supposes,” arguing that the doctrine of vibrations “leaves nothing to the province of any other principle, except the simple power of perception.” He continues: “if it were possible that matter could be endued with this property, immateriality, as far as it has been supposed to belong to man, would be excluded altogether.” He is quick to assert that this loss of immateriality is of no concern to those who would mourn the loss of the soul, as “it will not at all alarm those who found all their hopes of a future existence on the Christian doctrine of a resurrection from the dead” (181). For Priestley, true religion is found in Biblical prophecy, and the second half of his own Disquisitions Relating to Matter and Spirit is dedicated to an exposition of his theory through readings of the Scriptures. As a radical Dissenter, Priestley replaces existing structures with his own eschatological schema in which the possibility for resurrection is not precluded by, but rather depends upon, the resurrection of the material body independent of a superadded immaterial spirit.
Priestley’s solution, as he proposes in his introductory essays on Hartley and develops more fully in Disquisitions, is unprecedented in the debate over matter and spirit, as it reduces everything not to matter and motion, but matter that has that power to perceive—and thus to act according to the powers ascribed to it. Matter, for Priestley, is not “mere matter” at all, and in his estimation, “the notion of two substances that have no common property, and yet are capable of intimate connexion and mutual action, is both absurd and modern” (219). Man’s will is not determined by the mechanical operations of matter, but the will does operate through matter according to mechanical laws. His conception of matter is not endowed with, but made up of, the very immortal spirit that others had sought to separate as immaterial for the purposes of institutional control. At the same time, he argues against that the idea “that man is an agent, meaning by it, that he has a power of beginning motion, independently of any mechanical laws to which the Author of his nature has subjected him.” Instead, human beings are driven by motives, which arise from the existing state of mind and the ideas that are presented to that mind; the faculty of will and the power of judgment are “determined by the appearances of things presented to us...the determinations of both are equally guided by certain invariable laws” (295). Priestley is an advocate of neither blind chance nor absolute freedom.
The Preface to Priestley’s 1777 Doctrine of Philosophical Necessity, written as an Appendix in response to concerns arising out of the Disquisitions, directly confronts the threat to human agency raised by its suggestion of mechanism. Conceding that “if, man, as is maintained in that treatise, be wholly a material, it will not be denied that he must be a mechanical being,” Priestley goes on to argue for the “great and glorious, but unpopular doctrine of Philosophical Necessity” as directly opposed to the “notion of Philosophical Liberty,” of which Priestley remarks, “there is no absurdity more glaring to my understanding” (454-8). He maintains that “there is some fixed law of nature respecting the will,” and that the will is never “determined without some real or apparent cause, foreign to itself, i.e. without some motive of choice.” Each individual is constantly under pressure from a system of causes, as “every volition or choice, is constantly regulated and determined by what precedes it,” as the mind is constantly constituted by a multitude of volitions and motives. Priestley emphasizes that “this constant determination of mind, according to the motives presented to it, is all I mean by its necessary determination” (462). Precisely what Priestley means by “motive of choice” is unclear, but his use of the term, in conjunction with the conflation of “choice” and “volition,” is indicative of his strategy of maintaining the value of human agency within the doctrine of necessity. He goes on to clarify that the doctrine of necessity precludes contingency, chance and accident without precluding volition, without reducing human individuals to cogs within a machine:
It may, perhaps, help to clear up this matter to some persons, to consider that the term voluntary is not opposed to necessary, but only to involuntary, and that nothing can be opposed to necessary, but contingent...Though, therefore, a man’s determination be his own, the causes of it existing and operating within himself, yet, if it be subject to any fixed laws, there cannot be any circumstances in which two different determinations might equally have taken place: for that would exclude the influence of all laws.
Whether or not Priestley’s argument was convincing to those who would dismiss his system, he attempts to preserve the motive of choice and the volition of the individual will within a system that is nevertheless regulated by a fixed, mechanically operating, law of nature. He thus aims to prevent his materialism from the raising the spectre of the man-machine.
For Priestley, after all, eliminating the distinction between matter and spirit, while working to preserve the motive of choice in the individual, had explicitly political in addition to theological aims. Steven Shapin, for example, sees Priestley’s matter theory as one of systems of this period that combine “a revaluation of matter” with “a hierarchy-collapsing strategy” (119). Priestley’s radical interpretation of materialist philosophy provided the means for his criticism of the ancien regime, while his practical forays into scientific ventures with practical implications provided the means for the building of his own vision of the state. Issaac Kramnick situates Priestley’s science within a two-dimensional liberal political project, for which Hartley’s doctrine of association provided considerable support. He proposes that Priestley’s “radical use of Hartleyian psychology” clarifies the “two dimensions” of Priestley’s liberalism—a natural rights liberalism and a utilitarian liberalism—which preached liberation from existing tyrannical institutions while advocating for the building of new ones fueled by education, science and industry (84). Kramnick converts the image of man-as-machine into the image of state-as-machine as a way of understanding the utilitarian nature of Priestley’s liberalism, arguing that, for Priestley, Hartleyan psychology transforms the state into an entity “whose operations are not only simple and knowable but mechanical, predictable and manageable,” and points to the use of this metaphor in the rhetoric of Priestley’s circle (91). In this reading of Priestley’s system, where “the state literally becomes a laboratory in which its citizens and institutions can be perfected, like machines, by trial and error,” materialist psychology provided a scientific foundation for building a perfectible state inhabited by perfectible citizens (93). The utilitarian element of Priestley’s liberal political and the man-as-machine rhetoric that surrounds it contribute to his reputations as yet another “materialist,” a Jacobin agitator influenced by noxious French ideas. Yet Priestley’s conception of matter has implications that reach beyond his political project. Priestley’s interpretation of materialism implies an organicism that goes unrecognized, which his contemporaries failed to pick up and extend—instead aligning him with the image of the man as machine offered by the French materialists.
With less explicitly political aims, and deviating from the Biblically based theological arguments of Priestley’s conception of matter, Erasmus Darwin develops a theory of human identity that embraces organicism in Zoonomia. With its combination of practical aims and theoretical speculation, Zoonomia fits into the liberal plan of revolution and reform espoused by Priestley and the other members of the Lunar Society, while hinting at a form of a knowledge that is indicated by, but lies beyond the reach of, scientific method. In his preface, Darwin argues for the importance of “a theory founded upon nature, that should bind together the scattered facts of medical knowledge, and converge into one point of view the laws of organic life,” asserting that such a theory (in opposition to those who would oppose theory as method) would not only provide such tangible benefits to society as allowing “men of moderate abilities to practice the art of healing with real advantage to the public,” but would also provide a more intangible, and more subversive, form of knowledge, in attempt to “teach mankind in some important situations the knowledge of themselves” (2). In Section XXXIX, “Of Generation,” Darwin formulates a biological theory of human development in which embryonic growth is spurred by a survival instinct, driven by wants and desires to acquire new habits and characteristics, as the embryo progresses from a single filament to an organic individual. He begins with an acknowledgment of his debt to Hartley, whom he credits with the idea “that our immortal part acquires during this life certain habits of action or of sentiment” that accompany the individual into the future (480). The individual begins as “a branch or elongation of the parent;” this new individual, the “living filament,” is secreted from the blood of the male, from whom it derives its initial ideas and characteristics. The nourishment provided by the female plays a key role in the development of this “new animal,” as it provides the food and oxygen that spur the developing embryo into action. Once the filament is introduced into the uterus, the “irritation of the liquor amni” begins to fulfill its wants and desires while it “excites the absorbent mouths of the new vessels into action,” which is accompanied by a “pleasurable sensation” momentarily fulfilling the perpetual wants of oxygen and nourishment (480-481). The multiplicity of these causes and effects increases as the organism grows.
This process produces an increasingly complex organism, as the filament changes shape, first bending into a ring, then becoming a living tube. Each of these stages follows from the filament’s “capacity of being excited into action by certain kinds of stimulus,” and, with each “new organization,” this capacity increases and changes, as “new kinds of irritability may commence” (492). The whole evolves through the addition of parts, producing a new capacity for further evolution as a product of its more complex organization:
With every new change, therefore, of organic form, or addition of organic parts, I suppose a new kind of irritability or 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.
The growth of the individual organism proceeds as “the acquisition of new parts, new sensations, and new desires, as well as new powers, are produced; and this by accretion to the old ones, and not by distention of them,” and this process is driven by a combination of desire and fulfillment of lack in the form of irritations, “and by the pleasurable sensations attending those irritations” (495-6). For Darwin, pleasurable sensations, including those sensations that attend the operation of the imagination, serve as not simply side effects of the fulfillment of biological need, but instead play a key role in the constitution of the growing organism—in this case, a human being.
From the similarity amongst animals in their development from a “single living filament,” Darwin deduces an evolutionary conception of the development of the organic world:
…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 process is generative, creative, and reciprocal; as each organism grows and increases in complexity through the gradual accumulation of minute particulars within the system of nature, the system as a whole, united through a first cause, continues to develop. In Darwin’s system, each component of the system, while remaining a product of that system and the complex system of causality that drives it, possesses a degree of agency in creating that system, accompanied by a responsibility to improve it. He looks to the “improving excellence observable in every part of the creation” as evidence for “idea of our present situation being a state of probation, which by our exertions we may improve, and are consequently responsible for our actions.” In this respect, Darwin’s system fits into to the liberal political project held in common by Priestley and the rest of the Lunar society.
Yet the depiction of “our present situation” as a “state of probation” as a consequence of the inherent powers in matter and the interconnected nature of organisms challenges conceptions of identity and subjectivity that begin with an absolutely free agent. His radical materialism, like Priestley’s physico-theological system, is incompatible with a Cartesian conception of a fully free and rational form of agency. The human being is never a static entity; instead, the individual only exists at any one time in a unique configuration of matter. Responsible for preserving the unity of the individual are the complex accumulations of habits and ideas that are reciprocally produced and guided by the actions of those material configurations, the same unconscious, ultimately unknowable, forces that made Hartley’s physiological psychology threatening to those with political and religious ideas that rely upon a more traditional conception of human agency. Further, by moving away from Priestley’s conception of a pervasive, willing force that “disposes of all things” to the initial action of a First Cause granting “animality” to the first “living filament,” which continues to act according to it’s potential, Darwin places the constantly evolving individual within a truly self-generating universe.
What is truly radical about Darwin’s materialism is also what separates his system from Priestley’s: the suggestion that individual not only participates in it’s own generation through a reciprocal relationship with the whole of nature, but also plays a part in re-creating nature. Darwin’s theory of development departs from Priestley’s physico-theological argument by granting matter an agency that begins as an unconscious collection of forces and gradually reaches consciousness as the organism increases in complexity. Darwin formulates a teleomechanically driven model of nature—and implies a theory of identity—that begins with a conception of matter endowed with generative forces. An outstanding feature of these systems is an organic and evolutionary conception of the relationship between a whole and its parts. Each part is an integral piece of the whole, and the whole is constantly creates itself anew through the interaction and transformation of its parts, which, in turn, induce further transformation. Self-identity is not a product of a completely free and rational form of agency. Instead, identity emerges through Hartley’s progression from self-interest to the moral sense through self-annihilation, Priestley’s eschatological determination through motive, or Darwin’s gradual, co-operative accumulation of parts and ideas. Particularly in Darwin’s system of nature, the identity of individual arises out of a series of relations to the system of nature from which it derives its sustenance. This system, in positing a unique set of laws that govern organic, or animal life, in its search for a driving force, in his case, the “animating spirit” runs up against a limit—the laws that he observes and extrapolates cannot adequately the unconscious willing forces which constitute it. It is this radical suggestion of a contingent form of subjectivity, built on the foundation of a complex system of causality, that drew critical attention to Darwin’s poetry.
The anonymously published poem “The Loves of the Plants” along with his subsequent publication, “The Economy of Vegetation,” which together comprise the two-part epic poem The Botanic Garden, inaugurated Darwin’s reputation as one of the most popular, and controversial, poets of the 1790’s. In “The Loves of the Plants,” brought out by radical publisher Joseph Johnson in April 1789, Darwin carries out the aim of his poem, clearly stated in the advertisement, “To enlist Imagination under the banner of science,” educating the public on recent advances in scientific investigation through the employment of epic machinery, complete with sylphs, gnomes and the requisite heroic couplets. “The Loves of the Plants” illustrates the system of plant classification and sexual reproduction through the personification of the various classes of plants; however, what is remarkable about Darwin’s poem is the extensive system of scientific notes appended to the verse, in addition to Darwin’s explanation of Linnaeus’ classificatory system, which is included in the preface. Both function as a supplement to the verse, pointing outside the world of the poem to a larger world of scientific discovery and possibility. The tone of the poem is deliberately ironic and humorous, which Darwin intended to keep it from becoming an exercise in dreary didactic poetry; omitting his name from the title page was a gesture that allowed him to keep his reputation as a serious author. There is, however, a glimpse of his more ambitious theory of nature visible in “The Loves of the Plants,” although he saves the more explicit references to his vision of nature as an integrated for the second part of his epic.
“The Economy of Vegetation,” which was included in the first two-part edition of The Botanic Garden 1791, adapts Darwin’s developing knowledge of chemical theory, shifting from an illustration to classification to an explanation of “the physiology of Plants” and “the operation of the Elements.” In addition to incorporating revolutionary scientific advances, the poem also celebrates the scientific progress of various members of the Lunar Society and includes some explicitly radical passages dealing with the events in France via images of the American Revolution:
So, born on founding pinions to the West,
When Tyrant-Power had built his eagle nest;
While from his eyry schriek’d the fash’d brood,
Clenched their sharp claws, and champ’d their beaks for blood,
Immortal Franklin watch’d the callow crew,
And stabb’d the struggling Vampires, ere they flew.
—the patriot-flame with quick contagion ran,
Hill lighted hill, and man electrified man;
Her heroes slain awhile Columbia mourn’d,
And crown’d with laurels Liberty return’d.
Such passages are indicative of the enthusiasm for the revolution that drew increasing scrutiny of the members of the Lunar Society and their activities, which culminated in violent attack on Priestley’s laboratory in the 1791 Birmingham riots, and eventually to his emigration to America. In addition to the explicitly political passages, the first canto includes an account of the generation of the universe out of chaos:
‘—Let there be light!’ proclaim’d the Almighty Lord,
Astonished Chaos heard the potent word;—
Through all his realms the kindling Ether runs,
And the mass starts into a million suns;
Earths round each sun with quick explosions burnt,
And second planets issue from the first;
Bend, as they journey with projectile force,
In bright ellipses their reluctant course;
Orbs wheel in orbs, round centres centres roll,
And form, self-balanced, one revolving Whole.
--Onward they move a amid their bright abode,
Space without bound, the bosom of their God!
This early formulation of Darwin’s evolutionary theory is indicative of the element in Darwin’s work that would eventually garner the harshest critique.
Although Darwin would avoid overtly politically radical references for the remainder of his career, the posthumously published The Temple of Nature; or, the Origin of Society is more explicit in putting forth Darwin’s evolutionary system. Joseph Johnson established Darwin’s controversial reputation with the posthumous publication of the poem, “which reworked Zoonomia’s ideas in verse and often horrified reviewers with its warring, factious, overly materialistic view of the universe” (Braithwaite 179). The Temple of Nature includes four cantos that tie the evolution of the natural world with the development of the human community, titled “The Production of Life,” “The Reproduction of Life,” “The Progress of the Mind,” and “Of Good and Evil,” along with another set of extensive scientific notes. These notes reiterate the centrality of his suggestion of the continuity of the progress of nature with the development of organic life. In section VIII, “Reproduction,” Darwin argues that “the reproduction or generation of living organized bodies, is the great criterion or characteristic which distinguishes animation from mechanism,” and that “the power of producing an embryon which shall gradually acquire similitude to its parent, distinguishes artificial from natural organization” (33). He admits that “the mystery of reproduction, which alone distinguishes organic life from mechanic or chemic action, is yet wrapt in darkness,” before reiterating his theoretical speculation of an organic, evolutionary nature united by a common cause: “But it may appear too bold in the present state of our knowledge on this subject, to suppose that all vegetables and animals now existing were originally derived from the smallest microscopic ones, formed by spontaneous vitality?” (38). Darwin’s conception of an evolutionary nature, accompanied by the positing of the individual’s participatory role in its own creation, were even more politically volatile than his overt support for the French and American revolutions.The Temple of Nature provides an account of the evolution of human consciousness and ability as human intelligence learns to penetrate the laws of the natural world, using those laws to recreate it. In Canto III, “The Progress of Mind,” the “Priestess of Nature,” guides man to the knowledge of human consciousness’ parallels with the natural world, which allow for the birth and progress of human science:
Priestess of Nature! whose exploring sight
Pierces the realms of Chaos and Night;
Of space unmeasured marks the first and last,
Of endless time the present, future, past;
Immortal Guide! O, now with accents kind
Give to my ear the progress of the Mind.
How loves, and tastes and sympathies commense
From evanescent notices of sense?
How from the yielding touch and rolling eyes
The piles immense of human science rise?—
Darwin’s rejection of the idea of a created nature in favor of one generated through the individual’s power to recreate his environment and community invited criticism from the “anti-Jacobins,” who were fiercely opposed to a repeat of the violent revolutions in Franch and America in England, which threatened to overthrow existing political and religious traditions and institutions.
The conservative British Critic condemned Darwin’s evolutionary theory, and the Anti-Jacobin or Weekly Examiner, established in 1797, singled out Zoonomia for censure and published two poems that attacked Darwin’s work as atheistic, materialistic—in a word, Jacobin. The previously discussed “The Progress of Man,” calls into question the validity of any intellectual enterprise that seeks into the nature of causality, or questions the process of creation in the pursuit of the mechanisms of generation. “The Progress of Man,” a satire aimed more broadly at those whom it labeled as a coterie of subversive materialist thinkers, was followed by “The Loves of the Triangles: A Mathematical and Philosophical poem,” a parody aimed squarely at Darwin’s “The Loves of the Plants:”
But chief, thou Nurse of the Didactic Muse,
Divine Nonsensia, all thy soul infuse;
The charms of Secants and of Tangents tell,
How Loves and Graces in Angle dwell;
How slow progressive Points protract the Line,
As pendant spiders spin the filmy twine;
How lengthen’d Lines, impetuous sweeping round,
Spread the wide Plane, and mark its circling bound;
How Planes, their substance with their motion grown,
From the huge Cube, the Cylinder, the Cone.
This passage simultaneously mimics the personification of nature that Darwin employs in “The Loves of the Plants” and parodies the previously cited passage on creation from “The Economy of Vegetation.” The parody likens Darwin’s dynamic evolutionary theory to an frivolous dance populated with abstract mathematical terminology and governed by nonsense reminiscent of Pope’s send-up of the publishing industry in The Dunciad. “The Loves of the Triangles” reduces Darwin’s theoretical ideas to mechanism through an imitation of his form. Ironically, the parody calls attention to the crucial role that aesthetic form had come to play in the articulation and dissemination of ideas about the increasingly complex relationship between human beings and material nature.
The criticism leveled at Darwin’s poetry did not come exclusively from the conservative opinion behind publications like The Anti-Jacobin. Criticism of Darwin’s outdated poetic devices, particularly loyalty to the heroic couplet and his love of personification, came from previous admirers, such as Wordsworth and Coleridge, along with other professed political radicals like Robert Southey. Coleridge’s letters, for example, alternate between praise for Darwin’s genius and denigration of his aesthetic practices and approach to religion. His remark in a May 1796 letter to John Thelwall, “I absolutely nauseate Darwin’s poem,” is balanced by praise in February 1797: “On the whole, I think, he is the first literary character in Europe and the most original minded man” (Letters 216, 305). In any case, Darwin’s poetry managed to take a remarkable hold over the Romantic imagination, wielding an influence that is visible in their repeated adaptations of his imagery and phrasing. In his introduction to his edition of The Botanic Garden, Donald Reiman remarks that “as a thinker, “ Darwin was “in some theoretical formulations far ahead of his time, but in his tendency toward rationalistic abstraction, as well as his unvaried adherence to trite and mechanical poetic techniques,” he was a figure who “taught the Romantics, beginning with Blake, as much through negative as through positive example” (xiv). I want to conclude this essay by thinking through the significance of Darwin’s work as a negative example for what is considered as properly “Romantic” poetry. 
Although they openly derided Darwin’s style, Wordsworth and Coleridge’s critique of his project differs from the critique leveled by reactionary parodies such as The Loves of the Triangles and The Progress of Man. While the poetry of The Anti-Jacobin attacks the theoretical implications of Darwin’s work through imitation and parody of his form, the derision of that form as “empty and mechanical” in Wordsworth’s preface ultimately recognizes the theoretical implications of Darwin’s work, productively extending his conception of life by exposing the limits of his aesthetic practices. The Preface to the Lyrical Ballads announces the collection of poems as “an experiment” in “fitting to metrical arrangement a selection of the real language of men in a state of vivid sensation” (241). Wordsworth’s emphasis on physiological sensations through the Preface echoes the conceptual framework and vocabulary of Hartleyan psychology, suggesting the presence of not-fully-conscious formative drives that allow the human subject to communicate with—and develop within—the environment. His aim to “make the incidents of common life interesting by tracing in them, truly though not ostentatiously, the primary laws of our nature” is driven by his “deep impression of certain inherent and indestructible qualities of the human mind, and likewise of certain powers in the great and permanent objects that act upon it which are equally inherent and indestructible” (250). Wordsworth’s program for poetry aligns human life with a Darwinian conception of nature through the production of aesthetic experiences, which formally instantiate the powers of life that link the human mind to the natural world. In the Preface, there is no separation of poetic and scientific agendas, no separation of content from form. Wordsworth’s Preface, with its assertions that the reader will find “no personifications of abstract ideas,” can be read as an implicit critique of Darwin’s verse (250). This simultaneous celebration of Darwin’s conception of nature and critique of his formal practices registers the disconnect between Darwin’s radical materialism and the formal qualities of his verse.
Coleridge’s notebook entries likewise show an appreciation of the possibilities that lie in Darwin’s poetry and scientific theory, even as Coleridge specifically critiques what he perceives in Darwin as an ultimately damaging separation of content from form. In an entry written during his period of exposure to German scientific and philosophical ideas, he writes: “Darwin possesses the epidermis of Poetry, without the cutis—The cortex without the liber or alburnum, lignum or medulla--/no wonder, for the inner bark (= liber) alburnum, and wood are one and the same substance in different periods of existence” (Entry #4343). Both the physiological analogy at work in this critique and the emphasis on temporality are key to understanding the Romantic interpretation of Darwin’s project. Coleridge uses a physical metaphor to expose Darwin’s failure to incorporate his own teleomechanical conception of the construction of identity. If the organic nature, the “animating spirit,” of Darwin’s work is to be transmitted to future generations, that spirit requires a form uniquely suited to its expression, since for Coleridge, as well as for Wordsworth (despite their own aesthetic disputes), form is expression.
In his Critique of Judgment, Kant posits aesthetic form as the medium with the potential to bridge the gap between a teleomechanically conceived natural world and the limits imposed on human reason. Genius, constituted by the play of the imagination operating under the constraint of the understanding, is the faculty by which artists can communicate the nature of the correspondence between mind and nature:
…thus genius really consists in the happy relation, which no science can teach and no diligence learn, of finding ideas for a given concept on the one hand and on the other hitting upon the expression for these, through which the subjective disposition of mind that is thereby produced, as an accompaniment of a concept, can be communicated to others.
An understanding of this faculty, which contains the “unsought and unintentional subjective purposiveness in the free correspondence of the imagination to the lawfulness of the understanding,” escapes the scientific methods of description and can only be produced by the intuitive subject (195). Kant articulates aesthetic form as the ground of an emerging Romantic project that balances the urge for individual freedom with the laws that follow from a materially conceived, organically organized, self-generating nature through the authoring of aesthetic models of self-description. Erasmus Darwin’s dynamic materialism allows him to construct an organic model of the natural world from a conception of living matter. He presents a system that theorizes the development of the individual as attended by unconscious forces that participate in a reciprocal relationship with an evolving whole. Although many of Darwin’s poetic practices look back to the eighteenth century, the formulation of matter as a dynamic concept and causality as a process that eludes strictly empirical description inspired a wave of innovations in aesthetic form. For Romantic-era writers like Wordsworth and Coleridge, aesthetic form is the means by which to search into the complex and indeterminate causality of a generative universe, as they experiment with personal, political and religious works that complicate ideas of individuality and progress based on a pre-existing, absolutely free, and fully rational Cartesian agent. The aesthetic emerges as only mode of knowledge capable of articulating a radically contingent—and distinctly modern—subject that develops through agency inherent in “mere matter.”
Allison Dushane is an Assistant Professor at the University of Arizona. Her interests include eighteenth-century and Romantic-era literature, aesthetic theory, and studies in literature, science and technology. She is currently working on a manuscript titled Formative Drives: Matter and Agency in the Romantic Era, which explores the connections between matter theory, aesthetic form and conceptions of subjectivity in the Romantic era.
Cited by line number as the poem appears in Poetry of the Anti-Jacobin.
Jacyna holds up the debate between the surgeons John Lawrence and William Abernathy as being representative of the extreme versions of two positions. Darwin’s position reveals how much complexity lies between and within these two poles. A recent and comprehensive survey and analysis of the debate between Lawrence and Abernathy can be found in Sharon Ruston, Shelley and Vitality.
All references to the Botanic Garden refer to canto and line number in Erasmus Darwin, The Botanic Garden, Ed. Donald Rieman.
A more complete account of Darwin’s participation in the radical literary culture during the revolutionary period can be found in Braithwaite. Also see Desmond King-Hele, Doctor of Revolution, pp. 197-220.
Maureen McNeil points out that Darwin’s “optimistic view of science and technology” was “rooted in his social and political position within the Industrial Revolution,” and her reading of Darwin’s poetry emphasizes his depiction of a process of production that shifts “from one which was labour-oriented to one which was machine-oriented,” as his poetry exhibits “the growing division between mental and manual labour realized with industrialization” (172-83). Michael Page also notes that Darwin’s poetry, in its championing of scientific progress, “reflects the conflicted contestation of a worldview in transformation and the dynamic changes in ideas and social and cultural structures” that accompanied the Industrial Revolution, remarking that The Temple of Nature seems to move towards an emerging Romantic idea of consciousness (163-4).
For a comprehensive account of the positive as well as the negative reception of Darwin’s science in England, see Garfinkle.
For an in-depth discussion of Coleridge’s intellectual debt to Darwin as distinct from his criticism of his poetic efforts, particularly on matters of religion, see Ulrich.
Desmond King-Hele tracks these references in detail in his Erasmus Darwin and the Romantic Poets.
My reading is more concerned with a reading of the reception of Darwin’s poetry than with an in-depth consideration of the poetry itself. Readings that delve into the formal complexity and significance of Darwin’s poetry often situate his work within an eighteenth-century scientific and aesthetic context. Donald Hassler, in his study of what he calls Darwin’s “comic materialism,” attributes what he reads as a hesitant, comic and ironic tone in Darwin’s poetry to “the potential for uncertainty and relativism with regard to artistic taste,” which is inherent in Darwin’s physiology of perception (Hassler 29). In “The Science and Poetry of Animation,” Catherine Packham responds directly to negative Romantic responses to Darwin’s aesthetic practices in an argument that places them in service of his science. She focuses on Darwin’s use of personification in the Loves of the Plants, arguing that this device “fulfils a scientific as much as a poetic agenda” in a way that transcends the “constraints of a scientific method characterized by merely ‘rational’ analogy” imposed upon Zoonomia (203). Dahlia Porter usefully argues for the conjunction of the scientific and aesthetic “methods” of analogy in “Scientific Analogy and Literary Taxonomy in Darwin’s Loves of the Plants.”
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