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Rights: The University of Waikato
Published 20 November 2007
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History has unfolded in a way that we know a lot about Charles Darwin, but his grandfather Erasmus may have led a much more interesting life.

Sir Paul Nurse: Charles’ Grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, 70 years before, was a great advocate of evolution. Now I’m going to say a little bit about Erasmus because he was a far more colourful character than Charles. Erasmus was a doctor; he was a doctor in the Midlands.

He was one of the members of the Lunar Society, so called Lunatics, who met every month in the full moon so they could ride back at night with the light of the full moon, and they had this nickname as the Lunatics for that reason. And what they did in their meetings was discuss science and technology. Erasmus was one of the founders of this. He wrote up all his scientific work in the form of poems, rhyming poems. I mean, he was a complete lunatic, literally, actually. You can read this stuff and it talks about all his ideas and its all there in rhyming couplets, okay.

And he was a strong enthusiast about evolution, and he put on his coach his motto, which was 'omnia a conchis' [or 'E conchis omnia'] - all things from shells. Because shells are inhabited by molluscs, sort of formless, uninteresting little animals. And he was arguing that everything could be formed by evolution from these simple molluscs. The problem was that he lived in the cathedral close of Litchfield Cathedral, and the Dean of the cathedral didn’t like this idea very much because it went against the Genesis account [in the bible] and he began to tell Erasmus’s more respectable and therefore richer patients, that it was a bad thing to be treated by this wicked doctor.

So Erasmus had to paint out this motto from his coach to keep his richer patients. Because, in fact, he didn’t charge his poorer patients. He also was the first proponent of public education for girls, wrote a book about that, and set up both his daughters to be teachers in the first girls school.