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Zoonomia; or the Laws of Organic Life (1794) is a two-volume medical work by Erasmus Darwin dealing with pathology, anatomy, psychology, and the functioning of the body. The book incorporates early ideas relating to the theory of evolution that were later more fully developed by his grandson, Charles Darwin. However, the younger Darwin denied any influence of his grandfather's work on his own ideas.[1]


English Romantic poet William Wordsworth used Darwin's Zoonomia as the source for "Goody Blake and Harry Gill", a poem published in the Lyrical Ballads (1798).[2]

Relevant quotes[edit]

From thus meditating on the great similarity of the structure of the warm-blooded animals, and at the same time of the great changes they undergo both before and after their nativity; and by considering in how minute a proportion of time many of the changes of animals above described have been produced; would it be too bold to imagine, that in the great length of time, since the earth began to exist, perhaps millions of years...that all warm-blooded animals have arisen from one living filament, which THE GREAT FIRST CAUSE endued with animality...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?...

Shall we then say that the vegetable living filament was originally different from that of each tribe of animals above described? And that the productive living filament of each of those tribes was different originally from the other? Or, as the earth and ocean were probably peopled with vegetable productions long before the existence of animals...shall we conjecture that one and the same kind of living filament is and has been the cause of all organic life?[3]

In a letter from Mr. Charles Darwin, dated April 24, 1778, Edinburgh, is the subsequent passage:—"A man who had long laboured under a diabetes died yesterday in the clinical ward. He had for some time drank four, and passed twelve pounds of fluid daily; each pound of urine contained an ounce of sugar. He took, without considerable relief, gum kino, sanguis diaconis melted with alum, tincture of cantharides, isinglass, gum arabic, crabs eyes, spirit of hartshorn, and eat ten or fifteen oysters thrice a day. Dr. Home, having read my thesis, bled him, and found that neither the fresh blood nor the serum tasted sweet. His body was opened this morning—every viscus appeared in a sound and natural state, except that the left kidney had a very small pelvis, and that there was a considerable enlargement of most of the mesenteric lymphatic glands. I intend to insert this in my thesis, as it coincides with the experiment, where some asparagus was eaten at the beginning of intoxication, and its smell perceived in the urine, though not in the blood."[4]

Inheritance of acquired characteristics[edit]

In Zoonomia, Erasmus Darwin advocated the inheritance of acquired characteristics. He stated, "[F]rom their first rudiment, or primordium, to the termination of their lives, all animals undergo perpetual transformations; which are in part produced by their own exertions in consequence of their desires and aversions, of their pleasures and their pains, or of irritations, or of associations; and many of these acquired forms or propensities are transmitted to their posterity."[5] This statement was similar to Lamarck's ideas on evolution.[6]

Darwin advocated a hypothesis of pangenesis in the third edition of Zoonomia.[7]


  1. ^ Gillispie, Charles Coulston (1960). The Edge of Objectivity: An Essay in the History of Scientific Ideas. Princeton University Press. p. 306. ISBN 0-691-02350-6.
  2. ^ Wu, Duncan (2003). Wordsworth: An Inner Life. Wiley-Blackwell. pp. 97–98. ISBN 1-4051-1369-3. See also: Averill, james. (1978). "Wordsworth and 'Natural Science': The Poetry of 1798." Journal of English and Germanic Philology. 77(2). 232–46.
  3. ^ Zoonomia Sect 39.4.8 of Generation
  4. ^ Zoonomia
  5. ^ Darwin, Erasmus (1803). Zoonomia. Boston: D. Carlisle. p. 349.
  6. ^ Zirkle, Conway. (1935). The Inheritance of Acquired Characters and the Provisional Hypothesis of Pangenesis. The American Naturalist 69: 417-445.
  7. ^ Deichmann, Ute. (2010). Darwinism, Philosophy, and Experimental Biology. Springer. p. 42. ISBN 978-90-481-9901-3 "Among the other authors were Buffon, who proposes "organic molecules" with affinities to various organs, and, in particular, Erasmus Darwin, who in 1801 anticipated his grandson's concept of pangenesis, suggesting that small particles were given off by parts of the bodies of both parents; and that they are circulated in the blood, ending in the sexual organs from where they could be combined during reproduction in order to form the nucleus of an offspring."

Further reading[edit]

  • James Harrison. (1971). Erasmus Darwin's View of Evolution. Journal of the History of Ideas 32 (2): 247-264.
  • Christopher Smith; Upham Murray; Robert Arnott, eds. (2005). The Genius of Erasmus Darwin. Ashgate Publishing. ISBN 0-7546-3671-2.

External links[edit]