[Zoonomia title page]

Erasmus Darwin, 1803

Zoonomia; or,
the laws of organic life

Volume 1

Boston, Thomas and Andrews

[Second American Edition, from the Third London Edition, corrected by the Author]

Notes: I have chosen to present a long quotation because Zoonomia is not widely available. Evolution is the theme of this passage and the age of the earth is perceived as “millions of ages.” The struggle for existence is present in Erasmus Darwin's description of plants striving for light and air. The term “filament” may seem vague; keep in mind that the cell theory of Schleiden and Schwann, that all living organisms are composed of cells and cells are the basic building blocks of tissues, dates from 1838-39. Self-improvement, inheritance of acquired improvements, and progress are also themes of this passage.

Pages 392-401

     “6. From this account of reproduction it appears, that all animals have a similar origin, viz. from a single living filament; and that the difference of their forms and qualities has arisen only from the different irritabilities and sensibilities, or voluntarities, or associabilities, of this original living filament; and perhaps in some degree from the different forms of the particles of the fluids, by which it has been first stimulated into activity. And that from hence, as Linnæus has conjectured in respect to the vegetable world, it is not impossible, but the great variety of species of animals, which now tenant the earth, may have had their origin from the mixture of a few natural orders. And that those animal and vegetable mules, which could continue their species, have done so, and constitute the numerous families of animals and vegetables which now exist; and that those mules, which were produced with imperfect organs of generation, perished without reproduction, according to the observation of Aristotle; and are the animals, which we now call mules. See Botanic Garden, Part II. Note on Dianthus.

     “Such a promiscuous intercourse of animals is said to exist at this day in New South Wales by Captain Hunter. And that not only amongst the quadrupeds and birds of different kinds, but even amongst the fish, and, as he believes, amongst the vegetables. He speaks of an animal between the opossum and [393] the kangaroo, from the size of a sheep to that of a rat. Many fish seemed to partake of the shark; some with a skait's head and shoulders, and the hind part of a shark; others with a shark's head and the body of a mullet; and some with a shark's head and the flat body of a sting-ray. Many birds partake of the parrot; some have the head, neck, and bill of a parrot, with long straight feet and legs; others with legs and feet of a parrot with head and neck of a sea-gull. Voyage To South Wales by Captain John Hunter, p. 68.

     “7. All animals therefore, I contend, have a similar cause of their organization, originating from a single living filament, endued indeed with different kinds of irritabilities and sensibilities, or of animal appetencies; which exist in every gland, and in every moving organ of the body, and are as essential to living organization as chemical affinities are to certain combinations of inanimate matter.

    “If I might be indulged to make a simile in a philosophical work, I should say, that the animal appetencies, are not only perhaps less numerous originally than the chemical affinities; but that like these latter, they change with every new combination; thus vital air and azote, when combined, produce nitrous acid; which now acquires the property of dissolving silver; so with every new additional part to the embryon, as of the throat or lungs, I suppose a new animal appetency to be produced.

     “In this early formation of the embryon from the irritabilities, sensibilities, and associabilities, and consequent appetencies, the faculty of volition can scarcely be supposed to have had its birth. For about what can the fetus deliberate when it has no choice of objects? But in the more advanced state of the fetus, it evidently possesses volition; as it frequently changes its attitude, though it seems to sleep the greatest part of its time; and afterwards the power of volition contributes to change or alter many parts of the body during its growth to manhood, by our early modes of exertion in the various departments of life. All these faculties then constitute the vis fabricatrix, and the vis conservatrix, as well as the vis medicatrix of nature, so much spoken of, but so little understood by philosophers.

     “8. When we revolve in our minds, first, the great changes, which we see naturally produced in animals after their nativity, as in the production of the butterfly with painted wings from the crawling caterpillar; or of the respiring frog from the subnatant tadpole; from the feminine boy to the bearded man, and from the infant girl to the lactescent woman; both which changes may be prevented by certain mutilations of the glands necessary to reproduction.

     “Secondly, when we think over the great changes introduced into various animals by artificial or accidental cultivation, as in horses, which we have exercised for the different purposes of strength or swiftness, in carrying burthens or in running races; or in dogs, which have been cultivated for strength and courage, as the bulldog; or for acuteness of his sense of smell, as the hound and spaniel; or for the swiftness of his foot, as the greyhound; or for his swimming in the water, or for drawing snow sledges, as the rough-haired dogs of the north; or lastly, as a play-dog for children, as the lap-dog; with the changes of the forms of the cattle, which have been domesticated from the greatest antiquity, as camels, and sheep; which have undergone so total a transformation, that we are now ignorant from what species of wild animals they had their origin. Add to these the great changes of shape and colour, which we daily see produced in similar animals from our domestication of them, as rabbits, or pigeons; or from the difference of climates and even of seasons; thus the sheep of warm climates are covered with hear instead of wool; and the hares and partridges of the latitudes, which are long buried in snow, become white during the winter months; add to these the various changes produced in the forms of mankind,by their early modes of exertion; or by the diseases occasioned by their habits of life; both of which became hereditary, and that through many generations. Those who labour at the anvil, the oar, or the loom, as well as those who carry sedan-chairs, or who have been educated to dance upon the rope, are distinguishable by the shape of their limbs; and the diseases occasioned by intoxication deform the countenance with leprous eruptions, or the body with tumid viscera, or the joints with knots and distortions.

     “Thirdly, when we enumerate the great changes produced in the species of animals before their nativity; these are such as resemble the form or colour of their parents, which have been altered by the cultivation or accidents above related, and are thus continued to their posterity. Or they are changes produced by the mixture of species as in mules; or changes produced probably by the exuberance of nourishment suppled to the fetus, as in monstrous births with additional limbs; many of these enormities of shape are propagated, and continued as a variety at least, if not as a new species of animal. I have seen a breed of cats with an additional claw on every foot; of poultry also with an additional claw, and with wings to their feet; and of others without rumps. Mr Buffon mentions a breed of dogs without tails, which are common at Rome and at Naples, which he supposes to have been produced by a custom long established of cutting thier tails close off. There are many kinds of pigeons [395] admired for their peculiarities, which are monsters thus produced and propagated. And to these must be added, the changes produced by the imagination of the male parent, as will be treated of more at large in No. VI. of this Section.

     “When we consider all these changes of animal form, and innumerable others, which may be collected from the books of natural history; we cannot but be convinced, that the fetus or embryon is formed by apposition of new parts, and not by the distention of a primordial nest of germes, included one within another, like the cups of a conjurer.

     “Fourthly, when we revolve in our minds the great similarity of structure which obtains in all the warm blooded animals, as well quadrupeds, birds, and amphibious animals, as in mankind; from the mouse and bat to the elephant and whale; one is led to conclude, that they have alike been produced from a similar living filament. In some this filament in its advance to maturity has acquired hands and fingers, with a fine sense of touch, as in mankind. In others it has acquired claws or talons, as in tygers and eagles. In others, toes with an intervening web, or membrane, as in seals and geese. In others it has acquired cloven hoofs, as in cows and swine; and whole hoofs in others, as in the horse. While in the bird kind this original living filament has put forth wings instead of arms and legs, and feathers instead of hair. In some it has protruded horns on the forehead instead of teeth in the fore part of the upper jaw; in others tushes instead of horns; in others beaks instead of either. And all this exactly as is daily seen in the transmutations of the tadpole, which acquires legs and lungs, when he wants them; and loses his tail, when it is no longer of service to him.

     “Fifthly, from 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. See Sect. XXXI. 1.

     “As air and water are supplied to animals in sufficient profusion, the three great objects of desire, which have changed the forms of many animals by their exertions to gratify them, are those of lust, hunger, and security. A great want of one part of the animal world has consisted in the desire of the exclusive possession of the females; and these have acquired weapons to combat each other for this purpose, as the very thick, shield-like, horny skin on the shoulder of the boar is a defence only against [396] animals of his own species, who strike obliquely upwards, nor are his tushes for other purposes, except to defend himself as he is not naturally a carnivorous animal. So the horns of the stage are sharp to offend his adversary, but are branched for the purpose of parrying or receiving the thrusts of horns similar to his own, and have therefore been formed for the purpose of combatting other stags for the exclusive possession of the females; who are observed, like the ladies in times of chivalry, to attend the car of the victor.

     “The birds, which do not carry food to their young, and do not therefore marry, are armed with spurs for the purpose of fighting for the exclusive possession of the females, as cocks and quails. It is certain that these weapons are not provided for their defence against other adversaries, because the females of these species are without this armour. The final cause of this contest amongst the males seems to be, that the strongest and most active animal should propagate the species, which should thence become improved.

     “Another great want consists in the means of procuring food, which has diversified the forms of all species of animals. Thus the nose of the swine has become hard for the purpose of turning up the soil in search of insects and of roots. The trunk of the elephant is an elongation of the nose for the purpose of pulling down the branches of trees for his food, and for taking up water without bending his knees. Beasts of prey have acquired strong jaws or talons. Cattle have acquired a rough tongue and a rough palate to pull off the blades of grass, as cows and sheep. Some birds have acquired harder beaks to crack nuts, as the parrot. Others have acquired beaks adapted to break the harder feeds, as sparrows. Others for the softer seeds of flowers, or the buds of trees, as the finches. Other birds have acquired long beaks to penetrate the moister soils in search of insects or roots, as woodcocks; and others broad ones to filtrate the water of lakes, and to retain aquatic insects, as ducks. All which seem to have been gradually produced during many generations by the perpetual endeavor of the creatures to supply the want of food, and to have been delivered to their posterity with constant improvement of them for the purposes required.

     “The third great want amongst animals is that of security, which seems much to have diversified the forms of their bodies and colour of them; these consist in the means of escaping other animals more powerful than themselves. Hence some animals have acquired wings instead of legs, as the smaller birds, for the purpose of escape. Others great length of fin, or of membrane, as the flying fish, and the bat. Other great swiftness [397] of foot, as the hare. Others have acquired hard or armed shells, as the tortoise and the echinus marinus.

     “Mr. Osbeck, a pupil of Linnæus, mentions the American frog-fish, lophius histrio, which inhabits the large floating islands of sea-weed about the Cape of Good Hope, and has fulcra resembling leaves, that the fishes of prey mistake it for the sea-weed, which it inhabits. Voyage to China, p. 113.

     “The contrivances for the purposes of security extend even to vegetables, as is seen in the wonderful and various means of their concealing or defending their honey from insects, and their seeds from birds. On the other hand swiftness of wing has been acquired by hawks and swallows to pursue their prey; and a proboscis of admirable structure has been acquired by the bee, the moth, and the humming bird, for the purpose of plundering the nectaries of flowers. All which seem to have been formed by the original living filament, excited into action by the necessities of the creatures, which possess them, and on which their existence depends.

     “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 portion 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 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?

     “Sixthly, The cold-blooded animals, as the fish-tribes, which are furnished with but one ventricle of the heart, and with gills instead of lungs, and with fins instead of feet or wings, bear a great similarity to each other; but they differ, nevertheless, so much in their general structure from warm-blooded animals, that it may not seem probable at first view, that the same living filament could have given origin to this kingdom of animals, as to the former. Yet are there some creatures, which unite or partake of both these orders of animation, as the whales and seals; and more particularly the frog, who changes from an aquatic animal furnished with gills to an aerial one furnished with lungs.

     “The numerous tribes of insects without wings, from the spider to the scorpion, from the flea to the lobster; or with wings, from the gnat and the ant to the wasp and the dragon-fly, differ so totally from each other, and from the red-blooded classes above described, both in the forms of their bodies, and their modes of life; besides the organ of sense, which they seem to possess in their antennae or horns, to which it has been thought by some naturalists, that other creatures have nothing similar; that it can scarcely be supposed that this nation of animals could have been produced by the same kind of living filament, as the red-blooded classes above mentioned. And yet the changes which many of them undergo in their early state to that of their maturity, are as different, as one animal can be from another. As those of the gnat, which passes his early state in water, and then stretching out his new wings, and expanding his new lungs, rises in the air; as of the caterpillar and bee-nymph, which feed on vegetable leaves or farina, and at length bursting from their self-formed graves, become beautiful winged inhabitants of the skies, journeying from flower to flower, and nourished by the ambrosial food of honey.

     “There is still another class of animals, which are termed vermes by Linnæus, which are without feet, or brain, and are hermaphrodites, as worms, leeches, snails, shell-fish, coralline insects, and sponges; which possess the simplest structure of all animals, and appear totally different from those already described. The simplicity of their structure, however, can afford no argument against thier having been produced from a living filament as above contended.

     “Last of all the various tribes of vegetables are to be enumerated amongst the inferior orders of animals. Of these the anthers and stigmas have already been shown to possess some organs of sense, to be nourished by honey, and to have the power of generation like insects, and have thence been announced amongst the animal kingdom in Sect. XIII. and to these must be added the buds and bulbs which constitute the viviparous offspring of vegetation. The former I suppose to be beholden to a single living filament for their seminal or amatorial procreation; and the latter to the same cause for their lateral or branching generation, which they possess in common with the polypus, taenia, and volvox; and the simplicity of which is an argument in favour of the similarity of its cause.

     “Linnæus supposes, in the Introduction to his Natural Orders, that very few vegetables were at first created, and that their numbers were increased by their intermarriages, and adds, suadent haec Creatoris leges a simplicibus ad composita. Many [399] other changes seem to have arisen in them by their perpetual contest for light and air above ground, and for food or moisture beneath the soil. As noted in Botanic Garden, Part II. Note on Cuscuta. Other changes of vegetables from climate, or other causes, are remarked in the Note on Curcuma in the same work. From these one might be led to imagine, that each plant at first consisted of a single bulb or flower to each root, as the gentianella and daisy; and that in the contest for air and light new buds grew on the old decaying flower stem, shooting down their elongated roots to the ground, and that in process of ages tall trees were thus formed, and an individual bulb became a swarm of vegetables. Other plants, which in this contest for light and air were too slender to rise by their own strength, learned by degrees to adhere to their neighbors, either by putting forth roots like the ivy, or by tendrils like the vine, or by spiral contortions like the honey-suckle; or by growing upon them like the misleto, and taking nourishment from their barks; or by lodging or adhering on them, and deriving nourishment from the air, as tillandsia.

     “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; and many families of these animals long before other families of them, shall we conjecture that one and the same kind of living filaments is and has been the cause of all organic life?

     “If this gradual production of the species and genera of animals be assented to, a contrary circumstance may be supposed to have occurred, namely, that some kinds by the great changes of the elements may have been destroyed. This idea is shewn to our senses by contemplating the petrifactions of shells, and of vegetables, which may be said, like busts and medals, to record the history of remote times. Of the myriads of belemnites, cornua ammonis, and numerous other petrified shells, which are fond in the masses of lime-stone, which have been produced by them, none now are ever found in our seas, or in the seas of other parts of the world, according to the observations of many naturalists. Some of whom have imagined, that most of the inhabitants of the sea and earth of very remote times are now extinct; as they scarcely admit, that a single fossil shell bears a strict similitude to any recent ones, and that the vegetable impressions or petrifactions found in iron-ores, clay, or sandstone, of which there are many of the fern kind, are not similar to any [400] plants of this country, nor accurately correspond with those of other climates, which is an argument countenancing the changes in the forms, both of animals and vegetables, during the progressive structure of the globe, which we inhabit. See Townson's Philos. of Mineralogy, p. 110.

     “This idea of the gradual formation and improvement of the animal world accords with the observations of some modern philosophers, who have supposed that the continent of America has been raised out of the ocean at a later period of time than the other three quarters of the globe, which they deduce from the greater comparative heights of its mountains, and the consequent greater coldness of its respective climates, and from the less size and strength of its animals, as the tygers and allegators compared with those of Asia and Africa. And lastly, from the less progress in the improvements of the mind of its inhabitants in respect to voluntary exertions.

     “This idea of the gradual formation and improvement of the animal world seems not to have been unknown to the ancient philosophers. Plato having probably observed the reciprocal generation of inferior animals, as snails and worms, was of opinion, that mankind with all other animals were originally hermaphrodites during the infancy of the world, and were in process of time separated into male and female. The breasts and teats of all male quadrupeds, to which no use can now be assigned, adds perhaps some shadow of probability to this opinion. Linnæs excepts the horse from the male quadrupeds, who have teats; which might have shewn the earlier origin of his existence; but Mr. J. Hunter asserts, that he has discovered the vestiges of them on his sheath, and has at the same time enriched natural history with a very curious fact concerning the male pigeon; at the time of hatching the eggs both male and female pigeon undergo a great change in their crops; which thicken and become corrugated, and secrete a kind of milky fluid, which coagulates, and with which alone they for a few days feed their young, and afterwards feed them with this coagulated fluid mixed with other food. How this resembles the breasts of female quadrupeds after the production of their young! and how extraordinary, that the male should at this time give milk as well as the female! See Botanic Garden, Part II. Note on Curcuma.

     “The late Mr. David Hume, in his posthumous works, places the powers of generation much above those of our boasted reason; and adds, that reason can only make a machine, as a clock or a ship, but the power of generation makes the maker of the machine; and probably from having observed, that the greatest [401] part of the earth has been formed out of organic recrements; as the immense beds of limestone, chalk, marble, from the shells of fish; and the extensive provinces of clay, sandstone, ironstone, coals, from decomposed vegetables; all which have been first produced by generation, or by the secretions or organic life; he concludes that the world itself might have been generated, rather than created; that is, it might have been gradually produced from very small beginnings, increasing by the activity of its inherent principles, rather than by a sudden evolution of the whole by Almighty fiat.—What a magnificent idea of the infinite power of THE GREAT ARCHITECT! THE CAUSE OF CAUSES! PARENT OF PARENTS! ENS ENTIUM!

     “For if we may compare infinities, it would seem to require a greater infinity of power to cause the causes of effects, than to cause the effects themselves. This idea is analogous to the improving excellence observable in every part of the creation; such as in the progressive increase of the solid or habitable parts of the earth from water; and in the progressive increase of the wisdom and happiness of its inhabitants; and is consonant to the idea of our present situation being a state of probation, which by our exertions we may improve, and are consequently responsible for our actions.”

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