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Poet of progress: serendipity and the search for Erasmus Darwin

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A champion of Enlightenment progress, Erasmus Darwin also became a target of abuse. Energetic and sociable, this corpulent teetotaller ran a successful medical practice, was a Fellow of the Royal Society and a key member of the Lunar Society. Famous for his long poems on plants, technology and evolution, Darwin envisaged a progressive universe that is fuelled by sexual energy and governed by natural laws rather than directly by God. I relate him to two contemporary poets, Richard Payne Knight and William Jones, who were also committed to the notion of progress but are now better known as (respectively) a theorist of landscape and a pioneer of linguistics. Through considering the satirical poem ‘The Loves of the Triangles’ (1798), I interpret Darwin as a more significant political figurehead than historians have hitherto recognised. Focussing on this aspect of his influence suggests a fresh interpretation of the Lunar Society as a forum for social reform as much as for industrial innovation.

This talk is part of the Departmental Seminars in History and Philosophy of Science series.

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