The Cycle of Life:
An History of Experimental Ecology

Sterling Memorial
Kline Sciences
Medical Historical
Exhibit Map

Erasmus Darwin, The Botanic Garden, 1791

In The Botanic Garden, Erasmus Darwin drew on the Rosicrucian doctrine of Gnomes, Sylphs Nymphs, and Salamanders to write a poem on contemporary natural philosophy. In the text of the poem, he combined Ancient philosophy and Enlightenment sensibilities, all wrapped in deliciously and dangerously sensual and sexual language. It is the subtext that we find Darwin’s poem is a brilliant synthesis of the above with the new sciences:

In Gnomes, Darwin writes:

“You! whose fine fingers fill the organic cells,
With virgin earth, of woods and bones and shells;
Mould with retractile glue their spongy beds,
And stretch and strengthen all their fibre threads.”

and explains in a footnote that “Mould with retractile glue” refers to the belief that the constituent parts of animal fibres are made of earth and gluten, which are separated only by long putrefaction or by fire. He refers his readers to Antoine Lavoisier’s work on “the chemical composition of animal and vegetable bodies.”

An example of how Erasmus Darwin and his generation understood the “cycle of life” lies in the stanza:

“Late when the mass obeys its changeful doom,
and sinks to earth, cradle and its tomb,
Gnomes! with nice eye the flow solution watch,
With fostering hand the parting atoms catch,
Join in new forms, combine with life and sense,
And guide and guard the transmigrating Ens.”

“The transmigrating Ens.” Darwin explains, refers to “the perpetual circulation of matter in the growth and dissolution of vegetable and animal bodies.” Here we find Lavoisier’s new chemistry meets the ancient philosophy of Pythagoras who “supposed that both matter and spirit are equally immortal and unperishable and that on the dissolution of vegetable and animal organization the matter returns to the general mass of matter, and the sprit to the general mass of spirit, to enter again into new combination.”

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Lloyd Ackert
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