All from fibres: Erasmus Darwin's neuroscience

Chris U.M. SMITH
Zürich, Switzerland


Erasmus Darwin was a major figure in the medico-scientific world of mid to late eighteenth century England. He died on April 18 1802 and hence 2002 is his bicentenary. Trained in medicine at Cambridge and Edinburgh his medico-scientific interests were extensive. In his last publication, The Temple of Nature (1803), he developed an evolution theory which closely resembles, though predating, that of Lamarck. In the Zoonomia (1794; 1796) he outlines a neuropsychology which has resonances with that of Haller, Boerhaave and Julien Offray de la Mettrie. Like his more famous grandson he was concerned to develop an over-arching theory to account for his wide-ranging observations,in his case of medical practice. Like Boerhaave and la Mettrie, but unlike his more sensible grandson, he was part of that Western intellectual tradition engaged in the mind-brain debate. In his endeavour to distance himself both from the hydraulics of the Cartesians and the Newtonian vibrationism of David Hartley he developed a neuropsychology based on an elementary unit that, in his theory, is a 'living fibre'. He uses this concept to account not only for motor outflow but also, and more interestingly, for sensation, perception and mentation. In his attempted unification of psychology and physiology he has been regarded as one of the founders of psychosomatic medicine. In this paper I shall discuss his neuropsychology and compare it with the other psychophysiologies of the eighteenth century. How original is Darwin's thought? Has it exerted any influence on subsequent neuroscience?


Session I -- Mind, Brain and Consciousness
Sunday, 2 June 2002, 9:45 am

Seventh Annual Meeting of the International Society for the History of the Neurosciences (ISHN)

Los Angeles, California, USA