Points glued to points

1 May 2006

With thirty minutes left in National Poetry Month (at least here in PDT), I thought I'd join the ranks of Afarensis, Science & Politics, Stranger Fruit, (and many others) and post some verse here at microecos.

It comes from the first Canto of a book-length poem by Erasmus Darwin (Chuck's grandpa) entitled The Temple of Nature Or, the Origin of Society.

"IN earth, sea, air, around, below, above,

Life's subtle woof in Nature's loom is wove;

Points glued to points a living line extends,

Touch'd by some goad approach the bending ends;

Rings join to rings, and irritated tubes

Clasp with young lips the nutrient globes or cubes;

And urged by appetencies new select,

Imbibe, retain, digest, secrete, eject.

In branching cones the living web expands,

Lymphatic ducts, and convoluted glands;

tubes propel the nascent blood,

And lengthening veins absorb the refluent flood;

Leaves, lungs, and gills, the vital ether breathe

On earth's green surface, or the waves beneath.

Not only is Erasmus weaving an essentially "modern" narrative of evolutionary history (and Darwin regards human history as simply an ornate footnote to this narrative as the poem's subtitle suggests), but in these lines he also anticipates two orthographic models of the biosphere still very much in use. And, of course, he is doing all of this in 1802, almost sixty years before the publication of "The Origin".

The first construct Darwin introduces is a "living web", a term you could drop verbatim in any contemporary ecology class without raising any eyebrows. Of course, if you started talking about woof woven in Nature's loom you might start drawing some puzzed looks.

More interestingly the poet grows these lifewebs from "branching cones". Erasmus quickly nudges this "branching cone" network into morphic resonance with a lyrical description of a dendritic circulatory system. However, he's also playing with the idea of a nested heirarchy, very akin to the one his grandson would diagram several decades later:

The only illustration from The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin(1859).

At least, I think he is. Throughout the poem Erasmus twists meanings like so many rubik'ses and cheerily leaps between Christianity, Deism, Greek philosophy, natural history, natural theology, and any other intellectual tradition he feels inclined to borrow from, probably fabricating much along the way too.

It's amusing to note that the Wedgwood-Darwin-Galton family "tree" is decidedly webby, due to the Darwinian custom of cousin-marriage:


I'd love to post the entire poem but April is already out like a "half-reasoning beaver".

Awesomely, UPenn has the whole thing here. Thanks to Nick and Lydia for getting me thinking about Erasmus this morning!

Post script: Of course we evolutionists aren't the only ones with fancy diagrams, check out this doozy by the always amusing AiG crowd, and watch out, they've got powerpoint too!

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