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Erasmus Darwin, Herbert Spencer, and the Origins of the Evolutionary Worldview in British Provincial Scientific Culture, 1770–1850

Paul Elliott
Isis
Vol. 94, No. 1 (March 2003), pp. 1-29
DOI: 10.1086/376097
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/376097
Page Count: 29
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Erasmus Darwin, Herbert Spencer, and the Origins of the Evolutionary Worldview in British Provincial Scientific Culture, 1770–1850
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Abstract

Abstract The significance of Herbert Spencer’s evolutionary philosophy has been generally recognized for over a century, as the familiarity of his phrase “survival of the fittest” indicates, yet accounts of the origins of his system still tend to follow too closely his own description, written many decades later. This essay argues that Spencer’s own interpretation of his intellectual development gives an inadequate impression of the debt he owed to provincial scientific culture and its institutions. Most important, it shows that his evolutionism was originally stimulated by his association with the Derby philosophical community, for it was through this group—of which his father, who also appears to have espoused a deistic evolutionary theory, was a member—that he was first exposed to progressive Enlightenment social and educational philosophies and to the evolutionary worldview of Erasmus Darwin, the first president of the Derby Philosophical Society. Darwin’s scheme was the first to incorporate biological evolution, associationist psychology, evolutionary geology, and cosmological developmentalism. Spencer’s own implicit denials of the link with Darwin are shown to be implausible in the face of Darwin’s continuing influence on the Derby savants, the product of insecurity in his later years when he feared for his reputation as Lamarckism became increasingly untenable.

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