Erasmus Darwins in 19th century Massachusetts

When I was doing research in Ashfield Massachusetts in 2009-ish, I transcribed the Vital Records of the town onto 3x5 note-cards. It struck me as odd, how many people were given the name Darwin, especially since the birth records end at 1849. In all, six children were named “Darwin” or “Erasmus Darwin” between 1803 and 1847. Erasmus Darwin was Charles Darwin’s grandfather. He lived from 1730-1802, and was a prominent physician, poet, inventor, friend of Benjamin Franklin, and proponent of evolution by natural selection.

That’s right. Erasmus Darwin came up with the idea that all life on earth was descended from a single microscopic ancestor in 1770. In 1796, he published the first volume of his
Zoonomia, which was heralded as the Principia of the medical profession and which discusses his ideas on evolution. And in 1803, Darwin’s posthumous poem The Temple of Nature elaborated his position even more explicitly. Erasmus Darwin also founded Birmingham’s Lunar Society, translated Linnaeus, and was a member of the Royal Society, the Linnean Society, and the American Philosophical Society. When his grandson Charles published On the Origin of Species, his critics thought they’d be able to silence him by quoting verbatim from tracts written against his grandfather’s theories.

Erasmus Darwin never visited America, and although he was a political radical and a supporter of American independence (and critic of the Pitt government’s repressions in the 1790s), After all, the town's famous freethinker, Dr. Charles Knowlton, didn't arrive in Ashfield until 1830. The first of the seven children apparently named after the author were Erasmus Darwin Clary (born 12/4/1903) and Darwin Dwight Sears, (born 8/11/1818). I was quite surprised that Darwin was so well-known in a remote western-Massachusetts hill-town like Ashfield. But it turns out Ashfield wasn't as unique as I supposed. Looking a little farther, I found there are sixty-three towns in Massachusetts where children were apparently named after Darwin before 1849! I also found 96 towns where there is no record of a child named “Erasmus” or “Darwin” in the
Vital Records. (these two groups represent all the Massachusetts towns whose records I was able to find online)

It’s possible that a few of the children named “Erasmus” may have been named for the fifteenth-century humanist, or for remote family members (close ones would have showed up in the same records I was searching). But I think most of them were named for the scientist, especially because in most cases they’re actually named “Erasmus Darwin” rather than simply "Erasmus" or Darwin" separately. Similarly, there is no record of “Darwin” being a common family surname in these Massachusetts towns, and Charles Darwin’s only significant publication before 1849 was his
The Zoology of the Voyage of H.M.S. Beagle, published in 5 parts, 1838-1843. Charles Darwin's big book, On the Origin of Species, didn't come out until 1859.

In all, I found 112 children named “Erasmus,” “Erasmus Darwin,” “Darwin,” or, in a couple of cases, “Erastus Darwin.” But this initial search of
Vital Record books available online missed 187 towns, whose records were not yet available electronically. So the odds are high that there are many more Erasmus Darwins I haven’t yet discovered!

As bizarre as the mere fact of all these young Darwins in early nineteenth-century Massachusetts towns, is where the towns were. If people were going to be naming their children after a British scientist (obscure or famous), you’d expect them to live in cities, close to institutions of higher learning like Harvard, wouldn’t you? Well, you’d be dead wrong.

Most of the people naming their children after Darwin lived in central or western Massachusetts. I found most of them in Worcester, Hampshire, and Franklin Counties. Though they weren’t completely absent from the Boston area, there were more towns close to the coast
without a Darwin than with one. The towns marked in green on this map have at least one “Darwin.” Several have more than one. Two, Ashfield and Leominster, have six or more.


I started looking into the histories of these towns, to see who these “Darwins” were and, perhaps more important, who their parents were. In looking at the first dozen or so, it seemed that some of them were educated people, ministers or doctors. But others were farmers, shoemakers, and tavern-keepers. The whole thing suggests that people in some of the remotest parts of Massachusetts were thinking about issues and reading books I would never have expected them to be so interested in. It’s a completely different picture of the intellectual life of regular people in the early 19th century than you get in your average American History book!

I was going to try to write little sketches of the lives of some of these people, because I thought they might turn up interesting insights. I didn't get as far as I hoped — maybe I'll go back to that project someday. In the meantime, it's a reminder that there are always surprises out there, waiting to be discovered.

Summerland by Hannu Rajaniemi

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I ordered Hannu Rajaniemi's new SF novel, Summerland pre-release and just finished listening to the unabridged Audible version. The production was fine and the story was fine. But not the mind-bending, idea-laden, richly-drawn epic with complex, relatable characters I was expecting. It's an interesting premise, but Rajaniemi does not elaborate it to the degree he did the world of Jean le Flambeur (one of my favorite characters in recent SF in one of my favorite worlds). There were no surprises.

I'm not saying I'm dissatisfied because it doesn't take place in the same story-world. I'm dissatisfied the story-world isn't as deep, isn't described as thickly, and the conflict seems at times petty and superficial. It's a good story and there may be interesting future twists, if Rajaniemi writes a sequel (but why hold back ideas that would have made this a better read?). The book marketing set the expectation this would be another volume by "one of the most exciting science fiction writers in the last decade" and I don't think it hits the mark. It's as if the Quantum Thief series took a decade to write and this was dashed off in a fortnight. It's more like a Laundry Files novel (complete with irritating British civil service bureaucracy), which although entertaining, in my opinion detracts from the stakes of the conflict. I like the Laundry Files and I liked Summerland. But I was hoping I'd love it.

Audible's easy book returns a big plus

I've got to say I REALLY like Audible. I've been a member since they began, long before Amazon bought them. I was surprised to discover I own over 400 audiobooks. One of the great benefits which I've only taken advantage of recently is that if you start listening to a book and you just hate it, you can return it for a refund.

I've only done that twice, and it's been in the last couple of weeks. First, I returned an Iain Banks novel (The Algebraist) because it began with an overly long gratuitous scene of torture. Maybe in a print book I would have simply skipped over it. In an audio it was just too obnoxious. The second book, which I just returned today after listening to a little over a chapter, was Jordan B. Peterson's 12 Rules for Life. In addition to being just a bit too religious in my opinion for a book by a psychoanalyst, it was written like a series of blog posts (although I did enjoy the part about the lobsters). When I got to the second long laundry list of analogies (this one for chaos, order, and consciousness) I just couldn't listen any further. Yes, Jordan, I got it. Move on and make a point!

So anyway, they took the books back with no fuss. I bought others to take their place. Everybody's happy.

New Blog for 2018

As you may have noticed on the homepage, I'm resuming blogging and keeping up a website. I've had a blog since the beginnings of blogs around 2000 or so. And I've had a website since not long after that. But then I got busy with other things like finishing my PhD, writing books, running a hobby farm, raising kids. It didn't seem so important to spend time putting my thoughts out on the web, especially when there was social media to allow me to do that with so much less muss and fuss.

Social media turned out to be a nightmare, however, so I dumped it. I pretty much agree with Jaron Lanier, who has been warning for years about the filter bubbles and disruption of value and personal dignity caused by out of control tech empires (see his books You Are Not a Gadget and Who Owns the Future for more on that). He has recently come out with a new book called Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now which I've just listened to on Audible. I had already deleted my facebook and Twitter accounts, so he was pretty much preaching to the choir in my case. However, he makes a cogent case — I may write a review of it soon.

One last note: I'm moving forward from this point without much looking back. I'm not going to scrape through old material and try to post archives of things I've said or blogged about before. If you need to find something old of mine, try the Wayback Machine. Once in a while, I may revisit something I've worked on before. But for the most part I'm going to focus this blog and website on stuff I'm working on now. So, enjoy!