Erasmus Darwin, the grandfather of Charles Darwin, was one of those who put forward the first fundamental proposals for what we now refer to as the theory of evolution. According to him, living things were not created as individually distinct species. On the contrary, they were all descended from a common ancestor and were shaped, altered and varied according to their subsequent needs.
His ideas were subsequently adopted by Charles Darwin and set out in greater detail. The theory that living things had descended from one another in a haphazard manner took its place in his grandson’s book, The Origin of Species.
Charles Darwin had received a lengthy religious education. But a year before setting out on his voyage on the Beagle,he definitively abandoned certain fundamental Christian beliefs. By that time, he had developed a passionate interest in biology and the paradigm he observed was incompatible with his religious belief. The most important influence in making the young Charles Darwin non-religious, and even actively hostile to it, was his grandfather Erasmus.118
Erasmus Darwin was actually the first person in Britain to put forward the idea of evolution. A physicist, psychologist and poet, he was someone whose words were listened to with respect. Indeed, according to his biographer, Desmond King-Hele, he was the greatest Briton of the 18th century.119
Erasmus Darwin was also one of Britain’s leading naturalists. (Naturalism is an intellectual movement that believes the essence of the universe lies in nature, that rejects the existence of a Creator, and even regards nature itself as a creator.) Erasmus Darwin’s naturalist outlook gave Charles both an ideological and an organizational direction. Erasmus developed arguments that would later form the basis of Darwinism from his research in his eight-hectare botanical garden and collected these in his books, The Temple of Nature and Zoonomia. In 1784, he also set up a society that would play a leading role in the dissemination of these ideas. In fact, the Philosophical Society would be one of the greatest and most passionate adherents of the concept put forward decades later by Charles Darwin.120
In short, despite the theology that Charles Darwin learned, the most important factor in his turning to materialist-naturalist philosophy—and rapidly rejecting religious beliefs, and subsequently publishing his book The Origin of Species—was his grandfather, Erasmus Darwin.
118 Glen McLean, Roger Oakland, Larry McLean, The Evidence for Creation: Examining The Origin of Planet Earth, Pittsburgh: Full Gospel Bible Institute, Whitaker House, 1989, p. 94.
119 Desmond King-Hele, Doctor of Revolution: The Life and Times of Erasmus Darwin, London: Faber & Faber, 1977, p. 361.
120 William R. Denslow, 10,000 Famous Freemasons, Vol. I. Richmond: Macoy Publishing & Masonic Supply Co., 1957, p. 285.