Natural Selection of a Member of Parliament

The line of descent from Erasmus Darwin is illuminated by many bright minds, some recognised and remembered, others unknown and forgotten. His children and their children's children provide rewarding research.

Long remembered and recognised is grandson Charles, born in 1809 and died in 1882. He was the naturalist who revolutionised biological theory by propounding the idea of evolution based on natural selection. His views were formed after comprehensive observation of fossils, diverse plant and animal life, and can be seen as a development of his grandfather's question "... would it be too bold to imagine that all warm-blooded animals have arisen from one living filament ...". In the book "The Descent of Man" his evolutionary theories were applied to all human origins, conflicting with long-held opinions on the creation of the world. Controversy continues to shake what some regard as the certainty of his convictions.

Sir Francis Gallon (1822-1911), cousin of Charles, is said to have inherited more of his grandfather's characteristics than any of his other decendents and is remembered as an explorer and a scientist - especially for his investigations into meteorology, finger printing and heredity. This latter interest led to his founding and endowing the study of eugenics - the study of 'race improvement'. The misapplication and elaboration of the idea that many of the most satisfactory attributes of mankind, including intelligence and resistance to disease, were genetically determined has acquired discredit and disrepute as theory and speculation have led to eugenics being associated with oppressive political regimes.

To those living in Lichfield the fourth son of Charles is of particular interest. Leonard Darwin was born in 1850 and was educated at the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich. In 1871 he joined the Royal Engineers, retiring in 1890 with the rank of Major. During his military career he served on several expeditions including the observation of the transit of Venus in 1874 and 1882. This is a rare event when the planet passes between the sun and earth twice in eight years and then not again for over one hundred years. It was in 1882 that, as a Liberal Unionist, he became the Member of Parliament for the Lichfield Division of Staffordshire - during Gladstone's fourth administration. His parliamentary career ended in 1895 when he lost his seat, failing to regain it again in 1896.

From 1908 to 1911 Major Darwin was President of the Royal Geographical Society and in 1911 he became President of the Eugenics Education Society which had been founded in 1907 by Sir Francis Gallon. Reading his address, given to that society in 1921 under the heading of "the Aims of Eugenics", one is left in no doubt about the strength with which he held views which have since been seen to inspire dogmatic distortions beyond his, or others, expectations. One is impressed by his insistence on the care needed and the difficulties to be faced if those views were to be exercised through legislation. This fails to influence the views of those who have long rehearsed the nature/nurture debate and who have concluded that once born the inherited characteristics are responsive to modification and that euthenics, the study of improving human functioning, condition and well being by adjustment of the environment, is more inspiring. Leonard Darwin died in 1943.

Ivor Mitchell
June 2004