Department of History
University of California, Irvine
 Instructor:    Dr. Barbara J. Becker


Week 6.  Animation

excerpt from
Zoonomia; or, the laws of organic life, vol. I (1803)
by Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802)

6.  From this account of reproduction it appears, that all animals have a similar origin, viz. from a single living filament; and that the difference of their forms and qualities has arisen only from the different irritabilities and sensibilities, or voluntarities, or associabilities, of this original living filament; and perhaps in some degree from the different forms of the particles of the fluids, by which it has been first stimulated into activity.  And that from hence, as Linnæus [Swedish botanist and taxonomist, Carl von Linné (1707-1778)] has conjectured in respect to the vegetable world, it is not impossible, but the great variety of species of animals, which now tenant the earth, may have had their origin from the mixture of a few natural orders.  And that those animal and vegetable mules, which could continue their species, have done so, and constitute the numerous families of animals and vegetables which now exist; and that those mules, which were produced with imperfect organs of generation, perished without reproduction, according to the observation of Aristotle; and are the animals, which we now call mules....

7.  All animals therefore, I contend, have a similar cause of their organization, originating from a single living filament, endued indeed with different kinds of irritabilities and sensibilities, or of animal appetencies; which exist in every gland, and in every moving organ of the body, and are as essential to living organization as chemical affinities are to certain combinations of inanimate matter....

8.  When we revolve in our minds, first, the great changes, which we see naturally produced in animals after their nativity, as in the production of the butterfly with painted wings from the crawling caterpillar; or of the respiring frog from the subnatant tadpole; from the feminine boy to the bearded man, and from the infant girl to the lactescent woman; both which changes may be prevented by certain mutilations of the glands necessary to reproduction.

Secondly, when we think over the great changes introduced into various animals by artificial or accidental cultivation, as in horses, which we have exercised for the different purposes of strength or swiftness, in carrying burthens or in running races; or in dogs, which have been cultivated for strength and courage, as the bulldog; or for acuteness of his sense of smell, as the hound and spaniel; or for the swiftness of his foot, as the greyhound; or for his swimming in the water, or for drawing snow sledges, as the rough-haired dogs of the north; or lastly, as a play-dog for children, as the lap-dog; with the changes of the forms of the cattle, which have been domesticated from the greatest antiquity, as camels, and sheep; which have undergone so total a transformation, that we are now ignorant from what species of wild animals they had their origin.  Add to these the great changes of shape and colour, which we daily see produced in similar animals from our domestication of them, as rabbits, or pigeons; or from the difference of climates and even of seasons; thus the sheep of warm climates are covered with hair instead of wool; and the hares and partridges of the latitudes, which are long buried in snow, become white during the winter months; add to these the various changes produced in the forms of mankind, by their early modes of exertion; or by the diseases occasioned by their habits of life; both of which became hereditary, and that through many generations....

Thirdly, when we enumerate the great changes produced in the species of animals before their nativity; these are such as resemble the form or colour of their parents, which have been altered by the cultivation or accidents above related, and are thus continued to their posterity.  Or they are changes produced by the mixture of species as in mules; or changes produced probably by the exuberance of nourishment supplied to the fetus, as in monstrous births with additional limbs; many of these enormities of shape are propagated, and continued as a variety at least, if not as a new species of animal.  I have seen a breed of cats with an additional claw on every foot; of poultry also with an additional claw, and with wings to their feet; and of others without rumps.  Mr Buffon [French naturalist and philosopher, Georges Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon (1707-1788)] mentions a breed of dogs without tails, which are common at Rome and at Naples, which he supposes to have been produced by a custom long established of cutting their tails close off.  There are many kinds of pigeons admired for their peculiarities, which are monsters thus produced and propagated....

Fourthly, when we revolve in our minds the great similarity of structure which obtains in all the warm blooded animals, as well quadrupeds, birds, and amphibious animals, as in mankind; from the mouse and bat to the elephant and whale; one is led to conclude, that they have alike been produced from a similar living filament.  In some this filament in its advance to maturity has acquired hands and fingers, with a fine sense of touch, as in mankind.  In others it has acquired claws or talons, as in tygers and eagles.  In others, toes with an intervening web, or membrane, as in seals and geese.  In others it has acquired cloven hoofs, as in cows and swine; and whole hoofs in others, as in the horse.  While in the bird kind this original living filament has put forth wings instead of arms and legs, and feathers instead of hair.  In some it has protruded horns on the forehead instead of teeth in the fore part of the upper jaw; in others tushes [tusks] instead of horns; in others beaks instead of either.  And all this exactly as is daily seen in the transmutations of the tadpole, which acquires legs and lungs, when he wants them; and loses his tail, when it is no longer of service to him.

Fifthly, from their first rudiment, or primordium, to the termination of their lives, all animals undergo perpetual transformations; which are in part produced by their own exertions in consequence of their desires and aversions, of their pleasures and their pains, or of irritations, or of associations; and many of these acquired forms or propensities are transmitted to their posterity....

As air and water are supplied to animals in sufficient profusion, the three great objects of desire, which have changed the forms of many animals by their exertions to gratify them, are those of lust, hunger, and security.  A great want of one part of the animal world has consisted in the desire of the exclusive possession of the females; and these have acquired weapons to combat each other for this purpose, as the very thick, shield-like, horny skin on the shoulder of the boar is a defence only against animals of his own species, who strike obliquely upwards, nor are his tushes for other purposes, except to defend himself as he is not naturally a carnivorous animal.  So the horns of the stag are sharp to offend his adversary, but are branched for the purpose of parrying or receiving the thrusts of horns similar to his own, and have therefore been formed for the purpose of combatting other stags for the exclusive possession of the females; who are observed, like the ladies in times of chivalry, to attend the care of the victor.

The birds, which do not carry food to their young, and do not therefore marry, are armed with spurs for the purpose of fighting for the exclusive possession of the females, as cocks and quails.  It is certain that these weapons are not provided for their defence against other adversaries, because the females of these species are without this armour.  The final cause of this contest amongst the males seems to be, that the strongest and most active animal should propagate the species, which should thence become improved.

Another great want consists in the means of procuring food, which has diversified the forms of all species of animals.  Thus the nose of the swine has become hard for the purpose of turning up the soil in search of insects and of roots.  The trunk of the elephant is an elongation of the nose for the purpose of pulling down the branches of trees for his food, and for taking up water without bending his knees. Beasts of prey have acquired strong jaws or talons.  Cattle have acquired a rough tongue and a rough palate to pull off the blades of grass, as cows and sheep.  Some birds have acquired harder beaks to crack nuts, as the parrot.  Others have acquired beaks adapted to break the harder feeds, as sparrows.  Others for the softer seeds of flowers, or the buds of trees, as the finches.  Other birds have acquired long beaks to penetrate the moister soils in search of insects or roots, as woodcocks; and others broad ones to filtrate the water of lakes, and to retain aquatic insects, as ducks.  All which seem to have been gradually produced during many generations by the perpetual endeavour of the creatures to supply the want of food, and to have been delivered to their posterity with constant improvement of them for the purposes required.

The third great want amongst animals is that of security, which seems much to have diversified the forms of their bodies and colour of them; these consist in the means of escaping other animals more powerful than themselves.  Hence some animals have acquired wings instead of legs, as the smaller birds, for the purpose of escape.  Others great length of fin, or of membrane, as the flying fish, and the bat.  Other great swiftness of foot, as the hare.  Others have acquired hard or armed shells, as the tortoise and the echinus marinus....

The contrivances for the purposes of security extend even to vegetables, as is seen in the wonderful and various means of their concealing or defending their honey from insects, and their seeds from birds.  On the other hand swiftness of wing has been acquired by hawks and swallows to pursue their prey; and a proboscis of admirable structure has been acquired by the bee, the moth, and the humming bird, for the purpose of plundering the nectaries of flowers.  All which seem to have been formed by the original living filament, excited into action by the necessities of the creatures, which possess them, and on which their existence depends.

From thus meditating on the great similarity of the structure of the warm-blooded animals, and at the same time of the great changes they undergo both before and after their nativity; and by considering in how minute a portion of time many of the changes of animals above described have been produced; would it be too bold to imagine, that in the great length of time, since the earth began to exist, perhaps millions of ages before the commencement of the history of mankind, would it be too bold to imagine, that all warm-blooded animals have arisen from one living filament, which THE GREAT FIRST CAUSE endued with animality, with the power of acquiring new parts attended with new propensities, directed by irritations, sensations, volitions, and associations; and thus possessing the faculty of continuing to improve by its own inherent activity, and of delivering down those improvements by generation to its posterity, world without end?

Sixthly, The cold-blooded animals, as the fish-tribes, which are furnished with but one ventricle of the heart, and with gills instead of lungs, and with fins instead of feet or wings, bear a great similarity to each other; but they differ, nevertheless, so much in their general structure from warm-blooded animals, that it may not seem probable at first view, that the same living filament could have given origin to this kingdom of animals, as to the former.  Yet are there some creatures, which unite or partake of both these orders of animation, as the whales and seals; and more particularly the frog, who changes from an aquatic animal furnished with gills to an aerial one furnished with lungs.

The numerous tribes of insects without wings, from the spider to the scorpion, from the flea to the lobster; or with wings, from the gnat and the ant to the wasp and the dragon-fly, differ so totally from each other, and from the red-blooded classes above described, both in the forms of their bodies, and their modes of life; besides the organ of sense, which they seem to possess in their antennae or horns, to which it has been thought by some naturalists, that other creatures have nothing similar; that it can scarcely be supposed that this nation of animals could have been produced by the same kind of living filament, as the red-blooded classes above mentioned.  And yet the changes which many of them undergo in their early state to that of their maturity, are as different, as one animal can be from another....

There is still another class of animals, which are termed vermes by Linnæus, which are without feet, or brain, and are hermaphrodites, as worms, leeches, snails, shell-fish, coralline insects, and sponges; which possess the simplest structure of all animals, and appear totally different from those already described.  The simplicity of their structure, however, can afford no argument against thier having been produced from a living filament as above contended.

Last of all the various tribes of vegetables are to be enumerated amongst the inferior orders of animals....

Shall we then say that the vegetable living filament was originally different from that of each tribe of animals above described?  And that the productive living filament of each of those tribes was different originally from the other?  Or, as the earth and ocean were probably peopled with vegetable productions long before the existence of animals; and many families of these animals long before other families of them, shall we conjecture that one and the same kind of living filaments is and has been the cause of all organic life?

If this gradual production of the species and genera of animals be assented to, a contrary circumstance may be supposed to have occurred, namely, that some kinds by the great changes of the elements may have been destroyed.  This idea is shewn to our senses by contemplating the petrifactions of shells, and of vegetables, which may be said, like busts and medals, to record the history of remote times.  Of the myriads of belemnites, cornua ammonis, and numerous other petrified shells, which are found in the masses of lime-stone, which have been produced by them, none now are ever found in our seas, or in the seas of other parts of the world, according to the observations of many naturalists.  Some of whom have imagined, that most of the inhabitants of the sea and earth of very remote times are now extinct; as they scarcely admit, that a single fossil shell bears a strict similitude to any recent ones, and that the vegetable impressions or petrifactions found in iron-ores, clay, or sandstone, of which there are many of the fern kind, are not similar to any plants of this country, nor accurately correspond with those of other climates, which is an argument countenancing the changes in the forms, both of animals and vegetables, during the progressive structure of the globe, which we inhabit....

This idea of the gradual formation and improvement of the animal world accords with the observations of some modern philosophers, who have supposed that the continent of America has been raised out of the ocean at a later period of time than the other three quarters of the globe, which they deduce from the greater comparative heights of its mountains, and the consequent greater coldness of its respective climates, and from the less size and strength of its animals, as the tygers and allegators compared with those of Asia and Africa.  And lastly, from the less progress in the improvements of the mind of its inhabitants in respect to voluntary exertions.

This idea of the gradual formation and improvement of the animal world seems not to have been unknown to the ancient philosophers.  Plato having probably observed the reciprocal generation of inferior animals, as snails and worms, was of opinion, that mankind with all other animals were originally hermaphrodites during the infancy of the world, and were in process of time separated into male and female.  The breasts and teats of all male quadrupeds, to which no use can now be assigned, adds perhaps some shadow of probability to this opinion....

The late Mr. David Hume [Scottish philosopher (1711-1776)], in his posthumous works, places the powers of generation much above those of our boasted reason; and adds, that reason can only make a machine, as a clock or a ship, but the power of generation makes the maker of the machine; and probably from having observed, that the greatest part of the earth has been formed out of organic recrements; as the immense beds of limestone, chalk, marble, from the shells of fish; and the extensive provinces of clay, sandstone, ironstone, coals, from decomposed vegetables; all which have been first produced by generation, or by the secretions or organic life; he concludes that the world itself might have been generated, rather than created; that is, it might have been gradually produced from very small beginnings, increasing by the activity of its inherent principles, rather than by a sudden evolution of the whole by Almighty fiat. -- What a magnificent idea of the infinite power of THE GREAT ARCHITECT!  THE CAUSE OF CAUSES!  PARENT OF PARENTS!  ENS ENTIUM!

For if we may compare infinities, it would seem to require a greater infinity of power to cause the causes of effects, than to cause the effects themselves.  This idea is analogous to the improving excellence observable in every part of the creation; such as in the progressive increase of the solid or habitable parts of the earth from water; and in the progressive increase of the wisdom and happiness of its inhabitants; and is consonant to the idea of our present situation being a state of probation, which by our exertions we may improve, and are consequently responsible for our actions."

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  • "The Sand-man" (1817) by Ernst Theodor Amadeus Hoffmann (1776-1822)
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