11. The Lunar Society 1760-1790

Making regular visits from the Midlands to London and Slaughter’s Coffee House society was the potter Josiah Wedgwood (1730-1795; and see Chapter 9 below). There he usually met up with his friends  Richard Edgeworth (1744-1817: below left), machine inventor and founder of the Royal Irish Academy, and

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Matthew Boulton (1728-1809: above, centre)), steam engine manufacturer and coin maker. These men came from the Black Country, the Staffordshire potteries, as did the big-hearted doctor and polymath Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802; above right). But Darwin hated London, and Slaughter’s in particular, so he avoided all parts of the city except The Royal Society.

This prominent group of entrepreneurs, Jenny Uglow’s Lunar Men,  had new ideas about the meaning of life and they also started new industries in the English Midlands. They met more regularly in Birmingham, at every full moon, necessary to see their own separate ways home. Doing the rounds of his large medical practice acquainted Darwin with the landscape around Litchfield and Derby, allowing him to add to his rich knowledge of animals and plants. In the 1760s a canal company was making Harecastle Tunnel just north of Stoke on Trent to link Merseyside to Birmingham.th

Joseph Wedgwood regularly brought along fossils from the tunnel excavations to meetings of the Lunar Society, hoping that the doctor would be able to identify them: things like the tusks from ice-age mammoths and fern-like leaves from the underlying coal-measures. But these were difficult specimens for anyone to recognize, as they were undescribed and unknown from any living fauna and flora.

One whose work had influenced the Lunar Men was the Paris salonist and writer Denis Diderot (1713-1784) who had written several years before and was only just becoming known in 1770s England. In 1749 Diderot published a novel called A Letter on the Blind for the Use of Those Who See about a blind scientist and an Anglican parson, in which the scientist saw nothing but swirling particles in an empty void. Only those animals survived whose “mechanism was not defective and who were able to support themselves” while the others perished. “Look at me” cried the scientist, “I have no eyes. What have we done, you and I, to God, that one of us has this organ, while the other has not?” He concluded to the parson: “My good friend, confess your ignorance.” This was natural selection in all but name and as a consequence Diderot was imprisoned in Vincennes for writing such an atheist tract.

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In the 1770s Diderot continued to tease the authorities and published The System of Nature which brought together the same arguments which he had discussed many times with his own group of friends, a supposedly atheistic group that met regularly in Rue Royale (above): “Nature … has always been self-existant; it is in her bosom that everything is operated; she is an immense laboratory.” Nevertheless Diderot told a friend: “I believe in God but I live very well with the atheists.” The friend replied: “we are forced to believe that there is in the universe, a substance of different nature, an active being to which movement must be attributed as to the First Cause, a Motor.”  Once again, argument involving ignorance and fear led to violence.

Another strong influence to the Lunar men was Linnaeus, whose work had inspired Erasmus Darwin to think about evolution, or what they then called “transmutation”. Many of their contemporaries sought an explanation of how one species changed into another very similar one, an adaptation to a slightly different kind of life. Erasmus Darwin started to write essays about their ideas, and added a lot of his own, but they were not to be published until 1794. He had not been idle, however, as nine years earlier he published his own classification of 1,444 plants in the 950 page System of Vegetables. In this he acknowledged the help of Joseph Banks and Dr Johnson, but the name of one botanist he knew was conspicuous by its absence: William Withering. They had had a big row.


Withering’s membership of the Lunar Society had always been controversial for he was not one for a good night out with the boys, and that was in part what those evenings were about. Instead Withering was stubborn, jealous and always over-serious. His credentials for joining the group were perfect, as he had compiled the best flora of British plants, nicely named Botanical Arrangements. He had also advised Joseph Banks at the new Kew Botanical Gardens as well as Buffon at the Paris Jardin de Plants. It wasn’t his botany that Darwin disliked, it was his sanctimonious prudery, not to be expected of one eighteenth century doctor by another. For the author’s fear of guiding his readers’ minds into bad territory, the flora had “entirely omitted Linnaeus’ sexual distinctions” and had toned down some of the words the author found offensive. So, for example, instead of “stamen” Withering had used “chive” and instead of “pistil” there was “pointal”.

Erasmus Darwin’s first biographer was his much more down-to-earth neighbour Anna Seward (1742-1809)


who had a mysterious love-hate relationship with her subject. Excitedly she told of when he was in his thirties and went with friends for a picnic by the river Trent they reached “a high state of vinous exhilaration”. Without warning, Erasmus jumped into the river and swam across to Nottinghamshire where a crowd had gathered to encourage him on this dangerous stunt. They were thanked with a flamboyant speech about hot topics of the day, the power of the industrial revolution and keeping in good health. Equally vividly she discussed his stammer and his warts and more tactfully, his women. Polly was his first wife and their son Robert became Charles Darwin’s father. th-8

After Polly’s death Erasmus eventually married Elizabeth. Their son Francis Galton was to become an important scientist in this saga.

Even in his thirties Erasmus Darwin’s fame as a thinker had spread into mainland Europe and in 1766 a philosopher from Geneva, Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) visited him in Derbyshire where they went to Dovedale with David Hume. Rousseau’s novel Emile, about a woman for whom kindness was an extension of self-love, had just been published. The men enjoyed the walk, talking together about whether the conflicts in science and religion might provide a refuge from their narcissism. Tellingly, Rousseau admitted being unsure how to survive in societies where ambitions were corrupted. His novel embedded a message to listen to the metaphors of nature and not just to the directness of reason, a lesson the three men must have enacted as they walked through Dovedale.

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It was a difficult argument for Erasmus to adjudicate, and it must have been hard for him to stop the other two fighting. There was a common and popular argument, then and now, that science was too abstract, removed from feeling, experience and consciousness, difficult for many to connect to directly and even remotely. This made science divisive because so many wanted to understand it, but in vain. It was of the head and not of the heart, and heart was a more central factor in life for many people.

This problem did not exist for most of the early scientists because religion still knit the strands of science together, and most of the Lunar Men followed that path. One such was Joseph Priestley (1733-1804), a Presbyterian minister who spent time teaching the chemistry he loved: “I bless God that I was born a dissenter, not manacled by the chains of so debasing a system as that of the Church of England, and that I was not educated at Oxford or Cambridge”. He was as passionate about God as these established men he was escaping but his religion was based on a similar acceptance of science   hat had inspired Newton. Their faith was strengthened by the realization that it was driven by the forces which were being revealed by science.

Another well-known member of the Lunar Society was the artist Joseph Wright whose famous group paintings of science and industry in action used a theatrical style of focusing light to the main action on the stage.

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He also joined in this fashion of overseas exploration and in 1774 went to his beloved Naples through Paris. His French friends were anticipating a new political order, excited to challenge the rigid central control and to begin living for a new world of art and science. Later, just as Wright arrived in Naples, the volcano erupted, as though to show that Europe was moving out of its quiet decades for a new series of catastrophes in the years ahead.

16. With God, Is Priestley Safe? 1789-1802

The storming of the Bastille in July 1789 was celebrated by the English literati with more than a hint of envy. William Blake wrote: “The fire is falling! Look up! Look up! O citizens of London, enlarge thy countenance.”

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Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote: “No fetter vile the mud shall show, and eloquence shall fearless know.” William Wordsworth supported with his feet and went to Paris. It was a reaction that wasn’t shared by very many and when Joseph Priestley preached support for the progress across the Channel, the Birmingham mob burnt down his house, forcing him to go on the run. But most English men and women had hardly realized there had been a revolution going on just across the English Channel.th-1

Priestley was one who thought deeply about life’s meaning and its process. He had been taught his chemistry in the English provinces during the 1750s when some of the spirits of alchemy were still around yet the Enlightenment spread far enough to have reached the school where he taught and preached. Caught with his allegiances astride these different paradigms, Priestley settled his reputation on the strength of science in general and experimentation in particular, for this could purify God’s ingredients for a better synthesis of reality. He held that his chemistry laboratory produced results with God’s blessing. This was in contrast to Lavoisier’s different view from across the English Channel that scientific experiments just revealed another dimension of nature, from a deeper level for sure, but just adding detail, not a new and different kind of world.

Priestley had uncovered a very different level of knowledge from anything that had been experienced before. One of his experiments measured how long a candle stayed alight inside a bell jar. When he put a mouse inside the same closed system, the flame lasted less time, but with a plant instead the flame burnt longer. The respiring mouse took up more oxygen leaving less for the flame while the green leaves of the plant photosynthesized to produce more oxygen. Within his lifetime Priestley had come a long way, from his teachers’ alchemy which had failed to make any precious elements, to the first outline of cellular biochemistry.

Priestley went away to live the rest of his life in North America to escape the uncertainty in England, where the rigours of the State and the control of the Church were making things so intolerable for him. In England he felt that the monarchy and its hereditary succession prevented him and others from extending the human mission, begun by studying the bible and now being extended by scientific experimentation. It meant that he was fighting the English, where many people questioned the existence of God and others the value of science. The French had been freed of those constraints and they could use science freely. So for Priestley, if this were not the case in England, then he would try America: at least they wouldn’t burn his house down.

Another to envy the French was Coleridge, who like Priestley, had found inspiration from Erasmus Darwin.

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Coleridge and Wordsworth published Lyrical Ballads in 1798, just after the political trouble with Zoonomia from which Darwin never really recovered his earlier reputation. Lyrical Ballads contains some powerful poems including The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, written with a rhythm and story-telling style so familiar in Erasmus Darwin’s poems that it could have been his work. But this 1798 collection marked a new age, the start of the Romantic movement, with shorter and more natural writing. It was to leave precise narrative to the scientists so the poets could get on with what they felt inside themselves. Darwin’s poetry was very eighteenth century, over-formal and very well- mannered. Indeed, from then on Erasmus Darwin really was left behind by Wordsworth and the other romantic poets. His work came from his head while theirs came from their hearts: science and the arts were moving away from one another.

In 1801 the poet Robert Southey wrote to Coleridge saying that: “experimental philosophy always deadens the feelings; and these men who botanise upon their mothers’ graves may retort and say that cherished feelings deaden our usefulness.”


Southey was convinced that science and art were different ways to approach life and attracted different sensibilities, different personalities.

The common response to this was celebrated the following year by Sir Humphrey Davy, whose lectures at the Royal Institution had gained an unsurpassed notoriety.

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The lectures guided Coleridge and Wordsworth to where poetry and art were leading. They were all looking at a scientific revolution effecting the “impressions which we habitually receive” and setting a new level of perception and understanding to life. It was not only thoughts that Coleridge enjoyed sharing for some have suggested that he found Banks, still President of the Royal Society, to be “a reliable source of new exotic and experimental drugs such as Indian hemp, ‘Bang’ and cannabis.”

As a foreword to the third version of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner Coleridge quoted the brave Cambridge revolutionary Thomas Burnet from 1692: “I can easily believe .. the image of a greater and better world; lest the intellect, habituated to the trivia of daily life, may contract itself too much, and wholly sink into trifles. But at the same time we must be vigilant for truth, and maintain proportion, that we may distinguish certain from uncertain, day from night.”

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The impact of the violence in France during the revolution was considerable and there was real fear that it would spread across Europe. For many it was a time to reflect and withdraw from revolutionary thoughts, to leave science to the technocrats with their chemistry and electricity. In England there was even a small religious revival, one of whose reflective thinkers was yet another man from East Anglia. William Paley (1743-1805) was born in Peterborough, studied at Christ’s College Cambridge


and became Archdeacon at cathedrals in Durham, Lincoln and Carlisle. In Natural Theology, published in 1802, Paley used a memorable metaphor: as a watch needed a maker so did life. It explained how, when all the different parts of the watch were put together properly, they achieved much more than when they were separate or put together wrongly. It depended on a designer to orchestrate the parts. Paley then argued that the organs and tissues of a living organism, or even the individual components of an ecosystem, only worked when they were together in an active system.

Paley’s book was a great success and he became a well-known national figure. There was support for his explanation of adaptation by God’s design for it appeared to be an antidote to the extremists, and extremism was not popular in Britain especially just a few years after the French revolution. The English were well-aware that Napoleon was on the rampage. Paley wanted to connect the physical environment of nature to a functional design provided by God, but he, also, had no evidence, let alone suggestions of how experiments were to be performed to obtain any. Instead, all he had were the same old examples of static skeletons and buried bones. He was looking backwards.

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Despite that impasse, the competitive scientists Faraday and Davy, representing the authority of the Royal Society, gave Paley public support, though Davy may have thought differently in private: they both knew the issue was a powerful political tool as well as a philosophical minefield. They were both physical scientists and it was up to the biologists to find the evidence for the origin of plant and animal structures. On the other hand, there were plenty of well-known artists who wanted to make links with science and who had put God, or more importantly the institution of the church, to one side.