Contributor: Sophie Laniel-Musitelli
Location: British Museum
Description: To his family’s coat of arms—a shield blazoned with three scallop shells—Erasmus Darwin (1731–1802) added the banner “E Conchis Omnia”, “everything out of shells.” When the clergyman Thomas Seward saw that motto, he wrote a satirical poem accusing Darwin of:
[…] renounc[ing] his Creator,
And form[ing] all things from senseless matter.
Great wizard he! by magic spells
Can raise all things from cockle shells (King-Hele 89).
Erasmus Darwin was indeed one of the first proponents of the gradual transformation of species. In his scientific treatises and poems, the progress of life-forms from rudimentary beings to complex species seems to take place outside divine intervention, through a natural aspiration towards greater perfection.
In his fascination for sea-shells, Erasmus Darwin joined an intellectual debate among European naturalists past and present. For instance, Buffon mentions the mysterious presence of shells at the top of mountains as early as his Théorie de la Terre:
Il paroit certain que la terre, actuellement sèche et habitée, a été autrefois sous les eaux de la mer, et que ces eaux étoient supérieures aux sommets des plus hautes montagnes, puisqu’on trouve sur ces montagnes et jusque sur leurs sommets des productions marines et des coquilles (67).
In The Temple of Nature, published posthumously in 1803, Darwin continues the meditation where Buffon left it:
The earth was originally covered with water, as appears from some of its highest mountains, consisting of shells cemented together by a solution of part of them, as the limestone rocks of the Alps (Canto I, note to line 295, 26).
In earlier musings on the transformation of species, Erasmus Darwin already saw the volutes of the shell as swerves back in time:
[i]t is curious that some of the most common fossil shells are not now known in their recent state, as the cornua ammonis; and on the contrary, many shells which are very plentiful in their recent state, as limpets, sea-ears, volutes, cowries, are very rarely found fossil
He went on, pretending to wonder:
Were all the ammoniae destroyed when the continents were raised? Or do some genera of animals perish by the increasing power of their enemies? Or do they still reside at inaccessible depths in the sea? Or do some animals change their forms gradually and become new genera?” (The Botanic Garden, Part I, footnote to Canto III, l. 66, 120).
The footnote on the cornua ammonis from The Botanic Garden refers to a passage dedicated to the beauty of sea-shells: “Nymphs! You adorn, in glossy volumes roll’d, / The gaudy conch with azure, green, and gold” (The Botanic Garden, Part I, Canto III, l. 65–66, 120). Fossils speak volumes on the history of life, but the “glossy volumes” also refer to the fine architecture of sea-shells. The shell attracts the eye of the poet-naturalist as an object of scientific investigation and as a source of aesthetic enjoyment. These volumes are scrolls, guiding the eye of the naturalist, who “scans with nicer gaze the pearly swell / Of spiral volutes round the twisted shell” (The Temple of Nature, Canto III, l. 211–12, 101), towards the origins of life.
Object type: bookplate
Format: 70 millimetres (height), 58 millimetres (width)
Media Rights: © The Trustees of the British Museum (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/4.0/)
Buffon, Georges Louis Leclerc. Théorie de la Terre (1749), in Œuvres complètes de Buffon avec Supplémens, Tome I, Paris : P. Duménil, 1835.
Darwin, Erasmus. The Botanic Garden, a Poem, in Two Parts. Containing Part I, The Economy of Vegetation. Part II, The Loves of the Plants. With Philosophical Notes. London: J. Johnson, 1791.
———. The Temple of Nature or the Origins of Society: A Poem, with Philosophical Notes. London: J. Johnson, 1803.
King-Hele, Desmond. Erasmus Darwin: A Life of Unequalled Achievement. London: Giles de la Mare, 2012.