Charles Darwin’s relationship with grandfather is focus of high-profile conference

A ground-breaking conference at Roehampton on the relationship between two of history's most remarkable speculative thinkers – Charles and Erasmus Darwin – is being led by academics from the University’s Department of English and Creative Writing.

Posted: 25 August 2015

The Darwins Reconsidered event is the first academic conference to formally deliberate on the imaginative, scientific and evolutionary connections between the almost-forgotten 18th century poet Erasmus, and his famous grandson.

Organised by Roehampton’s Professor Martin Priestman and Dr Louise Lee, it will feature a distinguished line-up of Darwinian academics. 

Keynotes speakers for the day-long meeting at the University’s Whitelands campus are Professor David Amigoni (Keele), who will speak on Tales of the Grandfather: Charles Darwin, Samuel Butler and Erasmus Darwin’s Contested Legacy, and Professor Tim Fulford (De Montfort), discussing a paper on Darwin in the Air. 

The chairman of the British Society for Literature and Science, Professor John Holmes (Birmingham), will give a plenary lecture entitled Negotiations with Epic: Poetry and the Origins of Evolutionary Theory.

The conference arises out of Professor Priestman’s highly respected work on Erasmus Darwin. His well-received monograph The Poetry of Erasmus Darwin: Enlightened Spaces, Romantic Times (Ashgate 2013) was published recently while Dr Lee’s forthcoming monograph Laughter, Evolution and the Victorian Literary Imagination 1830-1910 features a substantial chapter on Charles Darwin. 

Professor Priestman will present his paper Turmeric, Shells and the Patagonian Ox: The Evolution of Evolution at the event while Dr Lee’s talk will discuss the comic device of incongruity which, she argues, is apparent in both men’s writings, and has particular consequences for the thinking-through of evolutionary ideas.

The conference will also debate how Erasmus Darwin’s sudden fall from grace affected the way Charles Darwin presented himself when, two generations later, he was developing and clarifying his own evolutionary theories. It will consider the kind of narrative and literary strategies both writers used. 

Dr Lee, who teaches an English Literature module at Roehampton called Laughing Victorians, said: “We’re asking original and intriguing questions about how Charles Darwin’s writing and attitudes may have been both consciously and unconsciously formed by his grandfather’s thinking and experience.”

Full details of the conference and all speakers can be found on its website.

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