Zoonomia, Vol. I Or, the Laws of Organic Life by Erasmus Darwin is part of HackerNoon’s Book Blog Post series. You can jump to any chapter in this book here: [LINK TO TABLE OF LINK]. Section VII: Of Irritative Motions
I. 1. Many of our muscular motions are excited by perpetual irritations, as those of the heart and arterial system by the circumfluent blood. Many other of them are excited by intermitted irritations, as those of the stomach and bowels by the aliment we swallow; of the bile-ducts by the bile; of the kidneys, pancreas, and many other glands, by the peculiar fluids they separate from the blood; and those of the lacteal and other absorbent vessels by the chyle, lymph, and moisture of the atmosphere. These motions are accelerated or retarded, as their correspondent irritations are increased or diminished, without our attention or consciousness, in the same manner as the various secretions of fruit, gum, resin, wax, and, honey, are produced in the vegetable world, and as the juices of the earth and the moisture of the atmosphere are absorbed by their roots and foliage.
2. Other muscular motions, that are most frequently connected with our sensations, as those of the sphincters of the bladder and anus, and the musculi erectores penis, were originally excited into motion by irritation, for young children make water, and have other evacuations without attention to these circumstances; "et primis etiam ab incunabulis tenduntur sæpius puerorum penes, amore nondum expergefacto." So the nipples of young women are liable to become turgid by irritation, long before they are in a situation to be excited by the pleasure of giving milk to the lips of a child.
3. The contractions of the larger muscles of our bodies, that are most frequently connected with volition, were originally excited into action by internal irritations: as appears from the stretching or yawning of all animals after long sleep. In the beginning of some fevers this irritation of the muscles produces perpetual stretching and yawning; in other periods of fever an universal restlessness arises from the same cause, the patient changing the attitude of his body every minute. The repeated struggles of the fœtus in the uterus must be owing to this internal irritation: for the fœtus can have no other inducement to move its limbs but the tædium or irksomeness of a continued posture.
The following case evinces, that the motions of stretching the limbs after a continued attitude are not always owing to the power of the will. Mr. Dean, a mason, of Austry in Leicestershire, had the spine of the third vertebra of the back enlarged; in some weeks his lower extremities became feeble, and at length quite paralytic: neither the pain of blisters, the heat of fomentations, nor the utmost efforts of the will could produce the least motion in these limbs; yet twice or thrice a day for many months his feet, legs, and thighs, were affected for many minutes with forceable stretchings, attended with the sensation of fatigue; and he at length recovered the use of his limbs, though the spine continued protuberant. The same circumstance is frequently seen in a less degree in the common hemiplagia; and when this happens, I have believed repeated and strong shocks of electricity to have been of great advantage.
4. In like manner the various organs of sense are originally excited into motion by various external stimuli adapted to this purpose, which motions are termed perceptions or ideas; and many of these motions during our waking hours are excited by perpetual irritation, as those of the organs of hearing and of touch. The former by the constant low indistinct noises that murmur around us, and the latter by the weight of our bodies on the parts which support them; and by the unceasing variations of the heat, moisture, and pressure of the atmosphere; and these sensual motions, precisely as the muscular ones above mentioned, obey their correspondent irritations without our attention or consciousness.
5. Other classes of our ideas are more frequently excited by our sensations of pleasure or pain, and others by volition: but that these have all been originally excited by stimuli from external objects, and only vary in their combinations or reparations, has been fully evinced by Mr. Locke: and are by him termed the ideas of perception in contradistinction to those, which he calls the ideas of reflection.
II. 1. These muscular motions, that are excited by perpetual irritation, are nevertheless occasionally excitable by the sensations of pleasure or pain, or by volition; as appears by the palpitation of the heart from fear, the increased secretion of saliva at the sight of agreeable food, and the glow on the skin of those who are ashamed. There is an instance told in the Philosophical Transactions of a man, who could for a time stop the motion of his heart when he pleased; and Mr. D. has often told me, be could so far increase the peristaltic motion of his bowels by voluntary efforts, as to produce an evacuation by stool at any time in half an hour.
2. In like manner the sensual motions, or ideas, that are excited by perpetual irritation, are nevertheless occasionally excited by sensation or volition; as in the night, when we listen under the influence of fear, or from voluntary attention, the motions excited in the organ of hearing by the whispering of the air in our room, the pulsation of our own arteries, or the faint beating of a distant watch, become objects of perception.
III. 1. Innumerable trains or tribes of other motions are associated with these muscular motions which are excited by irritation; as by the stimulus of the blood in the right chamber of the heart, the lungs are induced to expand themselves; and the pectoral and intercostal muscles, and the diaphragm, act at the same time by their associations with them. And when the pharinx is irritated by agreeable food, the muscles of deglutition are brought into action by association. Thus when a greater light falls on the eye, the iris is brought into action without our attention; and the ciliary process, when the focus is formed before or behind the retina, by their associations with the increased irritative motions of the organ of vision. Many common actions of life are produced in a similar manner. If a fly settle on my forehead, whilst I am intent on my present occupation, I dislodge it with my finger, without exciting my attention or breaking the train of my ideas.
2. In like manner the irritative ideas suggest to us many other trains or tribes of ideas that are associated with them. On this kind of connection, language, letters, hieroglyphics, and every kind of symbol, depend. The symbols themselves produce irritative ideas, or sensual motions, which we do not attend to; and other ideas, that are succeeded by sensation, are excited by their association with them. And as these irritative ideas make up a part of the chain of our waking thoughts, introducing other ideas that engage our attention, though themselves are unattended to, we find it very difficult to investigate by what steps many of our hourly trains of ideas gain their admittance.
It may appear paradoxical, that ideas can exist, and not be attended to; but all our perceptions are ideas excited by irritation, and succeeded by sensation. Now when these ideas excited by irritation give us neither pleasure nor pain, we cease to attend to them. Thus whilst I am walking through that grove before my window, I do not run against the trees or the benches, though my thoughts are strenuously exerted on some other object. This leads us to a distinct knowledge of irritative ideas, for the idea of the tree or bench, which I avoid, exists on my retina, and induces by association the action of certain locomotive muscles; though neither itself nor the actions of those muscles engage my attention.
Thus whilst we are conversing on this subject, the tone, note, and articulation of every individual word forms its correspondent irritative idea on the organ of hearing; but we only attend to the associated ideas, that are attached by habit to these irritative ones, and are succeeded by sensation; thus when we read the words "PRINTING-PRESS" we do not attend to the shape, size, or existence of the letters which compose these words, though each of them excites a correspondent irritative motion of our organ of vision, but they introduce by association our idea of the most useful of modern inventions; the capacious reservoir of human knowledge, whose branching streams diffuse sciences, arts, and morality, through all nations and all ages.
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Darwin, Erasmus, 2005. Zoonomia, Vol. Or, the Laws of Organic Life. Urbana, Illinois: Project Gutenberg. Retrieved May 2022 from https://www.gutenberg.org/files/15707/15707-h/15707-h.htm#sect_VII
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