I highly recommend Jenny Uglow’s The Lunar Men. In the 1770s, Erasmus Darwin, Matthew Boulton, James Watt, Josiah Wedgwood, Joseph Priestly and others met regularly under the light of the full moon to talk science. The Lunar Men is their biography. It’s the sort of biography where you learn much about other things. I found interesting discussions of private road and canal building (Wedgwood was a big supporter because some 30% of his pottery would break on the public roads), private coinage (Boulton ran a mint using the steam engines he and Watt had developed to press the coins), and the first industrial health and sickness insurance plans. Rousseau had an important influence on the group and makes an appearance as does Benjamin Franklin and many other figures of the day.
Erasmus Darwin was an especially colorful genius who wrote what were in essence biology textbooks set to verse! In this stanza (from The Temple of Nature) he discusses evolution long before his grandson was born:
Organic Life beneath the shoreless waves
Was born and nurs’d in Ocean’s pearly caves;
First forms minute, unseen by spheric glass,
Move on the mud, or pierce the watery mass;
These, as successive generations bloom,
New powers acquire, and larger limbs assume;
Whence countless groups of vegetation spring
And breathing realms of fin, and feet, and wing.