Evolutionary Thought Pre-Darwin pt. 1

I am known to write about evolution from time to time ttime to time.  However, I have never discussed the origin of the idea.  Everyone knows that Charles Darwin developed the theory of evolution by natural selection (fewer people know that Alfred Russel Wallace is co-discoverer).  However, most people have a misconception about the development of evolutionary thought.  The theory of evolution by natural selection did not develop in a vacuum and evolutionary modes of thinking have existed for much longer than is generally acknowledged.  So this is going to be my first of two blog posts on evolutionary thought pre-Darwin.

Did evolutionary thought exist in the ancient world?

Explanations for the world’s diverse flora and fauna and humanity’s place within it have existed in most, if not all of the worlds cultural groups throughout history.  However, very few cultural groups believed the idea that the world’s flora and fauna evolved and changed over time, and for most of human history this belief has been a minority or non-existent position.  Despite this, the idea that life had changed over time and that humans were descended from other species was not a foreign concept in Ancient Greece.  For example, Anaximander of Miletus (610-546 B.C.E.) hypothesized that the first animals lived in water, and that humanity must have first developed in the sea before emerging onto land.  He also thought that the first human form must have been a different species because “man needs prolonged nursing to live”.  The Ancient Greek philospher Empedocles (490-430 B.C.E.) was also a proponent of evolution and was the first person known to introduce the idea of natural selection, albeit in a very rudimentary form.  He believed that love and strife were two controlling forces in nature, with love bringing elements together, generating new creatures, and strife pulling elements apart, corrupting creatures in the process.  Empedocles suggests that some of the combinations that love generates are fitter to survive than others, which is why I would argue, he introduced a rough version of the idea of natural selection.

Around the same time, on the other side of Eurasia, Chinese philosopher Chuang Tzu also theorized that species change biologically over time.  This mode of thinking was largely embraced by eastern thought and was infused into Taoist philosophy in the 4th century B.C.E.  Ancient Taoist philosophers in the Ancient world agreed that humans were a part of nature and that species developed in response to differing environments and were in a “constant transformation”.  Although largely philosophical, as opposed to a testable scientific hypothesis, it was clearly evolutionary thought.

Back in Europe Roman philosopher Lucretius (100-55 B.C.E.) further developed evolutionary thought in the poetic treatise De Rerum.  Within it he states:   

“And many species of animals must have perished at that time, unable by procreation to forge out the chain of posterity: for whatever you see feeding on the breath of life, either cunning or courage or at least quickness must have guarded and kept that kind from its earliest existence… But those to which nature gave no such qualities, so that they could neither live by themselves at their own will, nor give us some usefulness for which we might suffer to feed them under our protection and be safe, these certainly lay at the mercy of others for prey and profit, being all hampered by their own fateful chains, until nature brought that race to destruction.”

However, in contrast to the reception of evolutionary thought in China, early European proponents of natural selection were not well received in Ancient times, or afterwards despite the fact that much of their work survived intact.  The influential Ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle disagreed with Empedocles and Lucretius arguing for a teleological view of the cosmos.  This had a far-reaching influential impact on western thought.  Teleology was the philosophical belief that there are final causes and purpose in nature analogous to human actions.  When applied to life and the existence of life, teleological thinkers were prone to adopt a view similar to contemporary “watchmaker analogy” arguments (i.e. life appears to be designed, therefore there must be a designer).  As a result of influential philosophers adopting this mode of thinking, a pre-Christian creationist thought predominated in Ancient Greece and Rome.

What happened after that?  Check back for part 2!



About Cadell Last
Hello. I'm probably drinking coffee and reading.

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