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History of Evolution

Evolutionarynaturalism: an ancient idea

The theory of biological evolution is not a modern idea as isoften supposed. Organic evolution was first taught by the Greeks at least asearly as the 7th century BC. Greek philosophers probably borrowed and adapted theirevolutionary ideas from the Hindus, who believed that souls transformed fromone animal to another until they reached a perfection state called nirvana. Charles Darwin allegedlymade no contributions to the development of the theory of evolution by naturalselection, but simply helped to popularize it. Evolutionists today argue thatevolution is a modern idea (i.e. a product of scientific research), in part asan effort to lend credibility to their worldview. (Jerry Bergman)

Ancient theories of evolution

Aristotle (384–322 BC)

It isfrequently implied that the theory of biological evolution is a modern idea—aproduct of our advanced scientific age. Conversely, a creationist worldview isoften criticized as being a product of our less informed ancestors, and thatthis view is now a disproven relic of the past.

The Mayan culture began about 600 BC, and its religion incorporated a ‘streamlined evolution’ thattaught that the rain-god constructed humans by adding to (and therebymodifying) his previous creations. This rain-god first made rivers, then fish,next serpents and, last, humans. The members of a totem clan believed:

‘themselves to be of one blood, descendants of a common ancestor. …Thus, the Turtle clan of the Iroquois are descended from a fat turtle, which,burdened by the weight of its shell in walking … gradually developed into aman. The Cray-Fish clan of the Choctaws were originally cray-fish and livedunderground, coming up occasionally through the mud to the surface. Once aparty of Choctaws smoked them out, and, treating them kindly … taught them towalk on two legs, made them cut off their toe nails and pluck the hair fromtheir bodies, after which they adopted them into the tribe. But the rest oftheir kindred, the cray-fish, are still living underground. The Osages aredescended from a male snail and a female beaver.’1 

Therelationship of totemism to evolution is described in more detail in thefollowing quote:

‘The luck attributed to a rabbit’s foot stems from a belief rootedin ancient totemism, the claim, predating Darwinism by thousands of years, thathumankind descended from animals. Differing from Darwinism, however, totemismheld that every tribe of people evolved from a separate species of animal. Atribe worshiped and refrained from killing its ancestral animal and employedparts of that animal as amulets, called totems.’2 

One of the first evolutionary theories was proposed by Thales ofMiletus (640–546 BC) in the province of Ionia on the coast near Greece. He was alsoevidently the first person to advance the idea that life first originated inwater.3 Birdsellnotes that Thales’ view of biological evolution ‘was not too far from moderntruth’. One of Thales’ students, Anaximander (611–547 BC),developed these ideas further, concluding that humans evolved from fish orfishlike forms.4 Thesefish-men eventually cast off their scaly skin and moved to dry land where theyhave been ever since.


Empedocles concluded that spontaneous generation fully explainedthe origin of life, and he also taught that all living organism types graduallyevolved by the process of trial-and-error recombinations of animal parts.

The Greek philosopher Empedocles (493–435 BC), oftencalled the father of evolutionary naturalism, argued that chance alone ‘wasresponsible for the entire process’ of the evolution of simple matter intomodern humankind.5 Empedoclesconcluded that spontaneous generation fully explained the origin of life, andhe also taught that all living organism types gradually evolved by the processof trial-and-error recombinations of animal parts.6 Healso believed that natural selection was the primary mechanism of evolution,the fittest being more likely to survive to pass their traits on to theiroffspring.7

In short, Empedocles’ pre-Darwin ‘survival–of-the-fittest’ theorytaught that life evolved by pruning the less-fit life forms—i.e. the mercilessdestruction of the weaker animals and plants. Unfortunately, many early Greekmanuscripts have been lost, but the texts that survive provide enough detailsto determine with some accuracy what the ancient Greeks believed. This evidencemotivated Osborn to conclude that ‘Darwin owes more even to the Greeks than wehave ever recognized.’8

Evidence also exists that the Greek philosophers gleaned theirevolution-of-life ideas from the Hindus, who believed that souls transformedfrom one animal to another until they reached a level of perfection called nirvana. Both the Greeks andHindus also could have obtained their evolution-of-life ideas from even moreancient peoples. Aristotle (384–322 BC) claimed that humans are the highest point of one long,continuous ‘ascent with modification’ of life.7 Modern scientific research, though, has found that naturalselection often does not eliminate weak individuals in a species. Evidence nowpoints to the conclusion that nearly all extinctions are the result of chanceand/or human mismanagement.9 Naturalselection cannot create, but can only prune the less-perfect organisms, servingprimarily to slow the rate of biological degeneration.10

Nor is the paleontological record, as a putative evidence ofevolution, a recent conclusion. The first person ‘known to have explicitlyrecognized fossils as memorials of geological change and the succession oflife’ was evidently Xenophanes of Colophon.11 Somespeculate that Thales and Anaximander also may have concluded that the fossilevidence supported biological and geological evolution.

Modern theories of evolution: did Darwincontribute?

Darwinwas not even the first modern-day biologist to develop the idea of organicevolution. De Vries noted that

‘evolution, meaning the origin of new species by variation fromancestor species, as an explanation for the state of the living world, had beenproclaimed before Darwin by several biologists—thinkers, including the poetJohann Wolfgang Goethe in 1795. Jean-Baptiste de Lamarck in 1809, Darwin’sgrandfather, the ebullient physician-naturalist-poet-philosopher ErasmusDarwin, and in Darwin’s time anonymously by Robert Chambers in 1844.’12 

Even Darwin’s commonly alleged major contribution to evolution,natural selection, was developed earlier by others including William CharlesWells in 1813, and later Alfred Russell Wallace. Wallace sent Darwin a copy ofhis paper describing his independently developed theory of evolution by naturalselection in 1858.13 DeVries noted that some critics have concluded that Darwin actually made no majornew contributions to this theory.

Darlington argued that Erasmus Darwin ‘originated almostevery important idea that has since appeared in evolutionary theory’, includingnatural selection.

The modern theory of biological evolution probably was firstdeveloped by Charles De Secondat Montesquieu (1689–1755), who concluded that‘in the beginning there were very few [kinds of] species, and they havemultiplied since’.14 Anotherimportant evolutionist was Benoit de Maillet (1656–1738), whose book onevolution was published in 1748. In his book, de Maillet taught that fish werethe forefathers of birds, mammals and men.15 Maupertuiswrote in 1751 that new species may result from the fortuitous recombining ofdifferent parts of living beings. About this same time, Diderot theEncyclopedist taught that all animals came from one primeval animal, and thatthis prototype was fashioned by nature into all those types of animals alivetoday.16 GeorgeLouis Buffon (1707–1788) even expounded the idea that ‘the ape and man had acommon ancestry’. Macrone notes that while Darwin indeed gave evolution afirmer scientific basis,

‘he was hardly the first to propose it. A century before Darwinthe French naturalist Georges Buffon wrote extensively on the resemblance amongvarious species of birds and quadrupeds. Noting such similarities and also theprevalence in nature of seemingly useless anatomical features (such as toes ona pig), Buffon voiced doubts that every single species had been uniquely formedby God on the fifth and sixth days of creation. Buffon suggested in guardedlanguage at least a limited sort of evolution that would account for variancesamong similar species and for natural anomalies.’17 

One of the most important pre-Darwinists was Charles Darwins’grandfather, Erasmus Darwin (1731–1802). He expounded his ideas at length inhis book Zoonomia,published in 1794. This work was no obscure volume, but sold well and even wastranslated into German, French and Italian. Darlington argued that ErasmusDarwin ‘originated almost every important idea that has since appeared inevolutionary theory’, including natural selection.18 Darwinadmitted that he probably got many of the major portions of his biologicalevolution theory from his grandfather.

It usually is asserted that Erasmus Darwin’s view was less welldeveloped than Charles Darwin’s and was actually erroneous in many areas.Desmond King-Hele made an excellent case for the view that Charles Darwin’stheory, even ‘in its mature form in the later editions of the Origin of Species, is, in some importantrespects, less correct than that of Erasmus’.19 Bothwriters stressed that evolution occurred by the accumulation of smallfortuitous changes that then were sifted by natural selection. Erasmus wrotethat

‘in the great length of time since the earth began to exist,perhaps millions of ages before the commencement of the history of mankind,would it be too bold to imagine, that all warm-blooded animals have arisen fromone living filament, which THE GREAT FIRST CAUSE endued with animality, withthe power of acquiring new parts, attended with new propensities, directed byirritations, sensations, volitions, and associations; and thus possessing thefaculty of continuing to improve by its own inherent activity, and ofdelivering down those improvements by generation to its posterity, worldwithout end!’20 

ErasmusDarwin (1731–1802)

Charles Darwin even evidently accepted Lamarckian evolution to agreater extent than did Erasmus, a conclusion that proved to be a major blunderfor him.21 Forexample, in explaining the evolution of the giraffe’s long neck, Darwinaccepted the validity of evolution by use and disuse although in this case healso used natural selection as the major explanation of giraffe neck evolution.22

Another important pre-Darwinian book was Robert Chambers’ Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, which waspublished in 1844. Without this book, Darwin said he might never have written Origin of Species.23 Ina summary of this work, Crookshank concluded that Chambers (1802–1871) believedthat the extant varieties of humans resulted from evolutionary advances andregressions. Yet another person who came up with Darwin’s main conclusions wasPatrick Matthew. Matthew,

‘whose priority was acknowledged later by both Charles Darwin andEdward Blyth, anticipated all Darwin’s main conclusions by 28 years, yet hethought them so little important that he published them as an appendix to hisbook on naval timber and did not feel the need to give substance to them bycontinuous work. Darwin’s incessant application, on the other hand, makes onethink that he had found in evolution and its related concepts not merely ascientific theory about the world, but a vocation: he had discovered the theoryand practice of himself.’24 

Not onlyis evolutionary naturalism an old idea, but the creation-evolution conflict isancient as well:

‘In the eighteenth-century European “Age of Reason”, an attempt ata complete separation of faith and reason, coupled with a belief in theself-sufficiency of reason to explain all causality, precipitated what AndrewWhite later called the “warfare of science with theology”. Yet, even inAristotle’s time the ideas of Democritus and the Atomists and the reflectionsof Empedocles on gradual adaptation and change in organisms must havestimulated conflict between religion and natural science.’25 

Darwin’s work was only the ‘“palace coup” among the elite, thefinal act in a long drama, with the real fight to establish a lawful,evolutionary worldview among the “people” taking place a generation earlier’.26


Although Charles Darwin was highly successful in popularizing theidea of organic evolution by natural selection, he was by no means theoriginator of the theory as commonly supposed. Nor was Darwin the originator ofeven those aspects of the evolution theory for which he is most often givencredit today—natural selection and sexual selection. Organic evolution is partof the past and present culture of many nations, and is not a modern (or evenan exclusively scientific) idea as is often claimed. This claim often is anattempt to give the theory credibility. This fact was expressed well by oneevolutionist when he wrote that the ‘idea of miraculous change, which issupposed to be an exclusive prerogative of fairy-tales, is a common phenomenonof evolution …’.27

Thepopularity of the modern evolutionistic worldview is not, as many assume,because modern science has replaced old superstitions about origins.Evolution’s acceptance has much more to do with the use of the tools of scienceby multi-thousands of dedicated researchers, using the billions of dollarsprovided by governments to build a case for an ancient theory intended tosupport the atheism that now dominates both science and our increasinglysecular society. This fact is important because the claim that Darwinism is amodern scientific idea is used as a major argument for its validity.

Bert Thompson and John Woodmorappe 

References and notes

1.     Encyclopaedia Britannica, The Werner Co., New York,Vol. 23, p. 467, 1898. Return to text.

2.     Panati,C., Extraordinary Origins of EverydayThings, Harper and Row, New York, p. 3, 1987. Return to text.

3.     Birdsell,J.B., Human Evolution, RandMcNally, Chicago, p. 22, 1972. Return to text.

4.     Thompson,B., The History of Evolutionary Thought, StarBible & Tract Corp., Fort Worth, p. 29, 1981. Return to text.

5.     Thompson,Ref. 4, p. 31. Return to text.

6.     Osborn,H.F., From the Greeks to Darwin, CharlesScribner’s Sons, New York, p. 52, 1929. Return to text.

7.     Osborn,Ref. 6, p. 54. Return to text.

8.     Osborn,Ref. 6, p. 4. Return to text.

9.     Raup, D., Bad Genes or Bad Luck?, W.W. Norton, New York,1991. Return to text.

10.  Bergman, J., The problem of extinction and naturalselection, CRSQ 30(2):93–106,1993. Return to text.

11.  Glass,B., Owsel, T. and Straus, W., Forerunners ofDarwin: 1745–1895, The Johns Hopkins Press, Baltimore, p. 6, 1959.  Returnto text.

12.  De Vries,A., The Enigma of Darwin, Clio Medica 19(1–2):136–155,1984; p. 145. Return to text.

13.  Kenyan,A.K.,  Darwin’s ‘joint paper’, J. Creation (TJ) 14(3):72–73,2000. Return to text.

14.  Quotedin, De Beer, G., Introduction in the 1969 reprint of: Chambers, R., Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, p. 11,1969.  Returnto text.

15.  De Beer,Ref. 14, p. 12. Return to text.

16.  De Beer,Ref. 14, p. 14. Return to text.

17.  Macrone,M., Eureka!, Barnes& Noble, New York, p. 150, 1994. Return to text.

18.  Darlington,C.D., The Origin of Darwinism, ScientificAmerican 200(5):62, 1959. Return to text.

19.  King-Hele,D., Erasmus Darwin, CharlesScribner’s Sons, New York, p. 81, 1963. Return to text.

20.  Darwin,E., Zoonomia; Or the Laws of Organic Life, J.Johnson, London, 1794. Reprint by AMS Press, New York, p. 505, 1974. Spellingand punctuation modernized by author, emphasis in original. Return to text.

21.  King-Hele,Ref. 19, p. 82. Return to text.

22.  Gould,S.J., Leonardo’s Mountain of Clams and theDiet of Worms, Harmony Books, p. 312, 1989. Return to text.

23.  Crookshank,F.G., The Mongol in Our Midst, E.P.Dutton & Company, New York, p. 4, 1931. Return to text.

24.  Huxley,A., A reappraisal of Charles Darwin, TheAmerican Scholar, footnote, p. 489, Autumn 1959. Return to text.

25.  Macior,L., Introduction; in: Dodson, E.O. and Howe, G.F., Creation or Evolution, University of OttawaPress, Ottawa, p. viii, 1990. Return to text.

26.  Desmond,A., The Politics of Evolution,University of Chicago Press, Chicago, p. 1, 1992. Return to text.

27.  Beebe,W., The Bird: Its Form and Function, Dover Publications,New York, p. 97, 1965. Return to text.