The History of Evolutionary Thought!

Written by Matthew Sabatine

The following article/post represents only the author’s views and not everyone at Common Issues.

The idea that species undergo change is an idea dating back to the ancient world. It can be seen in the writings of Empedocles (495–35 BCE), the Greek Atomists, and the pre-Socratic natural philosophers. [1] Arguably, we could regard the atomists as the first materialists, as they believed that all macroscopic bodies of the universe are reducible down to indivisible physical elements that interact and explain the backgrounds and sources of everything without divine intrusion, cause, and teleology. Leucippus, Democritus, Epicurus and Lucretius were the writers of that approach in which they were methodical, organized, and thorough. [2]

Just as humans today like to form parties vying against each other on the topic of humanity’s origins, the atomists also had their opponents who were the Platonic, Neo-Platonic, Aristotelian, and Stoic thinkers. Plato (427–327 BCE) wrote an extensive non-Biblical creation myth, called Timaeus, to oppose the atomists, and defend the concept of an intelligent artisan (demiurgos) fashioning mathematically-directed substances with rational, aesthetic, and eternal ingredients that serve purposive ends. [2]

Greek physician Claudius Galenus (129-200 CE) would catch onto the Platonic flavor of universal, non-random processes of creation by finding evidence of divine orchestration in anatomy, making teleological interpretations that would intermingle with Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. However, Aristotle (384 – 322 BCE) would come before him and believe that the world was eternal instead of having a beginning point, but also believed that the intelligent designer/creator has its immanence within the human soul or psyche. [1]

  It appears to me that descent with modification can debatably date back to the time of the pre-Socratic Greek philosophers if Anaximander of Miletus (610 – 546 BC) posited that the Earth had a wet stage during which the first animals had their abode in water and that mankind’s initial ancestors had originated in water and partially lived on land. Since human infants require a protracted period of nursing, humanity as we know ourselves today must have emanated from a different type of animal, which Anaximander assumed to be a fish. Though the “first Darwinist” was said to be Anaximander according to late 19th Century thinkers, he would later lose that appellation, since evolutionism should argue that the first human would have had parents similar to it to rear it, but Anaximander believed that the first human had a sudden emergence onto the scene instead of a gradual one. [3]

As Plato would theorize that ideas are the non-substantial, invisible, and incorporeal essences of all things, to which objects in the material world only imitate, this would earn him the title of being a defender of essentialism. [4] This is something that apparently has merited biologist Ernst Mayr’s perception of Plato as “the great antihero of evolutionism.” [5] Plato would promote that the Demiurge is the creator of the cosmos, is good, is devoid of jealousy, and desires for all things to be like Itself. It therefore created all imaginable kinds of life to prevent incompletion and imperfection of the universe, thus giving way to the Principle of Plenitude, which is said to have had prodigious influence on Christian theodicies and beliefs. [6]

The idea that humans are superior to all earthly creatures is an idea that predominated until the second half of the 19th Century. The intricacy of discernible characteristics of organisms inspired Aristotle’s ranking, called the “scale of nature” (scala naturae) or “ladder of life.” It was this hierarchy that Christian theologians of the Middle Ages had synthesized with the creation story of Genesis, as a way to adduce a kind of “perfection” signifying closeness to God and being made in His image. What is specifically remarkable about this tradition is the premise that all life began concurrently 6 thousand years ago, when God populated the Garden of Eden and had distinct organisms exist in the same form, unevolved over the millennia. [7]

Though this anthropocentric focus dates back to the ancient times of Aristotle, the creationists’ 6-thousand-years timeline could arguably only date as far back as James Ussher’s 17th-century chronology of the history of the world, as formulated from a literal reading of the Old Testament. The kind of Christian fundamentalism/young earth creationism that politically and publicly defends the 6-thousand-years model would not emerge until the 20th Century as a rejection of evolution. [7] What is interesting here is that this literal interpretation of Genesis is not clearly shown to exist among Christianity’s earliest adherents. This thereby suggests to me, that, if the Christian Scriptures originated with Christ millennia ago, whoever is a follower of Christ and wants to remain true to the sacred text, is not obligated to assent to the Young Earth 6-thousand-years timeline of creation.

Medieval scholar from Spain, Ibn Ezra (1089-1164 AD), wrote commentary on Genesis, which Young Earth creationists cite as evidence that their view traces back to ancient Judaism. [8] Again, such a pedigree can’t exist when Ibn Ezra didn’t exist anywhere close to Christianity’s earliest years. Vanderbilt University’s Shai Cherry reportedly says that Jewish scholars of our time for the most part don’t accept such literal interpretations of the sacred text, and that even some Jewish science-deniers still accept scientific evidence for an old age of the Earth. [9]

Then, the significance of humanity’s place in the universe had changed in the 19th Century because of the writings of Alfred Russell Wallace and Charles Darwin. Most notable of them would be Charles Darwin’s 1859 book, On The Origin of Species, which would posit that present-day life transitioned from earlier forms over an extensive timeline, much longer than just a handful of thousands of years. This would be the start of viewing the relationships between organisms as mapped on a branching tree, instead of a linear scale or ladder, saying they are connected to one another by common ancestry. [7]

Understandably, it has been very difficult for humans to repudiate the idea that we are very special with a central purpose in the universe. The tendencies and views of late 19th Century biologist, Ernst Haeckel, helps to demonstrate humans’ inability to let go. As he tried to popularize Charles Darwin’s “tree of life” illustration, he made a branch-like depiction with major animal groups arranged atop one another along the tree trunk, with humans occupying the topmost part of the tree. Though it is doubted that the pioneering biologist intended to imply that humans are the products of a single linear progression, a naive viewer would be inclined to see his diagram as depicting humans as the highest creatures on Earth. [7]

Even Mid-20th Century textbooks would continue to place humans at the top of the tree of life. The presupposition that we exist at the top of the evolutionary pile continues to persuade some people about brain evolution and function. Maybe this self-regarding focus is written into our survival code and motives. For those who are religious, it is a God-given fact, and meanwhile, for the humanists, it is a celebration of our special powers of thought and feeling. But just as our species emerged through change, we, too, are still constantly changing. [7]







[7] LeDoux, Joseph, The Deep History of Ourselves—The Four Billion Year Story of How We Got Conscious Brains, New York City, Viking An imprint of Penguin Random House LLC, 2019, Print.


[9] Bedworth, Ivy, Rationalizing the Bible—volume 1: The Torah,, April 3, 2016

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