Pre-Darwinian Evolutionary Thinking

Primitive humans, like contemporary humans, must have been puzzled about their origins and the origins of the various living beings around them from when they took the first step towards civilised existence. On the one hand, he would have noticed variety and the undeniable relatedness of seemingly unrelated organisms. For instance, while there are many different types of birds, they are all birds and, as such, are distinct from one another, as are other groupings such as fishes and quadrupeds.

As a result, plants and animals can be classed or placed into distinct groups. The most apparent - or maybe the simplest - answer that occurred to the man at the start of civilization was that it was all an act of God. Surprisingly, Indian intellectuals did not seem to feel the need to expand beyond this metaphorical account of the creation of living beings.

Pre-Darwinian Evolutionary Thinking

Early ideas on the genesis of species were, in fact, speculative - that is, the result of imaginative thinking. Surprisingly, some early Greek philosophers were well grounded, and their beliefs on evolution were founded on specific facts and observations.

Greek Contribution

Some early Greek philosophers were keen observers of the pre-Christian Western world. They addressed the subject of evolution based on their observations of the relatedness of many animal species; how the 'higher' forms of life originated from the 'lower'. Anaximander (612-547 B.C.) believed that life originated spontaneously and that the first creatures were fish created in damp and with spiny skin. Their ancestors eventually left the ocean and arrived on dry ground.

The numerous other creatures evolved through a sequence of transmutations or transformations. Humans, in turn, evolved through transmutation from a lower, most likely aquatic, species. Xenophanes proposed a related theory that would be important to subsequent evolutionists. (576-490 B.C.). He discovered fossil creatures on arid mountain peaks and recognised them as forms or duplicates of organisms that existed earlier in Earth's history. He also found that these mountains were probably buried in water in the past.

You have probably heard of Aristotle (384-322 B.C.). In addition to being a great philosopher, he was a hardworking scientist. He was a very gifted marine scientist. He might create a categorization system based on his comprehensive understanding of animal shapes. He observed that biological creatures could be organised in a ladder-like linear hierarchy depending on their organisation's intricacy.

This concept of the "scale of being" or "scala naturae" (Latin) would have a significant impact on evolutionary theory in the 18th and 19th centuries. You would agree, however, that just positing a scale of being is not the same as presenting a well-founded theory of evolution. Other Greek and Roman intellectuals followed. However, their theories on organic evolution were hypothetical. Therefore we dismiss them.

The Origin of Species According to Genesis

Men of the Judaeo-Christian civilization, in contrast to the pioneering Greek intellectuals, were predisposed to accept the biblical tale of Genesis as a literal reality. According to this theology, God created the planet, divided land from water, and created Man and every plant and animal species in distinct actions. According to one Anglican bishop, this occurred a few thousand years ago, in 4004 B.C. All living creatures have reproduced their kind and stayed unchanging since their origin.

The Post-Renaissance Period

The Renaissance was a cultural and intellectual movement that began in Italy in the 14th century (A.D.) and extended slowly throughout Europe over the next two centuries. It impacted all facets of human activity and signified the transition from medievalism to modernity. It sparked renewed interest in species origins, among other things. Many daring explorers traversed the oceans, returning with wonderful tidings of life in the New World. They discussed the occurrence of unique plant and animal types. Even more surprising, they discovered the lack of creatures recognisable to Europeans, such as the horse. It was particularly upsetting to learn of Indians in regions of the New World who looked slightly superior to apes and so scarcely recognisable as humans.

Later, unconnected findings in the rapidly expanding sciences of biology and geology finally coincided to give rise to the beginnings of a convincing hypothesis of living form evolution. A Swedish scientist, Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778), established the scientific basis for the concept that species are not unchanging. This notion resulted in his system of the binomial nomenclature of plants and animals gaining international recognition. Ironically, he began to have reservations about the mutability of species late in his career. The Comte de Buffon (1707-1788), a contemporary of Linnaeus, was similarly acclaimed and is today regarded as a natural predecessor of Darwin.

Nonetheless, he discussed and recommended the function of nature. Nature, operating through time, caused tiny changes in species. Buffon's second central insight was that a fundamental structural resemblance existed underneath the variations in form amongst families. Some years later, his countryman and younger contemporary, Baron Cuvier, dubbed it "the unity of body plan" and used it as the foundation of his groundbreaking study of comparative anatomy.

Moreover, Buffon brought attention to the tendency of animals to multiply faster than the existing food supply can maintain. He went on to say that as a result, many people died, and only a few people survived in each generation. Ten years after Buffon's death, Thomas Malthus (1766-1834) published his famous essay on the same subject. His work was elevated to the level of a law known as Malthusian Law.


Pre-Christian evolutionary thinking existed, and most pre-Darwinian evolutionary ideas related the concept of evolution to supernatural forces. Early Greek philosophers believed that life originated spontaneously and that the first creatures were fish created in damp and with spiny skin. Xenophanes proposed a related theory that would be important to subsequent evolutionists.

The concept of the "scale of being" or "scala naturae" (Latin) had a significant impact on evolutionary theory in the 18th and 19th centuries, but it was not a well-founded theory. Buffon's system of binomial nomenclature has gained international recognition, but he had reservations about the mutability of species.

Updated on: 20-Apr-2023


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