There are some days, weeks, and months that seem to stretch on forever. The past two years have certainly felt like a lifetime. Our sense of time can feel so warped that the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries can feel like eons ago. In the community of evolution enthusiasts, Charles Darwin’s publication of On the Origin of Species is (intentionally or unintentionally) hailed as the long-ago beginning of evolutionary thought. But in comparison with many of his evolutionary predecessors, Darwin might as well have published just yesterday.
Most of us know that Darwin did not really come up with evolution by himself. We might think of other contemporary or near-contemporary names like Alfred Russel Wallace, Erasmus Darwin, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, or Carl Linnaeus. They all certainly played roles in popularizing evolutionary thought. But evolutionary thinking is older—older perhaps than Darwin himself ever realized. We might never know who first posited the idea (although I would bet that it was an ancient Indigenous culture somewhere in the world), but it is still fascinating diving into the ancient origins of evolutionary thought and meeting the giants on whose shoulders Darwin stood.
1. Anaximander (610 BCE – 546 BCE)
If you are a fan of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, you may recognize Anaximander of Miletus as one of Sagan’s beloved Ionian scientists. His evolutionary writing was a bit more obscure, but a Roman writer, Censorinus, wrote of Anaximander in the 3rd century,
Anaximander of Miletus considered that from warmed up water and earth emerged either fish or entirely fishlike animals. Inside these animals, men took form and embryos were held prisoners until puberty; only then, after these animals burst open, could men and women come out, now able to feed themselves.Censorinus, De Die Natali, IV, 7
2. Empedocles (495 BCE – 434 BCE)
We don’t know much about Empedocles other than that he may have been the last Greek philosopher who wrote in verse. His works include On Nature and Purifications, although scholars aren’t sure if these are two separate poems or one. The parts of his poem(s) that people claim to be reminiscent of evolution are certainly abstract and strange. Take a look and find out if you would interpret this as evolutionary.
On it (the earth) many heads sprung up without necks and arms wandered bare and bereft of shoulders. Eyes strayed up and down in want of foreheads.
Solitary limbs wandered seeking for union.
But, as divinity was mingled still further with divinity, these things joined together as each might chance, and many other things besides them continually arose.
Shambling creatures with countless hands.
Many creatures with faces and breasts looking in different directions were born; some, offspring of oxen with faces of men, while others, again, arose as offspring of men with the heads of oxen, and creatures in whom the nature of women and men was mingled, furnished with sterile parts.Fragments of Empedocles, translated by John Burnet in Early Greek Philosophy
To put it (slightly) clearer, in Encyclopedia Britannica, William Wallace described Empedocles’ writing in 1911,
But most of these products of natural forces disappeared as suddenly as they arose; only in those rare cases where the several parts were found adapted to each other, and casual member fitted into casual member, did the complex structures thus formed last. . . . It is impossible not to see in this theory a crude anticipation of the “survival of the fittest” theory of modern evolutionists.1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Empedocles by William Wallace
3. Titus Lucretius Carus (99 BCE – 50 BCE)
Lucretius is one of the better-known Roman scholars whose work seems to whisper evolution. After a long search I was somehow able to track down a translation of Lucretius’s sole known work De rerum natura, or On the Nature of Things. I’m so glad I did, because his words are beautiful. Interestingly, but not surprisingly, other parts of this passage greatly resemble the chaotic disjointed bodies that Empedocles wrote about.
For Time transforms
The whole world’s nature, and all things must pass
From one condition to another : nothing
Continues like itself. All is in flux :
Nature is ever changing and compelling
All that exists to alter. For one thing
Moulders and wastes away grown weak with age,
And then another comes forth into light,
Issuing from obscurity. So thus Time
Changes the whole world’s nature, and the Earth
Passes from one condition to another :
So that what once it bore it can no longer,
And now can bear what it did not before.
. . .
And many breeds of creatures in those daysTranslations from Lucretius by R.C. Trevelyan, pp. 88-89. De rerum natura, Book V
Must have died out, being powerless to beget
And perpetuate their kind. For those which now
You see breathing the breath of life, ’tis craft,
Or courage, or else speed, that from its origin
Must have protected and preserved each race.
Chinese / Taoist
4. Zhuangzi (369 BCE – 286 BCE)
Zhuangzi, also known as Chuang Tzu, was a Chinese philosopher who is known as a father of the philosophy of Taoism. Taoism teaches that the universe works in a cycle, and it may also have incorporated evolutionary thinking. We can see this in the below passage foundational Taoist text Zhuangzi, written by or at least partially by its namesake.
The seeds of things have mysterious workings. In the water they become Break Vine, on the edges of the water they become Frog’s Robe. . . . Green Peace plants produce leopards and leopards produce horses and horses produce men. Men in time return again to the mysterious workings. So all creatures come out of the mysterious workings and go back into them again.The Complete Works of Chuang Tzu, Chapter 18: Perfect Happiness, translated by Burton Watson
Muslim / Arab
Medieval Muslim scholars contributed so much to so many fields of science, but we tend to forget them out of Eurocentrism, antitheism, or both. Muslim scholars have always shattered the modern idea that religious people cannot conduct legitimate science in the name of their god. Even though medieval Muslim evolutionary teachings don’t always sound like the Darwinism we’re familiar with, they are nonetheless significant in science history.
5. al-Jahiz (776 – 869)
Zoologist al-Jahiz appears to be by far the most famous of the medieval Arab evolutionary scientists.
Although al-Nazzam [al-Jahiz’s teacher] made the first steps in the field of biological evolutionary thought in the history of science, for the first time the theory of biological evolution in its complete form was presented by a great early zoologist, al-Jahiz in the ninth century. He was the first to originate it. Al-Jahiz’s theory is an example of scientific revolution and innovation that has had reverberations into the farthest reaches of human thought. It is fair to say that many problems of the philosophy of Nature appeared in a new light after the revolution of al-Jahiz and his successors.Mehmet Bayrakdar, al-Jahiz and the rise of Biological evolutionism, Islamic Quarterly; London Vol. 27, Iss. 3, (Jan 1, 1983): 149
Al-Jahiz’s seminal evolutionary work was Kitāb al-Ḥayawān, or the Book of Animals. His description of natural selection is spot-on!
Every weak animal devours those weaker than itself. Strong animals cannot escape being devoured by other animals stronger than they. And in this respect, men do not differ from animals, some with respect to others, although they do not arrive at the same extremes. In short, God has disposed some human beings as a cause of life for others, and likewise, he has disposed the latter as a cause of the death of the former.al-Jahiz, Book of Animals, quoted in Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society by Conway Zirkle
6. Ibn Miskawayh (932 – 1030)
Miskawayh’s Refinement of Character was the first major Islamic work on philosophical ethics. However, it was in another book that Miskawayh wrote a theory of biological evolution. According to one of my sources, the book’s title is Al-Fawz al-Kabir or The Greatest Victory, but to another, it is Al-Fauz al-Asghar or The Small Achievement. Miskawayh’s book describes a chain of being that “start[s] with minerals and proceed[s] through vegetables, animals, and humans, which results in a cyclic spiritual evolution back to the source of man’s creation: God.”
Twentieth century South Asian Muslim scholar Dr. Muhammad Iqbal describes Miskawayh’s theory this way:
The first forward step towards animal life is freedom from earth-rootedness which is the gem of conscious movement. This is the initial stage of animality in which the sense of touch is the first, and the sense of sight is the last to appear with the development of the senses the animal acquires freedom of movement, as in the case of worms, reptiles, ants, and bees. Animality reaches its perfection in the horse among quadrupeds and the falcon among birds, and finally arrives at the frontier of humanity in the ape which is just a degree below man in the scale of evolution.Dr. Muhammad Iqbal, Pre-Darwinian Muslim Scholars’ Views on Evolution by Dr. Muhammad Sultan Shah
7. al-Din Rumi (1207 – 1273)
Although Rumi was a polymath like most ancient and medieval scholars, his poetry is what stands out to me. His writing might sound more religious and less scientific than what many of us are used to, but remember that he lived long before people started seeing religion and science as enemies. For evolutionary thinkers, the first three lines of this poem will sound familiar:
I died to the inorganic state and became endowed with growthRumi, Masnavi, Book 3: To Him Is Our Return
and then I died to (vegetable) growth and attained to the animal.
I died from animality and became Adam (man):
Why, then, would I fear? When have I become less by dying?
At the next remove I shall die to man, that I may
soar and lift up my head amongst the angels;
Once more I shall be sacrificed and die to the angel;
I should become that which enters not into imagination.
Then I shall become non-existence: non-existence saith to me,
(in tones loud) as an organ, Verily unto Him shall we return.
8. al-Tusi (1201 – 1274)
Nasir al-Tusi is a relatively well-known medieval Persian astronomer who had a great observatory built, but he is less famous for proposing a process not unlike natural selection in his 1236 work Akhlaq-i Nasiri.
(I found the book in its English translation where it is called The Nasirean Ethics using a free trial on Perlego.com after scouring several poorly-sourced articles which only traced back to a Wikipedia article that referenced “The science book”. You’re welcome for tracking that down.)
The section of the book detailing his idea of evolution is quite long but the details are admirable and relatively clear.
If one reflects upon the different sorts of animals and birds, it will be observed that to each individual is assigned and disposed whatever is needed to effect and bring about freedom from anxiety. . . . The noblest of the species is that one whose sagacity and perception is such that it accepts discipline and instruction: thus there accrues to it the perfection not originally created in it. . . . This is the utmost of the animal degrees, and the first of the degrees of Man is contiguous therewith. Such are the peoples dwelling on the fringes of the inhabited world, like the negroes in the West and others, for the movements and actions of the likes of this type correspond to the actions of animals.al-Tusi, Akhlaq-i Nasiri, Fourth Section, translated by G. M. Wickens
He was so close, and then he had to be racist. Like the history of evolutionary thought in the Western world, al-Tusi and some of his contemporaries understood that humans were animals and so ranked human “races” as they ranked all species. Eight hundred years after al-Tusi, some of us are unfortunately still doing this.
9. Ibn Khaldun (1332 – 1406)
The last Muslim scholar in my list, Ibn Khaldun had many forebears to build from. Unlike some of his predecessors, his evolutionary ideas were more explicit and less abstract and poetic—but they were still, of course, religious.
One should then look at the world of creation. It started out from the minerals and progressed, in an ingenious, gradual manner, to plants and animals. The last stage of minerals is connected with the first stage of plants, such as herbs and seedless plants. The last stage of plants, such as palms and vines, is connected with the first stage of animals, such as snails and shellfish which have only the power of touch. The word “connection” with regard to these created things means that the last stage of each group is fully prepared to become the first stage of the next group.
The animal world then widens, its species become numerous, and, in a gradual process of creation, it finally leads to man, who is able to think and to reflect. The higher stage of man is reached from the world of the monkeys, in which both sagacity and perception are found, but which has not reached the stage of actual reflection and thinking. At this stage we come to the first stage of man after (the world of monkeys). This is as far as our (physical) observation extends.Ibn Khaldun, The Muqaddimah, Translated by Franz Rosenthal, vol. 1, p. 195
If you’ve been taught that Darwin is the father of evolution, then I hope that you enjoyed learning about these Greek, Chinese, and Muslim scholars! There were many that I hadn’t heard of, and there are many more that I did not include. In fact, this page has a great list of many of the Muslim scholars I mentioned as well as several more.
I would have loved to credit more African and Indigenous scientists with evolutionary ideas, but my searches came up empty. It was very difficult and time-consuming to track down the sources that I did, and cultures with oral histories are surely even harder to cite with the limited access I have to various archives. I also would have loved to explore the ideas of ancient and medieval women, but they too are hard to come by. I can only wonder how many of the men famed for their ideas learned them from or at least discussed them with their wives.
Similarly, I’m filled with curiosity when I consider how many ancient people, perhaps from Mesopotamia, Babylonia, Egypt, or even prehistory briefly wondered if perhaps we were related to apes or other animals. There are some things we have to accept we’ll never know.