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Evolution: The history of an idea

This text is from “Evolution and Paleontology in the Ancient World,” Ben Waggoner, Department of Biology, University of Central Arkansas.
The accompanying images were selected to help explain the text by RK.

The earliest Greek philosophers lived and worked, not in Greece itself, but in the Greek colonies of Ionia (the Mediterranean coast of Asia Minor – now Turkey – and the nearby islands). Because it was favorably located for trade among Greece, Egypt, and the Near East, Ionia was not only wealthy, but well placed for the dispersal of ideas; thus Greek thought drew on the knowledge of the Near East, Egypt, and even India at various times in history. Later, the thinkers of the Roman Republic and Empire carried on the Greek tradition.

We can’t showcase the entire spectrum and long history of the scientific thought of the ancient world. This exhibit is simply intended to point out some currents within ancient thought that foreshadowed later developments in evolutionary biology.

Greek philosopher Anaximander

Evolution and Paleontology in the Ancient World

And in the ages after monsters died,
Perforce there perished many a stock, unable
By propagation to forge a progeny.
For whatsoever creatures thou beholdest
Breathing the breath of life, the same have been
Even from their earliest age preserved alive
By cunning, or by valour, or at least
By speed of foot or wing. And many a stock
Remaineth yet, because of use to man
Lucretius – On The Nature of Things, Book V

Anaximander (c.610 – c. 546 BCE)

Ionian philosopher Anaximander (ca. 611 – 546 B. C. E.). Very little is known about his life, but it is known that he wrote a long poem, On Nature, summarizing his research. This poem is now lost, and has survived only in extracts quoted in other works.
anaximander the first scientist

Enough survives, however, that Anaximander’s thought can be reconstructed with some confidence. For Anaximander, the world had arisen from an undifferentiated, indeterminate substance, the apeiron. The Earth, which had coalesced out of the apeiron, had been covered in water at one stage, with plants and animals arising from mud. Humans were not present at the earliest stages; they arose from fish. This poem was quite influential on later thinkers, including Aristotle.

Had Anaximander looked at fossils? Did he study comparative fish and human anatomy? Unfortunately, we have no way of knowing what evidence Anaximander used to support his ideas. His theory bears some resemblance to evolutionary theory, but also seems to have been derived from various Greek myths, such as the story of Deucalion and Pyrrha, in which peoples or tribes are born from the Earth or from stones.

His concept of the apeiron seems similar to the Tao of Chinese philosophy and religion, and to the “formless and void” Earth of the Hebrew creation account and other creation myths. However, even though Anaximander’s ideas drew on the religious and mythical ideas of his time, he was still one of the first to attempt an explanation of the origin and evolution of the cosmos based on natural laws.

Xenophanes of Colophon, (c.570 – c.475 BCE)

In the 6th century B.C.E. Xenophanes of Colophon (died ca. 490 B.C.E.), who was a disciple of Anaximander, developed Anaximander’s theories further. He observed fossil fishes and shells, and concluded that the land where they were found had been underwater at some time. Xenophanes taught that the world formed from the condensation of water and “primordial mud;” he was the first person known to have used fossils as evidence for a theory of the history of the Earth.


The Greek historian Herodotus (484-425 B.C.E.) also observed fossil shells in Egypt, and cited them as evidence that Egypt had once been underwater. He also described a valley in Arabia, in the Mokattam mountains, where he saw “the backbones and ribs of such serpents as it is impossible to describe: of the ribs there were a multitude of heaps. . . “

He ascribed these bones to winged serpents that had been killed by ibises. We now know that these are the bones of fossil mammals that wash out of the rocks every rainy season. Several other ancient historians briefly mentioned fossils in their writings.

Hippocrates of Kos, Father of Western Medicine

Finally, the famous Greek physician Hippocrates of Kos (460-357 B.C.E.) is known to have collected fossils; in fact, modern excavations at Asklepion, the famous medical school of Hippocrates’s day, unearthed a fragment of a fossil elephant molar.


Empedocles of Acragas (490 – c. 430 BC)


Empedocles (in Sicily), postulated that the universe was composed of four basic elements — earth, air, fire, and water. These elements were stirred by two fundamental forces, which Empedocles called Love and Strife. (“Attraction” and “repulsion” might be better modern terms for what Empedocles actually meant.)

The constant interplay of these elements, alternately attracting and repelling each other, had formed the universe. Empedocles claimed that the Earth had given birth to living creatures, but that the first creatures had been disembodied organs. These organs finally joined into whole organisms, through the force of Love, but some of these organisms, being monstrous and unfit for life, had died out.

The theory seems a bit bizarre today, but Empedocles had come up with a sort of evolutionary theory: past natural selection is responsible for the forms we see today. Empedocles also ascribed the origin of the life of today to the interplay of impersonal forces, in which chance, not the gods, played the major role.

There are, however, major differences between Empedocles’s ideas and natural selection in the modern sense: Empedocles conceived of his “natural selection” as a past event, not as an ongoing process. Once again, we do not know whether Empedocles had actually found supporting evidence for his theories. He may have been influenced by existing accounts of mythological creatures that seemed to be “put together” out of the parts of different animals, such as centaurs, sphinxes, and chimeras. But perhaps he had also seen deformed animals, or examined “monstrous-looking” fossil bones.


Aristotle (384 – 322 BCE)

Aristotle bust
Aristotle was born in Stagira in north Greece, the son of Nichomachus, the court physician to the Macedonian royal family. He was trained first in medicine, and then in 367 BCE he was sent to Athens to study philosophy with Plato. He stayed at Plato’s Academy until about 347 BCE.

Aristotle’s thoughts on earth sciences can be found in his treatise Meteorology — the word today means the study of weather, but Aristotle used the word in a much broader sense, covering, as he put it, “all the affections we may call common to air and water, and the kinds and parts of the earth and the affections of its parts.”

Here he discusses the nature of the earth and the oceans. He worked out the hydrologic cycle: “Now the sun, moving as it does, sets up processes of change and becoming and decay, and by its agency the finest and sweetest water is every day carried up and is dissolved into vapour and rises to the upper region, where it is condensed again by the cold and so returns to the earth.”

Aristotle discusses winds, earthquakes (which he thought were caused by underground winds), thunder, lightning, rainbows, and meteors, comets, and the Milky Way (which he thought were atmospheric phenomena). His model of Earth history contains some remarkably modern-sounding ideas:

The same parts of the earth are not always moist or dry, but they change according as rivers come into existence and dry up. And so the relation of land to sea changes too and a place does not always remain land or sea throughout all time, but where there was dry land there comes to be sea, and where there is now sea, there one day comes to be dry land. But we must suppose these changes to follow some order and cycle. The principle and cause of these changes is that the interior of the earth grows and decays, like the bodies of plants and animals….

But the whole vital process of the earth takes place so gradually and in periods of time which are so immense compared with the length of our life, that these changes are not observed, and before their course can be recorded from beginning to end whole nations perish and are destroyed.

Where Aristotle differed most sharply from medieval and modern thinkers was in his belief that the universe had never had a beginning and would never end; it was eternal. Change, to Aristotle, was cyclical: water, for instance, might evaporate from the sea and rain down again, and rivers might come into existence and then perish, but overall conditions would never change.


Much later, the Roman poet and philosopher Titus Lucretius Carus (99-55 B.C.E.) wrote his long philosophical poem De Rerum Natura (“On the Nature of Things”). In this poem Lucretius proposed, among other things, an “evolutionary” theory similar to that of Empedocles (which is ironic, because he attacks Empedocles rather vehemently in other parts of the poem).

Here again, species were born out of the Earth, formed by the chance combination of elements. Natural selection led to the extinction of once-living “monstrous” organisms. Those organisms that survived either survived because of their strength, speed, or cunning, or because of their usefulness to people. But Lucretius did not believe in the production of new species from previously existing ones, the “other side of the coin” of true evolutionary theories. He denied that land-dwelling animals could ever have evolved from marine animals. Like Empedocles, he taught that plants and animals had been born from the Earth, and that the formation of new species was finished:

Wherefore, again, again, how merited
Is that adopted name of Earth – The Mother! –
Since she herself begat the human race,
And at one well-nigh fixed time brought forth
Each beast that ranges raving round about
Upon the mighty mountains, and all birds
Aerial with many a varied shape.
But, lo, because her bearing years must end,
She ceased, like to a woman worn. . . And what
She bore of old, she now can bear no longer. . .

Lucretius’s poem is an exposition of Epicurean philosophy, and is notable for its insistence on the senses as the only way to obtain knowledge. “For whither shall we make appeal? for what / More certain than our senses can there be / Whereby to mark asunder error and truth?”

It is also notable for its long explication of atomism — the doctrine that everything in the universe is made up of atoms. Lucretius did not originate this theory — it goes back to the Greek philosopher Democritus of Abdera (fifth century B.C.E) — but his explanation of it influenced many writers and thinkers of the Middle Ages and Renaissance, despite opposition from the Church.

The above quote from Lucretius’s On the Nature of Things is taken from the on-line edition, available from The Tech Classics Archive at MIT.


Further reading
The First Fossil Hunters: Dinosaurs, Mammoths, and Myth in Greek and Roman Times, Adrienne Mayor


Griffins, Cyclopes, Monsters, and Giants–these fabulous creatures of classical mythology continue to live in the modern imagination through the vivid accounts that have come down to us from the ancient Greeks and Romans. But what if these beings were more than merely fictions? What if monstrous creatures once roamed the earth in the very places where their legends first arose? This is the arresting and original thesis that Adrienne Mayor explores in The First Fossil Hunters. Through careful research and meticulous documentation, she convincingly shows that many of the giants and monsters of myth did have a basis in fact–in the enormous bones of long-extinct species that were once abundant in the lands of the Greeks and Romans.

As Mayor shows, the Greeks and Romans were well aware that a different breed of creatures once inhabited their lands. They frequently encountered the fossilized bones of these primeval beings, and they developed sophisticated concepts to explain the fossil evidence, concepts that were expressed in mythological stories. The legend of the gold-guarding griffin, for example, sprang from tales first told by Scythian gold-miners, who, passing through the Gobi Desert at the foot of the Altai Mountains, encountered the skeletons of Protoceratops and other dinosaurs that littered the ground.

Like their modern counterparts, the ancient fossil hunters collected and measured impressive petrified remains and displayed them in temples and museums; they attempted to reconstruct the appearance of these prehistoric creatures and to explain their extinction. Long thought to be fantasy, the remarkably detailed and perceptive Greek and Roman accounts of giant bone finds were actually based on solid paleontological facts. By reading these neglected narratives for the first time in the light of modern scientific discoveries, Adrienne Mayor illuminates a lost world of ancient paleontology.


Fossil Legends of the First Americans, Adrienne Mayor

The burnt-red badlands of Montana’s Hell Creek are a vast graveyard of the Cretaceous dinosaurs that lived 68 million years ago. Those hills were, much later, also home to the Sioux, the Crows, and the Blackfeet, the first people to encounter the dinosaur fossils exposed by the elements. What did Native Americans make of these stone skeletons, and how did they explain the teeth and claws of gargantuan animals no one had seen alive? Did they speculate about their deaths? Did they collect fossils?

Beginning in the East, with its Ice Age monsters, and ending in the West, where dinosaurs lived and died, this richly illustrated and elegantly written book examines the discoveries of enormous bones and uses of fossils for medicine, hunting magic, and spells. Well before Columbus, Native Americans observed the mysterious petrified remains of extinct creatures and sought to understand their transformation to stone. In perceptive creation stories, they visualized the remains of extinct mammoths, dinosaurs, pterosaurs, and marine creatures as Monster Bears, Giant Lizards, Thunder Birds, and Water Monsters. Their insights, some so sophisticated that they anticipate modern scientific theories, were passed down in oral histories over many centuries.

Drawing on historical sources, archaeology, traditional accounts, and extensive personal interviews, Adrienne Mayor takes us from Aztec and Inca fossil tales to the traditions of the Iroquois, Navajos, Apaches, Cheyennes, and Pawnees. Fossil Legends of the First Americans represents a major step forward in our understanding of how humans made sense of fossils before evolutionary theory developed.


Further reading on Herdotus and fossils:

2007 The Winged Snakes of Arabia and the Fossil Site of Makhtesh Ramon in the Negev. Wiener Zeitschrift für die Kunde des Morgenlandes 97 (2007) 353-365



The ancient Greeks told stories of giants, describing them as flesh-and-blood creatures who lived and died–and whose bones could be found coming out of the ground where they were buried long ago. Indeed, even today large and surprisingly human-like bones can be found in Greece. Modern scientists understand such bones to be the remains of mammoths, mastodons, and woolly rhinoceroses that once lived in the region.

But ancient Greeks were largely unfamiliar with these massive animals, and many believed that the enormous bones they found were the remains of human-like giants. Any nonhuman traits in the bones were thought to be due to the grotesque anatomical features of giants.


Modern History: How evolution by natural selection came to be discovered

1. Patrick Matthew (1790 – 1874) was a Scottish landowner and fruit farmer, who contributed to understanding of horticulture and agriculture, with a focus on maintaining the British navy and feeding new colonies. He published the basic concept of natural selection as a mechanism of evolution in an obscure appendix to his 1831 book On Naval Timber and Arboriculture. Matthew failed to develop or publicise his ideas concerning natural selection; Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace were credited with publishing the theory of evolution by natural selection in 1858; and historical analysis shows no firm evidence that either Darwin or Wallace encountered Matthew’s earlier work before he contacted them in 1860.

2. Charles Darwin

3. Alfred Russell Wallace

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