MOUSE – SPRING 2011
Evolution Before Darwin:
The theory of Evolutionary Biology did not really spring, full-blown
from Darwin’s pen. It had antecedents; the field was beginning to come around in the mid-1800s.
Like all ideas, it is based on what came before. There is no reason to disparage what Darwin had
to offer, but he was a man of his times; the seeds of the central idea were blowing in the wind.
All cultures develop explanations of “how it all began”. In anthropological terms, we call
; the Hopi have them; Aborigines in Australia have them;
30,000 year old cave paintings in Europe suggest that 20,000 years before civilization began,
our ancestors - living in caves - had them. The cultures leading to modern European
civilization also had them; think about Greek, Etruscan, Phoenician and Roman mythology.
As early as the 6
Century, before the Christian era, the Greek Anaximander
living creatures were formed from water, and that humans and animals were descended from
fishes. On an explanatory scale of 1 – 10, that one rates ~ 4. We are
substantially water, and
we are descended from fishes (sort of). He was actually ‘sort of’ on the right track.
, a century later, came up with an interesting explanation of the process by which
it all happened. His idea was that organisms were constituted as random collections of heads,
limbs, and other organs. You can imagine an organism with the head of a human, the body of
a seal, the limbs of a bird, etc. Greek mythology is full of such creatures.
Most wouldn’t work, being unable to swim, run, fly, or (probably) even walk. Empedocles,
however, added something important, pointing out that only the workable combinations were
fit to survive. What we saw then (2,600 years ago) were the ones that made it. That one gets a
2, on our 1 – 10 scale. On the other hand, he got
on the first pass.
I mentioned earlier that Plato had this idea about the
of things, and Aristotle later
extended it to the idea that each species (even then, they had species) had its own special
essence (ground plan, if you like). Early Christian thought expanded those ideas, taking the
view that since God created everything, he (definitely a male god) conceived perfect designs.
Moreover, God created a great chain of being
(a ladder of life), from the
simplest to the most complex, an ordered set, with ‘you know who’ at the top. Well, think
about it, we are sentient beings with spiritual capabilities, and we are clearly organisms. That
makes us just below the angels. Rational, even if a little bit off-target and self-serving.
It also gives us dominion over all the other (that is to say the ‘lower’ organisms). There are