A Brief History of the Theory of
by Jerry Bergman,
156, 2014 July)
The belief that the explanation for the origin of all plant and animal
life was due to some form of progressive evolution has existed far back
into antiquity (Abel, 1973; Osborn, 1929). Philosophers have discussed
various theories of biological evolution as far back as before the time
of Christ (Van Over, 1980). Professor Stott (2012) documents the story
of the discovery of evolution from Aristotle, to Al-Jahiz, an Arab
writer in the first century. The blurb for Stott's book added that "Evolution
was not discovered single-handedly contrary to what has become standard
lore, but is an idea that emerged over many centuries, advanced by
… individuals across the globe who had the imagination to speculate on
nature's extraordinary ways.”
An early Greek who postulated a written theory of evolution was
Lucretius (c.95-c.55 B.C). He believed that the Earth was "mortal,” and
both existed and operated without the need for divine intervention. It
was, therefore, necessary to explain what caused all natural
phenomena—the night-day cycle, the movements of the Sun, Moon and
stars, and the existence of plants and animals—solely in naturalistic
terms (Gardner, 1972, p. 60).
To account for the existence of the living world, many ancient
scholars, including Lucretius, accepted the spontaneous generation
explanation. Usually this involved the spontaneous appearance of life
from non-life, such as clay, cloth rags, meat, or garbage. Lucretius'
account of both the origin of life and of all living species, is the
longest and most detailed extant write-up dating back to the ancient
world. His mechanistic evolution theory negates the need for any divine
design anywhere, and is a forerunner of Darwin's theory of evolution
Later Evolution Theories
Sir Walter Raleigh concluded in the 1600s that dogs turn into wolves
(and vice versa), and that the different races of men were not
genetically related, but rather evolved separately. Some Christian
scholars of the time even believed that certain human races were the
"beasts of the earth” discussed in Genesis.
Comte de Buffon (1707-1788) produced a thirty-six volume set in French
titled Natural History wherein he declared that modern animals
had evolved, actually de-evolved—he stressed the Biblical
degeneration—from other animals. He taught that the major causes of
this evolution included climate changes, environmental factors, diet,
and interbreeding. Buffon also believed in a version of the now
discredited inheritance of acquired characteristics theory.
Buffon's theory explained the large size of certain animals, such as
elephants, by the idea that their ancestors consumed a great deal of
food, and the larger size that resulted from this diet was passed onto
their offspring. This idea was developed further and popularized by the
French scientist Lamarck (1744-1829). The theory of the inheritance
of acquired characteristics is now called Lamarckian biology
in his honor.
Lamarck's most famous example explained a giraffe's long neck by
postulating that it developed as a result of each generation stretching
to reach the leaves that were higher up in the trees. This longer neck
that resulted from stretching was passed on to its offspring by some
unknown means. A life time of stretching in each generation produced
longer and longer necks — and this characteristic was "acquired” by the
giraffes' offspring, and in each generation was passed on to its
progeny. As a result the average giraffe's neck would after many
generations become very long.
Lamarck also believed that if an animal did not use some structure,
such as its legs, it would eventually be lost. Thus, the Lamarckian
theory concluded that snakes no longer have legs because they have
spent so much time crawling on their bellies that their useless legs
gradually disappeared. Studies, such as cutting off the tails of mice,
showed no loss of tails even after many generations. Furthermore, Jews
have practiced circumcision for eons and no evidence exists that the
foreskin of Jews has diminished in history.
Even though scientific evidence has shown this theory wrong –– no
fossil record or other empirical evidence exists for this Lamarckian
gradual growth or loss theory –– and the idea has been totally
discounted. Nonetheless, this view is still uncritically accepted by
Erasmus Darwin and His Contemporaries
Darwin's own grandfather, Erasmus, published several books containing
ideas similar to Lamarck's theory of use and disuse, as did
Charles Darwin. Even Leonardo da Vinci developed a theory of evolution
while searching for fossils in the Tuscan hills mine shafts. The
naturalist Jardin de Plantes claimed to have found evidence for
evolutionary change in the natural history collection that were stolen
during the Napoleonic wars. Radical Denis Diderot of Paris also
explored the origins of species while under the surveillance of the
Most of the early European pioneers of evolutionary theory could best
be termed creationists. Alfred Wallace, who arrived at the theory of
evolution by natural selection independently of Darwin, concluded that
evolution did not extend to humans, which he believed was a product of
special creation (Montagu, 1956).
When Darwin discovered that Wallace had formulated ideas very similar
to his own, he rushed into print his famous 1859 book titled The
Origin of Species. The first modern paper on the theory of natural
selection (Darwin's putative main contribution to evolutionary thought)
was published jointly by Alfred Wallace and Charles Darwin in 1858.
Wallace deserves much more credit than he has received, and the
interchange between the two men was evidently an important part of
Darwin's later theoretical and intellectual growth (Breverton, 2012).
Darwin, a dedicated hard worker, later published many volumes of
detailed research on everything from earthworms to facial expressions
in an effort to support his evolution theory. His Origin of Species
(1859) and Descent of Man (1871) books reflected a great deal
of research and thinking, but all too often sounded like a theological
tract, and both books were largely a polemic against creationism as
believed at the time by most Europeans (O'Toole, 1929).
Darwin, for part of his life at least, was a Creationist of sorts. The
last sentence in his famous Origin of Species states "There is
grandeur in this view of life [evolution] with its several powers
having been originally believed by the Creator into a few forms or into
one; and that, while this planet has gone cycling on according to the
fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms of the
most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved”
Some claim that he added this paragraph to avoid attacks on his idea
from others, but yet other scholars argued that, as Darwin seemed to
freely express his opinion in other areas, no matter how radical, this
may not have been the case. Darwin's wife, the former Miss Emma
Wedgewood and Darwin's cousin, was a devout Christian Fundamentalist
and creationist who was also devoted to her husband. She cared for him
through his many illnesses, helped edit his books (as did also Darwin's
daughters), and doted on him until he died (Moore, 1979).
As Hollingdale wrote, "It is unnecessary to stress that Darwin did not
invent that theory [of evolution] but it is necessary to stress that …
after Darwin it appeared to be the proved theory" (1999, p. 72).
Professor Eugene Koonin stated bluntly that "Darwin did not discover
evolution and did not [even] offer the first coherent description of
evolution" (2009, p. 1011). Darwin's main contribution was to
popularize the theory. This topic is documented more fully in Bergman
Abel, Ernest. 1973. Ancient Views on the Origins of Life.
Rutherford, NJ: Farleigh Dickenson University Press
Bergman, Jerry. 1980. "Public Opinions Regarding Creation and
Evolution." Origins, 7(1)
______________. 2012. The Dark Side of Charles Darwin
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_____________. 1871. Descent of Man. London: John Murray
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