A Brief History of the Theory of Evolution
by Jerry Bergman, Ph.D.

(Investigator 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 (Campbell, 2004).

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 many today.

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 secret police.
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” (Darwin, 1859). 

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 (2012).


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

Breverton, Terry. 2012. Breverton's Encyclopedia of Inventions. Quercus, London

Campbell, Gorden. 2004. Lucretius on Creation and Evolution: A Commentary on De Rerum Natura, Book Five, Lines 772-1104. New York: Oxford University Press

Gardner, Eldon.  1972.  History of Biology, 3rd Ed., Minneapolis, Minnesota: Burgess

Darwin, Charles. 1859. Origin of Species. London: John Murray

_____________. 1871. Descent of Man. London: John Murray

Gould, Steven J. 1997. Ontogeny and Phylogeny, Belknap-Harvard Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts

Harnack, William. 1981. "Carl Sagan: Cosmic Evolution vs the Creationist Myth" The Humanist, July-Aug. 41(4)

Hollingdale, Richard J. 1999. Nietzsche: the Man and his Philosophy. New York: Cambridge University Press

Johnson. 2010. Nietzsche's Anti-Darwinism. New York: Cambridge University Press

Koonin, Eugene. 2009. "Darwinian Evolution in the Light of Genomics." Nucleic Acids Research. 37(4):1011-1034

Montagu, Ashley. 1956. Introduction to Marriage Past and Present.  Boston:  Porter Sargent

Moore, James. 1979. The Post-Darwinian Controversies. Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press

Osborn, Henry. 1929. From the Greeks to Darwin.  N.Y.  Scribner's

O'Toole, George Barry. 1929. The Case Against Evolution. New York:  Macmillan. Research. 37(4):1011-1034

Stott, Rebecca. 2012. Darwin's Ghosts: In Search of the First Evolutionists UK: Bloomsbury

Van Over, Raymond. 1980. Sun Songs:  Creation Myths from Around the World.  New York:  New American Library