Evolutionary Ideas: Pre‐Darwinian


Even if they did not anticipate Darwin's evolutionary answers, naturalists, philosophers and theologians have always asked many of the same kinds of questions, about the unity, diversity and complexity of living things; their seemingly perfect adaptations to their places in nature and their patterns of distribution across the globe.

Key Concepts

  • For biologists today, Darwin's 1859 theory of evolution answers questions about the diversity of life forms, the common patterns in their structure, their adaptation to different environments and their distribution over geographic space and geological time.
  • Before Darwin, scientists, philosophers and theologians grappled with many of the same questions, sometimes anticipating Darwin's answers, but more often not.
  • Historically important explanatory devices included the work of chance in agglomerating atoms into viable configurations, formative forces that push and pull organic matter into shape, natural tendencies for matter to self‐organise and divine or transcendental organising principles.
  • These sorts of devices were in line with the scientific standards of the day and provided satisfactory answers to questions about structural unity, diversity, and adaptation.
  • Questions about the geographic and geological distribution of species became most pressing in the nineteenth century and seemed to require historical and evolutionary explanations.

Keywords: chain of being; evolution; Empedocles; Lucretius; Plato; Aristotle; Lamarck; Erasmus Darwin; H. G. Bronn; William Paley


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Further Reading

Bowler PJ (2009) Evolution: The History of an Idea. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Corsi P (2005) Before Darwin: transformist concepts in European natural history. Journal of the History of Biology 38: 67–83.

Desmond AJ (1989) The Politics of Evolution: Morphology, Medicine, and Reform in Radical London. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Gillispie CC (1959) Genesis and Geology: A Study in the Relations of Scientific Thought, Natural Theology, and Social Opinion in Great Britain, 1790–1850. New York, NY: Harper Torchbooks.

Glass B, Temkin O and Straus W Jr (eds) (1959) Forerunners of Darwin: 1745–1859. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Greene JC (1961) The Death of Adam: Evolution and Its Impact on Western Thought. New York: New American Library of World Literature (Mentor Books).

Hodge MJS (1972) The universal gestation of nature. Journal of the History of Biology 5: 127–151.

Rudwick MJS (1976) The Meaning of Fossils: Episodes in the History of Palaeontology, 2nd edn. New York: Science History Publications.

Rudwick MJS (1992) Scenes from Deep Time: Early Pictorial Representations of the Prehistoric World. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Secord JA (2000) Victorian Sensation: The Extraordinary Publication, Reception, and Secret Authorship of Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

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Gliboff, Sander(May 2018) Evolutionary Ideas: Pre‐Darwinian. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. http://www.els.net [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0001691.pub2]