George Stimpson

His life and works

Home > Information Roundup > Did Darwin originate the theory of evolution?
Did Darwin originate the theory of evolution?

The general idea of evolution was already an old one when Charles Darwin was born. It was a familiar concept to the Greek philosophers and the sages of India before the beginning of the Christian era, and many other ancient thinkers had a hazy notion of an orderly development and progress in nature. Anaximander, the Greek philosopher who died about 547 B.C., believed in the transmutation of species and held that man evolved from aquatic animals. Several centuries later Aristotle approached the theory of evolution when he wrote: "Nature passes from lifeless objects to animals in such unbroken sequence, interposing between them beings which live and yet are not animals, that scarcely any difference seems to exist between two neighboring groups owing to their close proximity." Before the time of Charles Darwin (1809-1882) several writers had dealt with the subject freely. Among these were Comte Louis Leclerc de Buffon (1707-1788), French naturalist; James Burnet Monboddo (1714-1799), Scottish judge and anthropologist; Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802), English physiologist and poet and grandfather of Charles Darwin; Jean de Lamarck (1744-1829), French zoologist; Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832), German philosopher; Etienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire (1772-1844), [page 10] French naturalist; and Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860), German philosopher. All of these men had advanced the general theory of the evolution of higher forms of life from lower and the evolution of man from the higher animals long before Charles Darwin became identified with the theory. In Ancient Metaphysics (written between 1779 and 1799) Lord Monboddo, the eccentric Scottish judge who dabbled in anthropology on the side, advanced the theory that man had raised himself from an animal condition through the necessities of his environment; in his Origin and Progress of Languages, Lord Monboddo identified man with the same species as the orangutan, and the author of the work, like Darwin later, was ridiculed for teaching that men descended from monkeys. In 1809, the year of Charles Darwin's birth, Lamarck published a definite statement on the theory of evolution and concluded that the resemblance in form and structure of groups of species was owing to affinity and that all living organisms descended from a few very simple forms, or possibly a single form, that originally developed from lifeless matter by spontaneous generation. He was also of the opinion that the human race was developed by the transformation of a series of mammal ancestors, the nearest of which are the primate apes. Jean Jacques Rousseau was sponsoring the ape-man theory as early as 1754, and Schopenhauer anticipated Darwin in the idea of natural selection for the preservation of the species. It was not until 1859 that Darwin published his Origin of Species. He was the first reputable naturalist to work out and to publish a complete and complex account of the theory of evolution through natural selection, including what Herbert Spencer and Alfred Russel Wallace called "the survival of the fittest." Even in the Origin of Species, which is reputed to have been hurried to press because Wallace had arrived at similar conclusions, Darwin made no attempt to solve the evolution of man. He finally tackled that subject in his Descent of Man, which was not published until 1871, long after the subject had been widely discussed by many others.