The Failure of Evolution in Antiquity

In Georgia Irby (ed.), Blackwell Companion to Ancient Science, Medicine and Technology. Wiley-Blackwell (forthcoming)
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Abstract
The intellectual history of evolutionary theory really does not begin in earnest until the late seventeenth/early eighteenth century. Prior to that, the idea that species might have evolved over time was not a serious possibility for most naturalists and philosophers. There is certainly no substantive debate in antiquity about evolution in the modern sense. There were really only two competing explanations for how living things came to have the parts they do: design or blind chance. Ancient Greek Atomism, for example, taught that all composite bodies, including living things, are generated through the random collision of atoms as they rebel and move in the void. Plato and Aristotle both dismissed this possibility on the grounds that living things are too complex and too well-adapted to be products of chance. This eventually became the central premise in Galen’s own Argument from Design. That species forms might have gradually evolved over time by a process of natural selection was not seen as a plausible alternative. Of course, such a theory had been proposed by Empedocles in the fifth century BCE. But because his theory still relied heavily on chance, it was not taken seriously by any of the later ancient Greek or Roman thinkers. My aim in this paper is to investigate the reasons why evolutionary thinking failed to gain momentum in antiquity after its introduction by Empedocles.
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Archival date: 2014-06-03
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