Before Darwin

Darwin's ideas on the processes of evolution and the classification of different species were ground breaking, but, like all scientists, he was building on the ideas of earlier investigators. This section is a short summary of some of his predecessors and their ideas  on the origin of different species and  their classification. 

Ancient Greece

The Greek philosopher Aristotle (384-322 BC) developed a classification system which divided animals from plants and then divided animals into those with red blood and those without, and then divided the red blooded creatures into mammals, lizards, birds and fish. He believed that lower organisms originated from slime and mud. He did not believe that more complex animals had evolved but he did believe that there was a hierachy in nature, and that humans were the highest animals.

Basra and the Abbassid Caliphate

In the mid 9th Century AD there was a period of cultural and intellectual revolution in Basra, where a muslim scholar called Al Jahiz  wrote an enormous book entitled A Book of Living Beings which added a great deal to Aristotle’s work. He also listened to the experiences of their own people, the Bedouin in particular, who herded their camels over large tracts of land and were expert breeders of animals and observers of nature.

Al Jahiz thought it was good that people should observe God’s creation very closely because this was something the Koran said was owed to God. His ideas on why there were so many different species came close to Darwin’s theory of evolution, so close that some Muslim scholars have suggested that Darwin stole the ideas of Jahiz. There wasn’t an English edition of A Book of Living Beings though, and as Darwin couldn't read Arabic he could not possibly have read the work of Al Jahiz.

Later the work of many of the Arabic scholars was passed on to Europe and sparked the renaissance of learning in the Christian world. The work of mathematicians like Al Gibra, who developed Algebra, became well known but Al Jahiz and his ideas on the origin of living things was forgotten. In the Christian culture of Europe in the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance the only acceptable explanation was the Bible story which told how each animal was designed just once by God    

Eighteenth Century Sweden

The system of classification we still use today was introduced by the Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus (1709-1778). He gave every species  a double barrelled Latin name, the first a family name followed by a species name. He was in awe of nature but believed that God had created each species separately. Linnaeus was at first convinced that species never changed but modified this when he observed that different species sometimes mated with each other to produce hybrids but he never considered that all species might change over time.

Revolutionary France

Jean Batiste Lamarck (1744-1829), a professor at the Jardin de Plantes in Paris who studied worms and insects was responsible for considerable advances in the classification of animals. His studies led him to believe that species evolved over time. Lamarck suggested that the use or disuse of a part of a body would cause it to increase or decrease in size, and that this change could be inherited. He proposed that the long neck of the giraffe had evolved as the animals stretched its neck to reach for the leaves at the top of trees and that this change had been passed on to future generations. At the time of the French Revolution the connection between state and Church had been broken  and so Lamarck was free to question the Biblical account of creation. 

The English Enlightenment

Charles Darwin’s Grandfather, Erasmus Darwin (1703-1802) was a well known physician, scientist and poet. he had similar ideas to Lamarck. In his work Zoomia he speculated that all life had arisen from a single living filament. He was an adherent of the views of the enlightenment, a philosophical movement which beieved that human reasoning was to be preferred over unquestioning faith. 

18th Century population studies

Thomas Malthus, a clergyman and political economist, had a profound influence of evolutionary thought. His book An Essay on the Principles of Population, was written in 1798. The book was written to counter his father’s argument that humans would naturally progress towards a utopian society in which equality, wealth, happiness and virtue flourished. Malthus thought that this idea was incompatible with the facts of human existence, which were regulated by the same laws as the existence of other animals. He pointed out that humans had the potential to double their numbers in 25 years, as had happened in the newly colonised America. Malthus thought that it unlikely that any land could provide enough food for such an increase indefinitely, and that in fact famine and pestilence normally limited population increase. Malthus’s book had a great influence on Darwin and also on Alfred Russel Wallace.

In the section on Darwin’s connections there is a short account of some of Darwin’s contemporaries such as Wallace who influenced Darwin and the ways in which his views were presented and discussed at the time.

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