I. SCIENCE E. The Theory of Evolution 1. Background

03 Feb

typical evolution picture

If the Big Bang Theory is science’s answer for the Origin of the World, and a “Primordial Slime” or Protobiont is it’s answer for the Origin of Life, then the Theory of Evolution is science’s answer for the Origin of Man.

The literature about Evolution (I will capitalize the current consensus theory) is vast, but the literature based on Evolution, even more tremendous. Books have been written that specialize in evaluation of books and articles written, well, about Evolution, and so the theory itself has spawned meta-theory, a metaphysics of metaphysics, one could say. So when we here discuss Evolution, we must be aware that many people have been down this road before. We must not criticize this idea too quickly, and I will try to keep the commentary to a minimum as we begin by merely trying to present it accurately; we must not read more into it than what is there, and we must make sure we include everything that is essential.

Part of this we have already done, by setting up the foundational theoretical science on which this theory is, at least indirectly, supported. Now I wish to do this the best way I know how, which is to go to History, and get from her what we can about the birth of this idea.

The Origin of Evolution

image by rebecca antoniou "Water Earth Air Fire"

Human evolution, or as I will say, Evolution is loosely defined as the general belief that man and the apes share a common, ape-like ancestor. Whether or not this is what the fathers of this theory had in mind at all is subject to some debate. We ought to, therefore, distinguish what I will call general evolution, the idea of which has been around since at least the ancient Greeks, from the special type of Evolution of which we are concerned.

General evolution, with a small “e,”  is the belief that man, as well as all the other living creatures on the Earth, change and adapt over time. Environmental conditions, as well as intrinsic or genetic mutation factors, contribute to alter the behavior and even of appearance of succeeding generations of living things. General evolution does not account for new species, however, as all the alterations are special (or pertaining to the species).

That general evolution had its beginnings way before Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species is pretty much a unanimous consensus. While the Greeks of old had no real word for “evolution,” even the Pre-Socratic philosophers held the opinion that things could be reduced to a common element, and that the progression up the Scale of Being is due to a type of evolution. For Thales, it was water that formed the basis of living things, for Heraclitus it was fire, for Anaximenes it was the air. The atomists, like Democritus, and later Epicurus/Lucretius, held that atoms are the building blocks of all matter.

Empedocles held that all four elements, earth, air, fire, and water, constituted the basis of Life, and that the measure of each in the being determines what type of life it is. He used love and hate for metaphors explaining the interactions of these elements. Parmenides, about whom Plato dedicates a dialogue, argued that that all things are but one thing, the One, and that all change is unreal and only apparent, a consequence of the way we interpret time. All this before Socrates.

But no thinker before Plato discussed this Theory of Evolution concept more specifically that Anaximander. Shortly after 600 BC, Anaximander put forth his view that living beings gradually developed from a union of water with heat.  He has even suggested the opinion that men came from other kinds of animals. His fragments are available only from Historical accounts, many can be found here. It was his thought, or the remnants of it, that really set out to do honest science.

Later the Stoics followed the Pre-Socratic idea of the igneous air as the primary principle of Life. The Stoics associated this idea with a deity, and said this deity is Life itself. The development of this Godhead’s Life was for the Stoics identical with the progress and dissemination of Life in the World. They coined the term logos spermatikos, from logos, meaning word, communication, reason, plan, or (my own definition) “the way it goes,” and sperma, life-giving principle. As a whole this term signifies the little “spirits” (the term today is misleading) that animate living things:

From this originating Logos or Word come myriads of individual logoi spermatikoi, children seed-powers, each bearing within it the primal reason (logos) or fire of spirit. The Logos is One, but to fulfill the work of creation, of molding “gross matter into the things that are to be,” there are countless minor logoi, indestructible seed-powers which “…are, as it were, spirits or deities, spread throughout the universe, everywhere shaping, peopling, designing, multiplying; they are activities of fiery spirit working through tension in its highest development. But the seed-power of the universe [Logos spermatikos] comprehends in itself all the individual seed-powers [logoi spermatikoi]; they are begotten of it, and shall in the end return to it. Thus in the whole work of creation and re-absorption we see the work of one Zeus, one divine Word, one all-pervading spirit.” (E. Vernon Arnold, Roman Stoicism).

This early evolution arises from these early thinkers’ desire to find, as we are here, the Origin of Man. Their treatment of the subject is the West’s first real scientific inquiry into this anthropogenesis, or beginning of Man, meaning the first attempts at doing this without direct appeal to the established gods of the Greek pantheon. More importantly, “gods” became replaced by “God,” if in the form of a principle, or reason behind human existence, such as the Air, the Breath, the Boundless, the Infinite, or the Fire.


By far the biggest debate amongst the Pre-Socratics was not that there exists a force responsible for Life, nor even the merit of the different ideas as to what this Force or Element could be. In the end they all resort to a capitalized Principle as explanation. But rather than see this as progress, which in itself is not—-we gain nothing from renaming Zeus The Unknowable, or Gravity—-the debate continued in ancient philosophical circles because there was disagreement about the validity of the claims whereby the conclusions were reached. This is why we in the West call the Pre-Socratics the inventors of the scientific method. They demonstrated that accepting Gods, God, or no-God, makes little difference: the show to find out how and why must go on.

Clearly, however, early general evolutionist theory was agreed that there was a primary at least power or force that ultimately is responsible for the first generation of Life. The idea of a Prime Mover or demiurge responsible for the logos have their origins in the works of Aristotle and Plato, respectively.


For Plato, the demiurgos or demiurge is the architect of the world. The world literally means a “skilled worker,” a philologist would tell you the root words “demos” means the populace, or the people, and that “ergos” means the act of producing something, or working. A demiurge, taken as Plato meant it, is to conceptualize one part of the logos to stand for that aspect which unfolds life. The term means, specifically, “creator of the people,” a term pretty synonymous with the Origin of Man.

The demiurge is merely a part of Plato’s God, yet the only part we can hope to comprehend. What was important in the development of evolutionary thought is that Plato synthesized the ever-changing world of Heraclitus with the never-changing world of Parmenides. Plato’s belief was that Heraclitus was correct in insisting that the phenomenal, or observed world is in a constant flux, but that Parmenides was correct also in that the World of Ideas, or of the Forms (idea and eidos) never changes. This began thinking of the World on the one hand as idea and the other as appearance, something we know today as dualism, and which has its opposite in  monism, this latter which asserts that things of idea and things of the phenomenal world are of the same substance. For Plato, in this sense a dualist, and because of their seemingly not to suffer change and deterioration, what is most real are the Ideas.

But Plato was also a follower of Pythagoras, and the Mysteries (probably Coptic or Egyptian rather than Eleusinian). His real inquiry into the nature of Life and its evolution only begins with the Dyad, or the manifestation of reality from the unknowable monad. He was a mystic philosopher more than a scientific one, so whereas the Big Bang starts in obscurity, Plato starts too in the same unknown.

But from that point of regression, where the human mind can apparently go no further into the foreseeable past, Plato felt he had to go backward or more precise to say, inward in effort to discover Truth that cannot be deduced by the scientific method. Undoubtedly, he felt this more important a quest than the doing of practical science, and where the real questions begin. Plato’s examination of the empirical forced him to accept that what is more real is that which is ideal.  So it is that his emphasis on the ideas or forms, which therefore occupied the bulk of his contemplation, is a study of metaphysics rather than of science. [n.b. The higher levels of understanding the deity, indeed, required initiation into Sacred Mysteries. While Plato was such an initiate, he knew his hearers were (and mostly still today are) not. He could not reveal whatever else he knew, whatever he knew. If you are interested in this debated aspect to Plato start here and then maybe check out Proclus (here is Proclus direct) and if you feel brave try Helena Blavatsky on Plato here].

Plato believed that the Origin of Man is the same as the Origin of eros, or erotic, desirous love (as opposed to agape, or philos). In his Symposium (203a-204b) Plato, following earlier tradition, says this Eros is the child of the union of Plenty (or Abundance) and Want (or Need), penia and poros. Man, like eros, is midway between idea and phenomena, sharing in both, but never quite part of either. Like the ladder in the Symposium, eros is never ending, desire never rests. The best we can do is pursue wisdom, yet even this is an endless climb. No matter how hard we, as human beings, try to arrive at the Truth, we find there is a rung upon which we have yet to step. We never reach the objects of our desire, we are, in effect, bundles of desire waiting to happen. Important for us is that Plato himself relegates these sorts of discussions to metaphysics, not science proper. In Platonic terms applied to humanity, we desire more, and the best things we can desire are wisdom (sophia), knowledge (episteme), or love itself. The Good, Plato’s God, a combination of all these things and logos as well, cannot be sought by empirical means. it is metaphysics:

“This knowledge is not something that can be put into words like other sciences; but after long-continued intercourse between teacher and pupil, in joint pursuit of the subject, suddenly, like light flashing forth when a fire is kindled, it is born in the soul and straightway nourishes itself” (Plato, Seventh Letter, 341 c).

Plato will undoubtedly arise again later. He is claimed by scientists, metaphysicians, and scientists as a part of each of their histories. But he is not quite the scientist as was, say Aristotle.

plato and aristotle from "School of Athens"


Alexander the Great’s tutor Aristotle, it is well known, referred to human beings as “featherless bipeds.” A consequence of his classification system, this definition was for him as tongue-in-cheek as it is for us today, as we know from the elaboration he gives. Like Plato, Aristotle believed in a World of Forms, or Ideas, that may be remembered, and by virtue of which any learning can take place at all. This process Plato called anamneusis, or “without forgetting.” But while Plato was convinced that human beings are born with some knowledge, for Aristotle all knowledge comes via experience. This very debate recurs later when the “empirical” philosophers –like John Locke– took on the position of Aristotle, while the “rationalist” philosophers –like Descartes– echoed Plato.

In actuality, in-depth study will show that this disagreement is not as large a divide as we have imagined, especially between Aristotle and Plato. Both placed priority of the Forms over the transient things of matter, both consider existing, empirical things to be a combination of Form and matter.

For our purposes here we should recognize that Aristotle, in De Anima and elsewhere holds that all living creatures have a soul (Latin anima, animus); the Greek term translated in Latin to “anima” is psuche, the psyche, more correctly, the soul (compare for instance nous, “spirit” or  “mind”). There are several types of soul, and that each “higher” soul contains within it the lower aspects as well. Thus some living things have have vegetative souls, some appetitive souls, others rational souls.

The real difference, evidenced in mankind and absent from the minds of the other somewhat rational creatures, is that while he shares with these animals the ability (“have enough mind”) to learn tricks, follow orders, and be trained (nous pathetikos), Man alone can create, calculate, and synthesize information, a process we know as reasoning. While animals can never be the real cause of anything since they act on impulse, instinct, or compulsion, only the type of mind that Man has allows him to be a cause himself. This is the poetic nature (nous poetikos) of Man which makes him unique, and it is a singular distinction of the human soul, defining him as a separate species.

Incidentally, the Delphic Oracle’s proclamation that “Aristotle’s Biology holds the key to his Metaphysics” can be understood in the way we have just discussed and is important here. The nous poetikos that defines Man had to come from somewhere, and it comes, for him, from Nature.

The German Influx

After the ancients, and we will get into even earlier thought when we discuss Creationism or Intelligent Design, the history of general evolution as to the Origin of Man can be traced to the later philosophers and thinkers before Darwin and to a lesser extent Thomas Malthus, our next subject.

Several of these thinkers were the Germans Johann Gottfried Herder, GE Lessing, and Goethe in and around the 18th Century. All took the historical perspective, and tried to trace the Origin of Man as a part of their general outlook that there is some sort of consistency in Nature that links (Aristotle’s)  Genera of Being one to another. Goethe, for example, studied the differences in the metamorphosis of plants. Schelling, Erasmus Darwin (by whose theory DNA was discovered said “all warm-blooded animals have arisen from one living filament… with the power of acquiring new parts”) Kant (who called differences of species by evolution “a questionable exercise of the reason”), and especially Hegel (with his expression of the Weltgeist, or World-Spirit), all had something to say about general evolutionary ideas. Erasmus Darwin especially, took this metaphysics to its highest expression yet, with the possible exception of the Frenchman Lamarck.

I reprint the following quote to some extent (found here at Wikipedia) because the importance of Lamarck (and to a lesser degree, fellow Frenchman Lavoisier) to the Theory of Evolution is still under-appreciated, and often misunderstood. While the similarities of Lamarck’s ideas to modern theory are obvious, it is in the differences that we will find the distinction between general evolution theory and the Theory of Evolution so-called since Darwin.

“Lamarck stressed two main themes in his biological work. The first was that the environment gives rise to changes in animals. He cited examples of blindness in moles, the presence of teeth in mammals and the absence of teeth in birds as evidence of this principle. The second principle was that life was structured in an orderly manner and that many different parts of all bodies make it possible for the organic movements of animals.[25]

Although he was not the first thinker to advocate organic evolution, he was the first to develop a truly coherent evolutionary theory[27]. He outlined his theories regarding evolution first in his Floreal lecture of 1800, and then in three later published works:

1)Recherches sur l’organisation des corps vivants, 1802.
2)Philosophie Zoologique, 1809.
3)Histoire naturelle des animaux sans vertèbres, (in seven volumes, 1815-1822).

Lamarck employed several mechanisms as drivers of evolution, drawn from the common knowledge of his day and from his own belief in chemistry pre-Lavoisier. He used these mechanisms to explain the two forces he saw as comprising evolution; a force driving animals from simple to complex forms, and a force adapting animals to their local environments and differentiating them from each other. He believed that these forces must be explained as a necessary consequence of basic physical principles, favoring a materialistic attitude toward biology.”

Were I to summarize Lamarck I would say that he did what Darwin did before Darwin did it. That is, whatever is good in Darwin’s thought is a direct consequence, if not outright theft, of the ideas of Lamarck. He was, first of all, the pioneer of the study of genetics, specifically the transference of traits in living things from one generation to the next. Also, Lamarck stressed that while beneficial traits are for the most part retained, undesirable or maleficent traits tend to disappear in later generations.

But Lamarck could not explain the origin of new species. He could, like Darwin, by his theory account for an aardvark developing a long snout over time to more readily get the ants and small insects it likes to eat. But he, also like Darwin, cannot explain why not all, say opossums, did not become aardvarks.  Neither can explain totally new species effectively. Also, much of Lamarckianism has been, rightly or wrongly, considered incorrect. He would say, for instance, that a child of a person who throws a baseball for  a living would be better at throwing a baseball than an average person, because his father and his grandfather did the same. Current research, though, has objected to this, citing for example that even though the parents of a child use the bathroom, that child still needs to be taught how to do so.

I think this is a leap at best, at worst a caricature. Lamarck never denied that the things of Life need to be learned, what he asserted was that because of their ancestral history some people pick things up faster than others.  As a scientific theorist, his idea stands strong on general evolutionary grounds. In real life, basketball players do produce children better at basketball than the average; a father who does manual labor will produce a child more prone to muscular development and amassing physical strength. That this is denied by current science is where The Theory of Evolution diverges from Lamarck; by denying hereditary potentialities, and yet by creating new species by the same process whereby Lamarck explains differences within a species, contemporary scientific theory says it has advanced past Lamarck. Attributing all difference in species as well as genera to environmental adaptation, to nurture over Nature, is our new mantra. This is, as we will see, Darwinism, that particular branch of evolutionary thought for our time. It also is VERY important to note the differences here. Lamarcks’ theory lends real support to the theory of the best producing the best and the importance of genetics. Darwin’s is more amenable to those special interests that want to claim everyone equal at birth, differences amounting to culture and upbringing. Nature versus nurture, again.

Next stop, Charles Darwin himself, or call it, the reason for the madness.


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