In A Nutshell
The popular view of Charles Darwin is as the guy who “invented” evolution. But while it’s true that his Origin of Species introduced the world to natural selection, the concept of evolution and evolutionary theories had been around for hundreds of years before he was born.
The Whole Bushel
Charles Darwin may well be the most controversial scientist who ever lived: His famous work on evolution, On the Origin of Species, sent Victorian Britain into a frenzy, and the fuss still hasn’t completely died down. But to claim that Darwin discovered evolution is like saying Einstein discovered physics: As a concept, evolution had already been around for centuries.
As far back as Ancient Greece, people were looking to throw out the idea that man had always existed. Nearly 500 years before the birth of Jesus, the philosopher Anaximander proposed that man had “evolved” from an earlier creature—possibly a fish—which had in turn “evolved” from the natural elements. Aristotle later crapped all over this absurd idea, but it never vanished completely. Fast-forward to the Islamic Golden Age and we find ninth-century scholar al-Jahiz writing these words:
“Animals engage in a struggle for existence, and for resources, to avoid being eaten, and to breed . . . Environmental factors influence organisms to develop new characteristics to ensure survival, thus transforming them into new species. Animals that survive to breed can pass on their successful characteristics to their offspring.”
From a modern perspective, that’s about as close to describing evolution as you can get. A century later, Muhammad al-Nakhshabi would develop these ideas by claiming man “has sprung from sentient creatures.” But it wasn’t just the ancients who were working on evolution. Darwin’s own grandfather, Erasmus, once asked:
“Would it be too bold to imagine, that all warm-blooded animals have arisen from one living filament . . . possessing the faculty of continuing to improve by its own inherent activity, and of delivering down those improvements by generation to its posterity.”
By the time Charles finally discovered the hidden mechanisms of evolution, people as diverse as Immanuel Kant and Lamarck (whose flawed theory has since been proved true in the case of roundworms) had all taken shots at making evolution scientifically acceptable—a far cry from the wasteland of Creationist belief we commonly imagine Darwin working in. Darwin’s genius was to build on all these disparate ideas and turn them into a brilliant, valid theory—not to completely develop the concept of evolution from scratch.
Show Me The Proof
The Guardian: Islam’s evolutionary legacy
Encyclopedia Britannica: Anaximander
Encyclopedia Britannica: Erasmus Darwin
io9: Lamarck’s bizarre theory of evolution may turn out to be right after all