The concept of evolution had its origin long before Charles Darwin published his book, Origin of Species, in 1859. All of history just set the stage for the 19th century scientist. As one investigates the past, one will find the predominant influence of philosophy, not scientific discoveries, in the development of evolutionary thought.
The idea of evolution first developed as a philosophical explanation for our existence. Later, attempts were made to justify that belief with science. However, as new scientific discoveries proved those explanations false, men postulated newer theories on a more microscopic scale that had not yet been discovered by scientific technology. Throughout history, the concept of life spontaneously arising from smaller non-living molecules prevailed.
Evolution, the idea that life has arisen from simpler forms of life, had its beginnings with the Greeks about 700 B.C. Before this time, origins were normally explained in terms of the gods of Greek mythology. As scientific observations were developed and recorded by the Greeks, the question of origins, originally philosophical in nature, now appeared to be justified by naturalistic and materialistic explanations.
Thales of Miletus (640-546 B.C.) first originated the idea of a cycle of development. He believed that all of life began with a single element – water – from which all other elements arose. From these developed plants, animals and finally man. Thale broke away from mythological explanations and believed that all life arose out of the seas.
Anaximander (611-547 B.C.) modified Thales theory, believing that the source of life began with a “primordial mass” and that the earth basically consisted of mud. This mud or primordial mass eventually broke off to form plants, animals and organisms of higher complexity. Anaximander thought that man arose from the fishes and that everything would eventually revert back to its primordial mass.
Anaximenes, a student of Anaximander, followed his beliefs except that the primordial mass was air. Since it was observed that air could expand and contract, he thought this could be the animate source of life. Heracletus of Ephesus (540-475 B.C.) proposed that individuals were in a struggle to preserve themselves against a constant force of change and decay. The “weeping philosopher” also proposed that the original matter for all forms of life was fire.
Empedocles (490-435 B.C.) incorporated all previous thought into the idea that the essential elements were water, earth, air, and fire. These elements formed bodies when drawn together, and the most successful were capable of reproduction. He believed that chance alone was responsible for the entire process and that man had developed from prior plant life.
The Greek notion that life arose from essentially nothing, or from simple matter, prevailed into the Middle Ages and was known as spontaneous generation. The Egyptians saw frogs, snails, toads and worms appear on the river bank after a high flood. The Chinese found tiny aphids suddenly appearing on leaves when there was no sign of aphids on the previous day. They assumed that these creatures “evolved” out of matter!
Jan Baptista van Helmont (1577-1644 A.D.) developed the scientific recipe for the generation of mice: one simply needed to wrap wheat kernels and cheese curds in a sweat-soaked shirt and leave the bundle in an open container for 20 days. Twenty days later, as a result of the combination of sweat and wheat, baby mice appeared! The idea of spontaneous generation became very popular and it was the popularity of the idea that kept many prominent scientists from seeing the error of their reasoning.
However, men were unwilling to give up the concept that life could arise from non-living things. The next step was the proposition that micro-organisms were the first living organisms that could arise spontaneously. Englishman John Needham (1713-1781) had heated gravy and sealed the flasks with corks. He later discovered putrification and thus proposed support for the spontaneous generation of micro-organisms.
Louis Pasteur (1822-1895) put the notion of spontaneous generation to rest once and for all. Pasteur boiled a broth in special long neck tubes and thus had created sterile conditions. Micro-organisms were prevented from entering the flasks even though they were still open to the air. His discoveries and research revolutionized the sanitation practices of man and introduced the vital techniques of sterilization and pasteurization.
Pasteur’s experiments confirmed that life reproduces only after its own kind and that even micro-organisms, at that time unseen by the human eye, need micro-organisms as parents. For the first time, evolutionary reasoning was refuted by sound scientific inquiry that was not first influenced by philosophical thought. Pasteur, a devoted Christian, could have been approaching the problem from the biblical viewpoint of reproduction after kinds (Gensis 1), thereby understanding how to test the idea of spontaneous generation.
The history of evolutionary thought has a long record of theories that would attempt to explain the existence of life merely on the properties of matter. Modern scientists are now in the position of trying to prove that all the elements are derived from one element – hydrogen. They are also trying to show that subatomic particles have arisen from nothing. One might think that science would learn from history, but the notion of spontaneous generation still lingers in the minds of some, due to the evolutionary bent of its reasoning.
The historical roots of evolutionary thought lie within philosophical speculations about the origins of life. As science has discredited each theory, man has speculated ahead of the frontiers of scientific capabilities in an effort to explain the origin of life. Yet science only seems to destroy those lofty philosophical speculations while upholding the biblical concept of life arising from life. Perhaps scientists will come to accept this truth and then realize that the true source of all life is Jesus Christ, (John 11:25, John 14:6).