From the Greeks to Darwin

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From the Greeks to Darwin: an Outline of the Development of the Evolution Idea was written by Henry Fairfield Osborn, Sc.D, da Costa Professor of Zoology at Columbia University, and curator of the American Museum of Natural History. It grew out of a series of lectures first delivered by Osborn at Princeton in 1890, and completed in a fuller course he conducted at Columbia in 1893. Originally published by McMillan and Company in July, 1894. It was reprinted in 1896, 1899, 1902 and as a 1905 second edition. This edition was part of the Columbia University Biological Series and was dedicated to Osborn's teacher, James McCosh, ex-president of Princeton College. The following quotes are taken from the 1905 second edition.



  • When I began the study my object was to bring forward the many strong and true features of pre-Darwinian Evolution which are so generally passed over or misunderstood.
    • Preface

Ch.1 The Anticipation and Interpretation of Nature[edit]

  • In the growth of the numerous lesser ideas which have converged into the central idea of the history of life by Evolution, we find ancient pedigrees for all that we are apt to consider modern. Evolution has reached its present fulness by slow additions in twenty four centuries.
  • Darwin owes more even to the Greeks than we have ever recognized.
  • The Evolution law was reached not by any decided leap, but by the progressive development of every subordinate idea connected with it until it was recognized as a whole by Lamarck, and later by Darwin.
  • I endeavor to trace back some of these lesser ideas to their sources, and to bring the comparatively little known early evolutionists into their true relief as original thinkers and contributors, or mere borrowers and imitators.
  • The greatest defects I find in the historical literature of this subject are the lack of sense of proportion as to the original merits of different writers, and the non-appreciation of the continuity of evolution thought.
  • Greek speculations and suggestions were borrowed and used over and over again as if original, continuity in the lesser ideas which cluster around Evolution being quite as marked as in the main idea.
  • We meet with many remarkable coincidences in the lines of independent and even simultaneous discovery, notably those between Erasmus Darwin and Lamarck, between Lamarck and Treviranus, before we reach the crowning and most exceptional case of Darwin and Wallace.
  • At different periods similar facts were leading men to similar conclusions, and we gather many fine illustrations of the force of unconscious induction. Means of intercommunication were slow, and we should advance cautiously before concluding that any of the greater evolutionists were dealing with borrowed ideas.
  • When we study single passages, we are often led widely afield. Haeckel, for example, appears to have far overstated the relative merits of Oken... Krause has placed Erasmus Darwin over Lamarck without sufficient consideration. Huxley has treated Treviranus and Lamarck with almost equal respect; they are really found to be most unequal.
  • We must inquire into the sources or grounds of the conclusions advanced by each writer, how far derived from others how far from observation of Nature, and consider the soundness of each as well as his suggestiveness and originality, before we can judge fairly what permanent links he may have added or welded into the chain of thought.
  • We are now taking our uncertain steps in search of the separate factors of this law, and cannot foresee when these will be completed. 'Before and after Darwin' will always be the ante et post urbem conditam [before and after the founding of the city] of biological history. Before Darwin, the theory; after Darwin, the factors.
  • We remember that there are usually three stages in connection with the discovery of a law of Nature; first, that of dim suggestion in pure speculation, with eyes closed to facts; second, that of clear statement as a tentative or working hypothesis in an explanation of certain facts; and finally, the proof or demonstration. Darwin came in for the proof, profiting richly by the hard struggles of his predecessors over the first two stages.
  • Lamarck has lately risen in popular knowledge as having propounded Evolution, but among his contemporaries and predecessors in France, Germany, and England, we find Buffon, Erasmus Darwin, Goethe, Treviranus, and searching for their inspiration, we are led back to the natural philosophers, beginning with Bacon, and ending with Herder. Among these men we find the second birth or renaissance of the idea, and among the Greeks its first birth.
  • Evolution, as a natural explanation of the origin of the higher forms of life, succeeded the old mythology and autochthony in Greece, and developed from the teachings of Thales and Anaximander into those of Aristotle.
  • This great philosopher [Aristotle] had a general conception of the origin of higher species by descent from lower, yet he could not know of any actual Evolution series, such as we have derived from Paleontology. is startling to find him, over two thousand years ago, clearly stating, and then rejecting, the theory of the Survival of the Fittest as an explanation of the evolution of adaptive structures.
  • The Greeks ...anticipated many of our modern theories by suggestion; thus they carried the Evolution idea well into its suggestive stage, which was so much ground gained for those who took it up in Europe.
  • We know that Greek philosophy tinctured early Christian theology; it is not so generally realized that the Aristotelian notion of the development of life led to the true interpretation of the Mosaic account of the Creation.
  • There was... a long Greek period in the history of the Evolution idea, extending among the Fathers of the Church, and later, among some of the Schoolmen, in their commentaries upon Creation which accord very closely with the modern theistic conceptions of Evolution.
  • If the orthodoxy of Augustine had remained the teaching of the Church, the final establishment of Evolution would have come far earlier than it did, certainly during the eighteenth instead of the nineteenth century, and the bitter controversy over this truth of Nature would never have arisen.
  • As late as the seventeenth century, the Jesuit Suarez and others contended that the Book of Genesis contained a literal account of the mode of Creation, and thereby Special Creation acquired a firm status as a theory in the contemporary philosophy. Singularly enough, Milton's epics appeared shortly afterwards, exerting an equally profound influence upon English Protestant thought, so that Huxley has aptly termed Special Creation, 'the Miltonic hypothesis.' Thus the opportunity of a free unchecked development out of natural science was lost.

Ch.3 The Theologians and Natural Philosophers[edit]

  • As all learning in Europe was for centuries under the guardianship of the Church, it is important to look into the teachings of the great theologians upon the origin and development of life. This teaching sprang from two sources,—the revelation of the order of Creation in the Book of Genesis, and the natural philosophy of Plato and Aristotle.
  • Among the Christian Fathers the movement towards a partly naturalistic interpretation of the order of Creation was made by Gregory of Nyssa in the fourth century, and was completed by Augustine in the fourth and fifth centuries.
  • Plainly as the direct or instantaneous Creation of animals and plants appeared to be taught in Genesis, Augustine read this in the light of primary causation and the gradual development from the imperfect to the perfect of Aristotle. This most influential teacher thus handed down to his followers opinions which closely conform to the progressive views of those theologians of the present day who have accepted the Evolution theory. In proof of this Greek influence we find that Augustine also adopted some of the Greek notions of the spontaneous generation of life. In the Middle Ages analogous views were held by Erigena, Roscellinus, William of Occam, Albertus Magnus; and Augustine was finally followed by Aquinas, who is now one of the leading authorities of the Church. Bruno struck out into an altogether different vein of thought.
  • The reaction against this scientific reading of Genesis naturally came when Christian theology shook off Aristotelianism, and this was brought about indirectly by the opposition to the Arabic science, which also embodied much of Aristotle.
  • The first outspoken opponent of Augustine's teaching, and first champion of literalism, was Suarez, a Jesuit of Spain, a country which had become the second home of Arabic science and philosophy. ...In the very decades when this progress was stamped out of theology in Spain and Italy the modern era in the development of the idea was opening in the teachings of Francis Bacon and of the natural philosophers who closely succeeded him.
  • Gregory of Nyssa (331-396) taught that Creation was potential. God imparted to matter its fundamental properties and laws. The objects and completed forms of the Universe developed gradually out of chaotic material.
  • Augustine (353-430) drew this [Gregory of Nyssa's] distinction still more sharply, as Cotterill and Güttler show, between the virtual creation of organisms, the ratio seminalis [seminal system], and the actual visible coming forth of things out of formless matter. All development takes its natural course through the powers imparted to matter by the Creator. Even the corporeal structure of man himself is according to this plan and therefore a product of this natural development. Augustine, as to the origin of life, took his ground half-way between Biogenesis and Abiogenesis.
    • See Henry Cotterill, 'Does Science Aid Faith in Regard to Creation?' London (1883)
    • See C. Guttler, 'Lorenz Oken und sein Verhältniss zur Modernen Entwickelungslehre.' Leipsic, (1884)
  • Augustine thus sought a naturalistic interpretation of the Mosaic record, or potential rather than special creation, and taught that in the institution of Nature we should not look for miracles but for the laws of Nature.
  • Moore says: "Augustine distinctly rejected Special Creation in favor of a doctrine which, without any violence to language, we may call a theory of Evolution."

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