Notes On Non-Religious-Based Objections To Darwin And Their Relation to "Evolution" Sections of Lucretius

  • The purpose of this post is to set up a thread to discuss how our understanding of an "evolution" section from Book Four of Lucretius (Bailey) might by improved by considering some of the non-religious based arguments that were current among people who apparently were also reading Lucretius in the 1700's. First, the relevant section from Lucretius. (Note: the "lack of pattern" argument, that the universe could not have been created by supernatural gods, is probably relevant to this too.)

    I start this note because of references to Thomas Browne of Edinborough in Frances Wright's "A Few Days In Athens" where she generally praises Browne but criticizes his denunciation of Epicurus (but apparently denunciation of Epicurean ethics rather than physics). This is interesting to me because Browne was apparently against some elements of Erasmus Darwin. I've collected some references below.

    Again, the main point of this post is to collect some references that help explain "logic-based" and "non-religious" theories of mechanisms of cause and effect involved in questions of origin and development of life. It seems to me that the translations of Lucretius on the sections devoted to this issue are murky, and an understanding of the logical issues will help in understanding these sections. I don't have time to start here an analysis of these issues but I think if there were / are non-religious based arguments about cause and effect and development of life then those are probably helpful to interpreting passages like:

    "All other ideas of this sort, which men proclaim, by distorted reasoning set effect for cause, since nothing at all was born in the body that we might be able to use it, but what is born creates its own use. Nor did sight exist before the light of the eyes was born, nor pleading in words before the tongue was created, but rather the birth of the tongue came long before discourse, and the ears were created much before sound was heard, and in short all the limbs, I trow, existed before their use came about: they cannot then have grown for the purpose of using them."

    In the Epicurean context everyone is going to agree that these changes over time did not come about at the direction of supernatural gods, and we can put that contention aside. The issue is, among other things, "What logical and understandable suggestions were the Epicureans making to explain the non-supernatural development of faculties like eyesight?"

    This is related to the theory of "Saltation." Does the Lucretian/Epicurean material imply a position on these issues?


    In biology, saltation (from Latin, saltus, "leap") is a sudden and large mutational change from one generation to the next, potentially causing single-step speciation. This was historically offered as an alternative to Darwinism. Some forms of mutationism were effectively saltationist, implying large discontinuous jumps.

    Prior to Charles Darwin most evolutionary scientists had been saltationists.[1] Jean-Baptiste Lamarck was a gradualist but similar to other scientists of the period had written that saltational evolution was possible. Étienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire endorsed a theory of saltational evolution that "monstrosities could become the founding fathers (or mothers) of new species by instantaneous transition from one form to the next."[2] Geoffroy wrote that environmental pressures could produce sudden transformations to establish new species instantaneously.[3] In 1864 Albert von Kölliker revived Geoffroy's theory that evolution proceeds by large steps, under the name of heterogenesis.[4]

    With the publication of On the Origin of Species in 1859 Charles Darwin had denied saltational evolution by writing that evolutionary transformation always proceeds gradually and never in jumps. Darwin insisted on slow accumulation of small steps in evolution and wrote "natural selection acts solely by accumulating slight successive favourable variations, it can produce no great or sudden modification; it can act only by very short steps". Darwin continued in this belief throughout his life.[5]

    Back to Browne of Edinborough:

    Criticism of Erasmus Darwin

    One of Brown's notable works included a critique of Erasmus Darwin's theory of transmutation. The philosopher published it in the form of a detailed study Observations on the zoonomia of Erasmus Darwin (1798), which was recognized as a mature work of criticism.[5]

    There, Brown wrote:

    Noteworthy, Brown's criticism of the Darwinian thesis, like that of Rudolf Virchow, did not come from any religious feeling.


    That in turn leads to RUDOLF VIRCHOW:


    Virchow was an opponent of Darwin's theory of evolution,[81][82] and particularly skeptical of the emergent thesis of human evolution.[83][84] On 22 September 1877, he delivered a public address entitled "The Freedom of Science in the Modern State" before the Congress of German Naturalist and Physicians in Munich. There he spoke against the teaching of the theory of evolution in schools, arguing that it was as yet an unproven hypothesis that lacked empirical foundations and that, therefore, its teaching would negatively affect scientific studies.[85][86] Ernst Haeckel, who had been Virchow's student, later reported that his former professor said that "it is quite certain that man did not descend from the apes...not caring in the least that now almost all experts of good judgment hold the opposite conviction."[87]

    Virchow became one of the leading opponents on the debate over the authenticity of Neanderthal, discovered in 1856, as distinct species and ancestral to modern humans. He himself examined the original fossil in 1872, and presented his observations before the Berliner Gesellschaft für Anthropologie, Ethnologie und Urgeschichte.[7] He stated that the Neanderthal had not been a primitive form of human, but an abnormal human being, who, judging by the shape of his skull, had been injured and deformed, and considering the unusual shape of his bones, had been arthritic, rickety and feeble.[88][89][90] With such an authority, the fossil was rejected as new species. With this reasoning, Virchow "judged Darwin an ignoramus and Haeckel a fool and was loud and frequent in the publication of these judgments."[91]

    On 22 September 1877, at the Fiftieth Conference of the German Association of Naturalists and Physician held in Munich, Haeckel pleaded for introducing evolution in the public school curricula, and tried to dissociate Darwinism from social Darwinism.[92] His campaign was because of Herman Müller, a school teacher who was banned because of his teaching a year earlier on the inanimate origin of life from carbon. This resulted in prolonged public debate with Virchow. A few days later Virchow responded that Darwinism was only a hypothesis, and morally dangerous to students. This severe criticism of Darwinism was immediately taken up by the London Times, from which further debates erupted among English scholars. Haeckel wrote his arguments in the October issue of Nature titled "The Present Position of Evolution Theory", to which Virchow responded in the next issue with an article "The Liberty of Science in the Modern State".[93] The debate led Haeckel to write a full book Freedom in Science and Teaching in 1879. That year the issue was discussed in the Prussian House of Representatives and the verdict was in favour of Virchow. In 1882 the Prussian education policy officially excluded natural history in schools.[94]

    Years later, the noted German physician Carl Ludwig Schleich, would recall a conversation he held with Virchow, who was a close friend of his: "...On to the subject of Darwinism. 'I don't believe in all this,' Virchow told me. 'if I lie on my sofa and blow the possibilities away from me, as another man may blow the smoke of his cigar, I can, of course, sympathize with such dreams. But they don't stand the test of knowledge. Haeckel is a fool. That will be apparent one day. As far as that goes, if anything like transmutation did occur it could only happen in the course of pathological degeneration!'".[95]

    Virchow's ultimate opinion about evolution was reported a year before he died; in his own words:

    The intermediate form is unimaginable save in a dream... We cannot teach or consent that it is an achievement that man descended from the ape or other animal.

    — Homiletic Review, January, (1901)[96][97]

    Virchow's antievolutionism, like that of Albert von Kölliker and Thomas Brown, did not come from religion, since he was not a believer.[14]


    Abert von Koliker:


    Further information: Saltationism

    In 1864 Kölliker revived Étienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire's theory that evolution proceeds by large steps (saltationism), under the name of heterogenesis.[7] Kölliker was a critic of Darwinism and rejected a universal common ancestor, instead he supported a theory of common descent along separate lines.[8] According to Alexander Vucinich the non-Darwinian evolution theory of Kölliker tied "organic transformism to three general ideas, all contrary to Darwin's view: the multiple origin of living forms, the internal causes of variation, and "sudden leaps" (heterogenesis) in the evolutionary process."[9] Kölliker claimed that heterogenesis functioned according to a general law of evolutionary progress, orthogenesis.[10]

    Other Notes:

    Probably should consider here too Nietzsche's "anti-Darwinism" (Atterton article, etc)

  • The "Lack of Pattern" argument is in Book Five, here is Bailey:


    For it is clear that he must take joy in new things, to whom the old are painful; but for him, whom no sorrow has befallen in the time gone by, when he led a life of happiness, for such an one what could have kindled a passion for new things? Or what ill had it been to us never to have been made? Did our life, forsooth, lie wallowing in darkness and grief, until the first creation of things dawned upon us? For whosoever has been born must needs wish to abide in life, so long as enticing pleasure shall hold him. But for him, who has never tasted the love of life, and was never in the ranks of the living, what harm is it never to have been made? Further, how was there first implanted in the gods a pattern for the begetting of things, yea, and the concept of man, so that they might know and see in their mind what they wished to do, or in what way was the power of the first-beginnings ever learnt, or what they could do when they shifted their order one with the other, if nature did not herself give a model of creation? For so many first-beginnings of things in many ways, driven on by blows from time everlasting until now, and moved by their own weight, have been wont to be borne on, and to unite in every way, and essay everything that they might create, meeting one with another, that it is no wonder if they have fallen also into such arrangements, and have passed into such movements, as those whereby this present sum of things is carried on, ever and again replenished.

  • Cassius

    Changed the title of the thread from “Notes On Non-Religious Based Objections To Darwin And Their Relation to "Evolution" Sections of Lucretius” to “Notes On Non-Religious-Based Objections To Darwin And Their Relation to "Evolution" Sections of Lucretius”.
  • Probably need a post in this thread devoted to Aristotle's views, which would likely definitely have been rejected by Epicurus:

    Unchanging forms

    Main articles: Hylomorphism and Great chain of being

    Aristotle did not embrace either divine creation or evolution, instead arguing in his biology that each species (eidos) was immutable, breeding true to its ideal eternal form (not the same as Plato's theory of Forms).[4][5] Aristotle's suggestion in De Generatione Animalium of a fixed hierarchy in nature - a scala naturae ("ladder of nature") provided an early explanation of the continuity of living things.[6][7][8] Aristotle saw that animals were teleological (functionally end-directed), and had parts that were homologous with those of other animals, but he did not connect these ideas into a concept of evolutionary progress.[9]

    In the Middle Ages, Scholasticism developed Aristotle's view into the idea of a great chain of being.[1] The image of a ladder inherently suggests the possibility of climbing, but both the ancient Greeks and mediaeval scholastics such as Ramon Lull[1] maintained that each species remained fixed from the moment of its creation.[10][9]

    Hylomorphism From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia Jump to navigation Jump to search This article is about the concept of hylomorphism in Aristotelian philosophy. For the concept in computer science, see Hylomorphism (computer science). Hylomorphism (or hylemorphism) is a philosophical theory developed by Aristotle, which conceives being (ousia) as a compound of matter and form. The word is a 19th-century term formed from the Greek words ὕλη hyle, "wood, matter", and μορφή, morphē, "form".

  • This is a fascinating thread and full of new information. Thanks for posting, Cassius !

    I realize everyone here is already aware of all this, but I have to state that I find Lucretius's exposition of Epicurus's thinking on evolution (since I've read that Lucretius was arguably using Epicurus's multi-volume masterwork On Nature as his guide) amazingly -- shockingly -- prescient. I have a hard time wrapping my brain around the fact that Epicurus was formulating his ideas almost two-thousand years before Darwin: Evolution isn't aiming that's any goal. Tongues and arms evolve and, if they're useful for something, they continue to evolve.


    ...nothing at all was born in the body that we might be able to use it, but what is born creates its own use. Nor did sight exist before the light of the eyes was born, nor pleading in words before the tongue was created, but rather the birth of the tongue came long before discourse, and the ears were created much before sound was heard, and in short all the limbs, I trow, existed before their use came about: they cannot then have grown for the purpose of using them.

    I find that someone so long before Darwin was writing like this absolutely awe-inspiring in the best sense.

    I found a great illustration of the gradual, incremental, almost-imperceptible pace of evolution in a video of the evolution of the face. Paleoartist John Gurche charts his "direct ancestors" through human evolution ending with the artist's own face.