How long before Darwin could someone else have discovered evolution through natural selection?

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Discussion by: bw99

If we've had large brains and language for hundreds of thousands of years, why did it take us so long as a species to figure out our true origin? What constraints were operating on us that meant it was only 150 or so years ago that someone figured it out?

I wonder if one factor could be, for example, the necessity of travel technology, such that a critical mass of travellers were able to report on the patterns of biological diversity around the world? Or another factor the rise of agrarian societies, liberating enough free time to indulge in such speculations?

Interested in your thoughts..

32 COMMENTS

  1. Evolution [not via natural selection] is an old pre-Socratic idea. In my view Darwin’s theory REQUIRED the concept of deep time which doesn’t pre-date Darwin by very much. So I think we can thank uniformitarianism in geology for this ~ that our world has changed gradually [usually] over many aeons. Once that idea was in the air then evolution by natural selection with common descent becomes imaginable.

    • In reply to #3 by A3Kr0n:

      Wallace was ready to publish basically the same theory as Darwin, so the answer would be that it would have taken no time before someone else would have discovered evolution.

      You’ve misunderstood the OP’s intent:- “How long BEFORE Darwin could someone else have discovered evolution through natural selection? [..] why did it take us so long as a species to figure out our true origin? What constraints were operating on us that meant it was only 150 or so years ago that someone figured it out?”

  2. Not only was the concept of deep time required, but also the population competition ideas from Malthus. If individuals could reproduce without regard to resources, only sexual selection would push evolution. Darwin first realized that the unavoidable competition for resources studied by Malthus, over deep time, would “select” for successful variations within populations. Later, he added the sexual selection part, for species which have sex, to complete the picture of “Natural Selection.”

  3. The ‘discovery’ roughly coincided with the nascent fields of geology and archaeology, and also more personally for Darwin and Wallace, exploration and naturalism. And also looking at the ignorance of our creationist friends, it’s not surprising it didn’t even occur to anyone burdened by the entrenched dogmas of their time.

    There were ideas of evolution before Darwin, ranging from flawed to fantasies. Organisms evolving from one to another (bees to bumblebees for example) doesn’t require much of a stretch of the imagination. Although he didn’t know the complete mechanisms of evolution, Darwin happened to get it right, not just because he thought it was a good idea, but because of his empirical, scientific approach. That was the hard part that stuck.

  4. It’s my understanding that Ancient Greeks were on the path to discovering evolution but then Christianity came along and suppressed most forms of scientific research where ever it had power for many centuries. They insisted that the bible contained everything that people needed to know.

    • In reply to #7 by David W:

      It’s my understanding that Ancient Greeks were on the path to discovering evolution but then Christianity came along and suppressed most forms of scientific research where ever it had power for many centuries. They insisted that the bible contained everything that people needed to know.

      Charles Freeman, in his excellent book The Closing of the Western Mind, sets out very clearly how it happened that Christianity suppressed the vibrant, pluralistic culture of Graeco-Roman antiquity and with it the burgeoning intellectual and scientific enquiries that flourished in it. Well worth a read. It is a sad story, and a cautionary one.

      • In reply to #11 by Cairsley:

        In reply to #7 by David W:

        It’s my understanding that Ancient Greeks were on the path to discovering evolution but then Christianity came along and suppressed most forms of scientific research where ever it had power for many centuries. They insisted that the bible contained everything that people…

        Imagine where we’d be now had the road to scientific discovery not been blocked by the Church of Rome and diverted into the lengthy and pointless detour of the Dark Ages. Think Greece to Renaissance direct. Where would we be? All over the solar system, or dead and gone leaving only radioactive ruins? A suitable topic for debate, perhaps? Is there any SF that explores this alternative history?

        • In reply to #13 by OHooligan:

          … Think Greece to Renaissance direct. …

          More like Graeco-Roman antiquity (say 450 CE) direct to the Scientific Revolution, which began, say, in 1543 CE with the publication of Copernicus’s De revolutionibus orbium cælestium. There would have been no need for a Renaissance. Charles Freeman shows in The Closing of the Western Mind that Copernicus’s astronomical findings could have been arrived at as early as the second or third century CE instead of the sixteenth. Freeman, a well-respected historian, remarking on the ingenuity of ancient Greek astronomers, permits himself a cautious yet plausible counterfactual conjecture, part of which I here quote:

          “One hypothesis was that each planet moved around the circumference of a circle whose own centre was moving in a circle around the earth. As more records were made, such hypotheses became more and more elaborate, the most sophisticated being those of Ptolemy in the second century AD. They were, of course, erroneous because the original assumption that the planets revolve around the earth was wrong. However, had the Greek intellectual tradition survived, it is easy to imagine that someone in ancient times might have taken the mass of observations, applied them to Aristarchus’ hypothesis that the sun was the centre of the solar system and the conclusion, that the earth and the planets revolve around the sun, would have fallen elegantly into place, as it did for Copernicus many centuries later” (op. cit., 2003, p. 17).

          In fact, however, that Greek intellectual tradition was suppressed by Christian activism intent on removing any threat to its doctrine of faith, and the works of Ptolemy ceased to be understood as Ptolemy had understood them, as open-ended, rational enquiries, and came rather to be regarded as the last and greatest authority on astronomy. The same fate befell the writings of Galen in medicine.

          As for where we would be today if the Greek intellectual tradition had not been suppressed by, say, the end of the sixth century, it is simply impossible to conjecture. More than a thousand years were lost to the intellectual tradition of the Mediterranean and Europe – far too long for such conjectures. Wondering what our civilization would be like now if the Scientific Revolution that began in the sixteenth century had begun in the fifth is similar to our wondering in the present century what our civilization will be like in the thirty-second. Plenty of scope there for science fiction writers!

          • In reply to #18 by Cairsley:

            In reply to #13 by OHooligan:

            … Think Greece to Renaissance direct. …

            More like Graeco-Roman antiquity (say 450 CE) direct to the Scientific Revolution, which began, say, in 1543 CE with the publication of Copernicus’s De revolutionibus orbium cælestium.

            Thanks for that excellent response. A lost millennium. Words fail me.

  5. Darwin’s grandfather, Erasmus, hinted at it in his poetry in 1802:

    Organic life beneath the shoreless waves
    Was born and nurs’d in ocean’s pearly caves;
    First forms minute, unseen by spheric glass,
    Move on the mud, or pierce the watery mass;
    These, as successive generations bloom,
    New powers acquire and larger limbs assume;
    Whence countless groups of vegetation spring,
    And breathing realms of fin and feet and wing.

    I think it took a lot of puzzle pieces coming together in order to bring about a more complete idea of evolution.

    Aristotle noticed fossils in his day, understanding that they were once living creatures.

    Leonardo da Vinci wrote about this too, and thought it was contradictory to the Biblical flood, since they were marine fossils only, and if they had been placed there by the flood, then other fossils should be found among them as well.

    It wasn’t until later that stratification was observed and that fossils could be placed within certain layers consistently.

    I think, like most scientific discoveries, the idea just needs to be built on top of others, until one grand idea can be constructed. We’re still building on these ideas and reconstructing evolutionary trees, now that we have the ability to sequence genes.

    • I rather like that poem. It’s beautiful. Thank you for sharing it.In reply to #8 by Kim Probable:

      Darwin’s grandfather, Erasmus, hinted at it in his poetry in 1802:

      Organic life beneath the shoreless waves
      Was born and nurs’d in ocean’s pearly caves;
      First forms minute, unseen by spheric glass,
      Move on the mud, or pierce the watery mass;
      These, as successive generations bloom,
      New powers acquir…

  6. There needs to be a community of interested players for an ideology to take root. Many people may have noticed things over the millennia but there needs to be a critical mass of receptive participants for those key innovators to engage with and to criticise and filter their ideas. So ideas can be still born without some kind of informal institutional structure.

    Communications technology is also relevant for rapidly creating a broader community of interested players. Plus most important ideas are built on continuity with existing foundations. Biological evolution has relatively shallow foundations because creationism was otherwise so obviously true that few intellectuals had considered this a fruitful area of interest.

    The idea of deep time in geology, and the accumulation of fossil evidence showing changes in the forms of plants and animals, probably didn’t become an overwhelming scientific ‘problem’ until there was extensive evidence found in coal mines and railway cuttings. These engineering projects didn’t start happening in the British Isles before the industrial revolution.

    Plus there was the issue of the cost of communication and publications affecting the circulation of ideas etc. also being rapidy and positively impacted by the industrial revolution. E.g. Penny post. (Originally set up as a means of concentrating messages for convenient monitoring of all communications to mitigate the risk of revolution, possibly a little like what’s currently happening on the Internet.)

    Crucial ideas about variation and elimination by systematic adverse selection probably originated in economics. (Malthus being just one of the players.) But economics (aka political economy) wasn’t seriously investigated as an academic discipline until relatively recently. Even the application of mathematics to economic activities wasn’t significant, other than for pure direct tax purposes, until the relatively recent invention of statistics. Statistics being information relevant to the state – specifically the availability and replenishment rate of youthful male conscripts for the likes of Napoleon to commit to artillery fodder. Mass production of cannons (and associated need for coals and iron) possibly being what sparked the the British head start on the industrial revolution, especially in the British Isles where cannon and rope factories (for rigging ships) were the basis of naval dominance.

    The underlying question may possibly be why economics didn’t emerge as a branch of science until very recently. And the relevance of the divergence of economic thought in the British Isles, Austria-Hungary, France, and Spain, plus the status of economics today as not being considered a real science. Which is a much bigger off-topic discussion.

  7. What constraints were operating on us that meant it was only 150 or so years ago that someone figured it out?

    Considering that it was only about 275 years before that, when the microscope was invented, that we first became haltingly aware of the huge mass of life, roughly as much by weight, as all the plant life in the world, that exists at the microscopic level. Without a broad understanding of the extent, scale, and diversity of life on the planet, it is hardly surprising that a rational theory of its origins remained elusive.

    For it to take only another 275 years, especially with the intellectual brakes of the religiosity of the period, I think it really was a pretty good effort.

  8. The 10 avatars mentioned in the Puranas, about 2000 years back, are at least one attempt to hypothesize on the evolution of life. They are fish, tortoise, boar, man-lion, dwarf and multiple avatars of an armed person. These roughly follow the pattern of evolution as understood today (water-based life to amphibious life to land-based life that includes hunter-gatherer humans). In part, this type of thinking was possible because Puranic time scales stretched billions of years. (All my opinion.)

    The written word is not the only way to understand reality, so extinct cultures that had oral traditions may have speculated on the origins of life and may have had what we call the theory of evolution.

    What we know now fits best with observed reality and it came through Darwin. Let’s use it to promote the benefits of biodiversity for the well-being of all.

  9. Some parts of Christianity put as part of their doctrine the idea of fixity of species – that all species had been created during the creation story in the Bible. This idea came from Aristotle but had been adopted by Lutheranism, the religion of the great Swedish naturalist, Linnaeus (1707-1778). Linnaeus was aware of variations within species but was prevented from making the leap to development of new species by his religious belief. I think Linnaeus would have come up with the idea of evolution and the scientific evidence for it a century earlier than Darwin had he not had religious blinders on.

  10. One of the possibilities is that maybe…there was no need to question the ‘status quo’ due to religious belief. After all, Darwin was a religious man and was headed towards a career in the clergy when he started observing and questioning. And of course the death of his daughter may have moved him to doubt the current views of society.

    Conflict and pain can change your view about most anything in your life.

  11. The growing understanding of there being a “deep time” is also evidenced in the Erasmus Darwin poem Zoonomia already quoted by Kim Possible. Here is another quote-

    Would it be too bold to imagine, that in the great length of time, since the earth began to exist, perhaps millions of ages before the commencement of the history of mankind, would it be too bold to imagine, that all warm-blooded animals have arisen from one living filament, which THE GREAT FIRST CAUSE endued with animality, with the power of acquiring new parts, attended with new propensities, directed by irritations, sensations, volitions, and associations; and thus possessing the faculty of continuing to improve by its own inherent activity, and of delivering down those improvements by generation to its posterity, world without end!

    In Jenny Uglow’s marvelous book “The Lunar Men” about the Lunar Society of Birmingham she explains how these Enlightenment doctors/businessmen/scientists/technologists/men-of-letters, whilst inventing the modern world, were forcibly struck by the occurrence of fossils when their canals cut through rock and the same in the mines their machines pumped out.

    “Millions of ages” is one of the best evocations of deep time I know. The feeling of it being so was there even if the science of it was not. It was still only in the hundreds of millions on the nineteenth century. ED seems to imply all this and more. What is clear is that it is understood that millions of ages is what an evolutionary story needs.

    Do read the book btw. It is splendid stuff. It is interesting to note that these movers and shakers and makers of modernity, if religious were often of the newer dissenting type.

  12. At least those early geologists like Hutton and Lylle, good Christians, were honest men. They went looking for the evidence of Noah’s Flood and realised that the Earth was in fact much older than Archbishop Ussher’s chronology, based on the dates in the Bible. Ussher’s date for the creation of the Earth was 23rd October 4004 bc. How strange that the Chinese civilisation. among others, was thriving before the beginning of the universe !

    The modern YECs, religious nutters the lot of them, are dishonest charlatans, who completely ignore the modern knowledge about the origins and development of the universe, the Earth and life.

    There was one Scotsman who published his own theory of evolution by natural selection 25 years ahead of Darwin and Wallace. His name Patrick Matthew. He published his ideas in rather obscure journals and neither Darwin nor Wallace were aware of him.

  13. Patrick Matthew’s theory:

    There is a law universal in nature, tending to render every reproductive being the best possible suited to its condition that its kind, or organized matter, is susceptible of, which appears intended to model the physical and mental or instinctive powers to their highest perfection and to continue them so. This law sustains the lion in his strength, the hare in her swiftness, and the fox in his wiles. As nature, in all her modifications of life, has a power of increase far beyond what is needed to supply the place of what falls by Time’s decay, those individuals who possess not the requisite strength, swiftness, hardihood, or cunning, fall prematurely without reproducing—either a prey to their natural devourers, or sinking under disease, generally induced by want of nourishment, their place being occupied by the more perfect of their own kind, who are pressing on the means of subsistence . . .
    There is more beauty and unity of design in this continual balancing of life to circumstance, and greater conformity to those dispositions of nature which are manifest to us, than in total destruction and new creation . . . [The] progeny of the same parents, under great differences of circumstance, might, in several generations, even become distinct species, incapable of co-reproduction.

    From the wikipedia link in my previous post.

  14. I am enjoying the excellent comments on this thread. There are two questions that get mixed, a bit. The first is about the recognition that species have evolved over long periods of time, and the second is about the mechanism of cause of said evolution. As people have noted here, the first was recognized long before Darwin. The question about how long before Darwin the mechanism could have been discovered is more complex, and the comments about that are quite interesting.

    P.S. I also suspect several others had an idea that was the equivalent of Evolution by Natural Selection before Darwin, but did not have the evidence to back it up that Darwin spent most of this life compiling. There can be no doubt that fear of reprisal from the religious was a factor that kept some silent, even those who did have evidence.

  15. Please remember that Homo sapiens did not leave Africa until about 50,000 years or so ago, and didn’t settle South America until about 10,000 years ago. The scientific revolution did not begin until the 16th and 17th century. Humans changed from primitive hunters and gatherers to explorers and scientists within 50,000 years. But most progress in science and technology occurred during the last century, in the form of an exponential curve. How does “deep time” fit into this?

  16. The Beatles, The Maharishi, John Lennon, Jesus, Darwin. It’s all about fashion. It doesn’t take too long for the world to find a new hero, to champion the cause of egalitarianism. ;)

    • In reply to #26 by sometimeskeptic:

      The Beatles, The Maharishi, John Lennon, Jesus, Darwin. It’s all about fashion. It doesn’t take too long for the world to find a new hero, to champion the cause of egalitarianism. ;)

      @OP – How long before Darwin could someone else have discovered evolution through natural selection?

      Was there some connection between this comment and the timing of the discovery of evolutionary mechanisms?

  17. Evolution really in and of itself is the fundamental base of almost all animist beliefs and even some pagan and poly theistis religious primarilly the idea that every thing is related and every thing is descendant from the base elements most consider all animals as being related to humans and even some rank species by how similar they are to eachother and how advanced they are in comparison to humans, unfortunately aside from these base beliefs ever since darwin CHristians have been traveling the world “teaching” tribesmen all over the world that god created everything and so really in almost any religion around the world you can see a taste of christianity and thus a taste of monotheistic creation where perhaps evolution may have been. Anthropologial information is really lacking due to the mess that the crusades and inquisition had on the world.

    • In reply to #28 by BenCarollo:

      Evolution really in and of itself is the fundamental base of almost all animist beliefs and even some pagan and poly theistis religious primarilly the idea that every thing is related and every thing is descendant from the base elements most consider all animals as being related to humans and even s…

      No it’s not. I agree that western civilization has destroyed a lot of indigenous cultures and that those cultures were often not nearly as backward or primitive as many early anthropologists made them out to be. Those anthropologists often had a severe bias from their Western colonial mind set.

      But it is possible to go to far to the other extreme as a reaction which is where I think your comment was veering. The idea of evolution is in no way a logical conclusion of any animistic beliefs I know of. Of course with these kinds of belief systems they are all made up anyway so you can usually interpret them pretty much any way you want to but to say that the beliefs of primitive people are essentially precurors of natural selection downplays what a major leap Darwin’s insight was.

      Also, I think that in general the animistic beliefs are highly contradictory to Darwinism. Paley’s argument was “when you see watch there must be a watch maker” Anthropologists HAVE found that humans (both very primitive and modern) have an in born tendency to ascribe agency to things. I think the Creationist view is actually more compatible with primitive beliefs and that is one reason so many people still reject Darwin.

    • In reply to #30 by GUDAPATI A K:

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qm0sOPSHaaA

      Vedic view of evolution.These vedas were penned down min 5000 years.So people thought about evolution thousands of years ago,if one says that religious scriptures were just written by man

      The great thing about religious texts, and all pseudoscience, when you don’t have to worry about logical consistency, empirical data, or testable theories you can be incredibly vague and imprecise and your analysis can bend to claim you predicted any actual theory that may come along later.

      • In reply to #31 by Red Dog:

        Iam speaking about science in the scriptures,not the religion.What i want to say is,people before thousands of years thought of evolution and proposed their theories.Vedic scriptures are just an example of that.They may be correct partially or completely wrong,but our ancestors thought of that.Its not that only 150 years before people thought of evolution.

        • In reply to #32 by GUDAPATI A K:

          In reply to #31 by Red Dog:

          Iam speaking about science in the scriptures,not the religion.What i want to say is,people before thousands of years thought of evolution and proposed their theories.Vedic scriptures are just an example of that.They may be correct partially or completely wrong,but our an…

          The writings you are talking about simply aren’t science. They don’t use language in a rigorous way. They don’t define terms unambiguously. They don’t make predictions. They have no correlation to other related theories about the universe that have been tested. They are just poetic language that can be interpreted a million different ways and what you are doing is post hoc analysis to interpret them in one way that is consistent with what we now know to be true. It’s easy to take poetic language and analyze it after the fact to mean whatever you want it to.

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