The Greeks, Paganism and Evolution
It is no longer a secret that Darwin did not “discovered” evolution— although most people think that he did. Today, this privilege is ascribed to ancient Greek philosophers. As we will see this is not entirely correct either. Firstly, it's important to remember that Greek philosophy did not just appear by chance; they had acquired much of their ideas from Eastern philosophies and religions. Secondly, we shouldn't forget that the Greeks were not the only learned people of their time; Babylonians had their magi, Egyptians their wise man and Indians their philosophers.
The golden age of Greek philosophy began roughly around the time of the Babylonian invasion of Israel (or Judah, more precisely) and ended around the fall of Persia under Alexander the Great. It is interesting to note that while the first philosophers were just starting to utter their sayings, God was finishing His revelation of the Old Testament, and long before, Solomon had written his insightful proverbs, David his beautiful Psalms, Moses established the Pentateuch —where we can find a written account of the origins of the world— and Job, even before, had left us with his profound story (with many detailed passages describing the natural world). Let us then remember this fact, lest we fall into temptation and end up giving too much credit to the science of the Greeks.
Thales of Miletus (620 – 546 BC) and Anaximander (610-546 BC) are considered the first two philosophers. Both were from the same town, Miletus, and it's believed that Anaximander was the disciple of Thales. Most of their writings have been lost, so most information comes to us secondhand; mainly through the work of the Greek biographer Diogenes Laërtius (fl. c. 3rd century AD).
Thales is credited for his advancement in mathematics and astronomy (supposedly for predicting an eclipse) as well as for his cosmological thesis, in which some see the beginnings of the theory of evolution. He believed that water was the First Principle, the arche (beginning) of all things. It is from this substance with motion and change that everything arises—or so he thought.
Anaximander, however, took this idea one step further and postulated that water, the main ingredient for life, could not be the arche (because water could never produce its opposite, fire) and so proposed that the first principle was to be found in the apeiron, the boundless or infinite. Anaximander never made it clear what this apeiron was, but it seems that he thought of it as a kind of element or force (with divine attributes) which was the cause of the genesis of the universe. Anaximander also believed that the first animals that appeared in water (or moisture, as he puts it) were fish-like creatures “enclosed in thorny barks and that as their age increased they came forth on to the drier part and, when the bark had broken off, they lived a different kind of life for a short time.” (1)
Anaximander went further and also postulated that once the water had dried up, “inside these [fish-like] animals, men took form and embryos were held prisoners until puberty; only then, after these animals burst open, could men and women come out, now able to feed themselves.”(2)
Anaximander's hypothesis seems to be quite far from the modern theory of evolution; nevertheless, some common principles can still be found. The truth is that most scientists still believe that, 1) every living thing originated gradually in, and outside, of water, and 2) men arose from fish.
It's not surprising then that not a few people credit Anaximander for being the first person to come up with a rational explanation of the origin of the species. The question then is, was his theory new and rational? Well, not quite. Anaximander had acquired his knowledge –or at least some of it— from Thales. But from where or who did Thales acquired his? Let's dig up a bit more the ground to find out more.
The Ionians were one of the four Greek tribes that had settled in what is today western Turkey (close to Smyrna); Miletus was one of the 12 city-states that formed the Ionian confederacy. The city of Thales seems to have been a wealthy town that had established many colonies around the Mediterranean. One of these colonies was in Naucratis, Egypt (which was allied to the Egyptians during Thales life). It is also well attested that Thales traveled to the Middle East to learn from the wise men. Not surprisingly, one of these places was Egypt. It's also believed that he traveled as far as Babylon.
Both the Egyptians and Babylonians were outstanding mathematicians and astronomers (or astrologers), so it's very likely that Thales learned a great deal from them. Nevertheless, they were also steeped in paganism (likewise the Greeks), and Thales seems to have taken from their tales. In the Egyptian cosmogony, Nun was believed to be the abyss of primordial water from where everything arises—apparently, the dry land arises from this substance. Nun was not worshiped and no temples were built for him, —although this seems to have changed at a later time. It's from this same water that the creator god Atum is said to have auto-created himself (one account stating that he rose in the form of a snake).
Thus, water seems to have a clear connection with Thales and Anaximander's hypothesis, but what about Atum? It's true that neither Thales or Anaximander make any reference to it, but it's important that we understand the concept behind it; that is, self-creation. After all, If someone can conceive of a god creating himself out of some primordial water, is it not possible to imagine of a fish arising spontaneously from some wet substance—or organic soup? Here, then, lies the key to the question: the origins.
Empedocles (492-432 BC) is without a doubt another of the philosophers that must be examined. He was born in Acagras, a Greek colony in what is today Sicily. Empedocles believed in reincarnation and was a vegetarian. He thought that in a past life he had been punished to be reincarnated for myriads of years for the sin of bloodshed and meat-eating. This long cycle of reincarnations, he thought, was finally over and he would be reincarnated as an immortal god or daimôn. He also believed that he had magic powers and that could heal the sick.
Not less important to mention, Empedocles seems to have been a follower of Pythagoras, an Ionian philosopher who probably met Anaximander. Like Empedocles, Pythagoras traveled extensively (Egypt, Persia, and maybe even India) and acquired a love for numbers, which he ascribed to them mystical properties. He also believed in reincarnation and was vegetarian. Thus, Empedocles seems to have taken some of his doctrine and ideas from Pythagoras.
Despite being talked about before Empedocles, the concept of the four elements (or five, for some people) is usually ascribed to him. Empedocles believed that the four 'roots' or elements (water, fire, earth, air) were able to mix into different combinations producing all that we see. These, however, would act through the agency of two forces (Love and Strife) that would be engaged in an eternal battle for dominion. Thus, when Love was dominant, all the elements would be attracted, preventing the appearance of life. But when Strife overcome, the elements would separate, being free to produce life. Taking these two principles into account, Empedocles would come up with a "new" concept of the origins of life. But, how were living beings created?
According to this Greek thinker, the four elements would mix together randomly, making all kinds of individual organs appear from the earth. These would then wander separately until the power of love would unite them, producing all kinds of bizarre creatures: hermaphrodites, ox-faced men, man-faced ox creatures, etc. These creatures, not able to survive, would eventually die out—only the ones fitted for survival would remain. Thus many people have seen here a forerunner of Darwin's natural selection. Empedocles, however, had a quite distinct theory for the development of men:
...separating fire brought up the nocturnal shoots of men and women...
First there came up from the earth whole-natured forms
having a share of both water and heat;
fire sent them up, wanting to reach its like;
and they did not yet show any frame of limbs,
nor voice nor again the limbs specific to men. (3)
Thus, a kind of deformed men with no voice would form 'spontaneously' from the earth. How it becomes a fully functional man, it is not known.
So, did Empedocles just come up with this idea solely with the use of reason and observation? Well, not exactly. Both the concept of the four elements as well as the idea of Love and Strife, or dualism, was (and still is) deeply rooted in paganism. Egypt, Persia, and India were some of the countries where one could find this kind of belief. Egypt had the dualist principle in the gods Set (disorder/death) and Osiris (order/life). Zoroastrians, in Persia, believed in a kind of dualism and worshiped the four elements. Buddhists had the four elements, and likewise in Hinduism, a similar concept is found with the five elements (the ether being the fifth). Even in China, these same concepts are still seen today.
Interestingly, the Assyrians and Babylonians worshiped half-man half-animal gods that resemble Empedocles' deformed creatures created from a defective 'natural selection.' One of these gods is Lamassu, the Assyrian man-faced ox creature. On the other hand, we have the Babylonian god Oannes, which is probably one of the first mermen creatures. Then there is the Assyrian mermaid Atargatis and the Phoenician god Dagon; which is even mentioned in the Bible (*). And contrary to what it seems, this is not just ancient history. The French enlightened thinker Benoît de Maillet –one of the first modern philosophers to support evolution— used the supposed existence of mermen as proof of evolution. This idea might seem a bit bizarre, but then again, so were Empedocles ideas. The question is, did Empedocles based his hypothesis on myth? Well, that is hard to say, but harder is to believe that it's just coincidence.
The next in line would be Democritus (460-370 BC), a philosopher that took the concept of the elements to postulate his atomic theory—although Leucippus had talked about it before. Democritus believed that everything was composed of indestructible atoms (these would be something similar to what we call today 'molecules') with different shape and sizes which acted in unpredictable ways. In this way, both Democritus and Leucippus thought that truth, or reality, could never be known, “and this is why Democritus, at any rate, says that either there is no truth or to us at least it is not evident.”(4) This kind of philosophy, known today as materialism, is believed by many evolutionists/atheists.
Nevertheless, Democritus ideas were not original. Materialist philosophy seems to have been well established by Democritus time. In India, Ajita Kesakambali, Payasi, Kanada and the Charvaka school were already discussing these ideas. Charvaka embraced philosophical skepticism and rejected Vedic religion. On the other hand, the philosopher Kanada came up with the idea of the aun (atom) and believed like Democritus that these were indestructible, eternal and that they combined with each other. Thus, it is highly unlikely that they came up together with the same theory.
Moreover, we know that Democritus not only was instructed by Persian magi but also that he spent all his wealth in search of wisdom. He said to have traveled to Egypt, Ethiopia, Persia, and India. This means that Democritus must have traveled to India not to teach, but to learn. And taking into consideration that the materialist schools in India were already well established, we must conclude that Democritus must have learned from them.
On the other hand, Democritus also came up with an interesting theory of how the first humans developed. He believed that ancient humans were living in an anarchic kind of society where they were driven together to protect themselves from wild animals. They were fruit gatherers and plant eaters who lived in caves. Moreover, these first humans had no language; but gradually they came to articulate their thoughts and feeling through symbols and language. Thus, the early period of humankind was characterized by a period of trial and error which led progressively to new discoveries. Not surprisingly this seems to be an almost exact copy of the "modern" theory of the development of 'human species' found in any science and history textbook.
Furthermore, both Democritus and Leucippus postulated a cosmological model of the origins of the universe. Democritus held that the atoms had collided together forming larger units (e.g., the earth) and that this worlds could be destroyed by colliding with another world. Nevertheless, a more detailed hypothesis, however, comes from Leucippus:
[Leucippus believed that] the worlds are formed when atoms fall into the void and are entangled with one another, and from their motion, as they increase in bulk arises the substance of the stars. . . This is how the worlds are formed. In a given section many atoms of all manner of shapes are carried from the unlimited into the vast empty space (great void). These collect together and form a single vortex (whirl), in which they jostle against each other and, circling around in every possible way, […] and, as it is carried round in the vortex (whirl), adds to itself whatever atoms it touches. And of these some portions are locked together and form a mass, at first damp and miry, but, when they have dried and revolved with the universal vortex (whirl), they afterward take fire and form the substances of the stars (5).
This hypothesis seems to have been taken from a concept in Indian philosophy called Adrsta (the invisible). This idea stated that the motion of atoms would form dyads, which in turn combined into triads, tetrads, etc. And so a compound object would be produced (apparently this has never been observed, but it was worth a try).
Mostly through Greek philosophy, these same ideas were taken by the age of Enlightenment thinkers to postulate “new” cosmogonies, which in turn would influence modern-day cosmological models. There are apparent differences between the new and old cosmogonies, but the main idea is quite evident: the creation of this universe through random combinations of elements—with no string attached.
Finally, we should conclude by remembering, not just that that the theory of evolution is not a modern idea, but also that is a concept rooted in pagan mythology. So, it is fitting to finish this essay with the words of two ancient authors.
Diogenes Laërtius wrote once that “there are some who say that the study of philosophy had its beginning among the barbarians. They urge that the Persians have had their Magi, the Babylonians or Assyrians their Chaldaeans, and the Indians their Gymnosophists. . . Also, they say that Mochus was a Phoenician, Zamolxis a Thracian, and Atlas a Libyan.” (6)
Another famous writer wrote long before Laërtius: “there is nothing new under the sun.”
1. Aetius, V, 19
2. Censorinus, De Die Natali, IV, 7
3. Strasbourg fr. B62
4. Aristotle, Metaphysicsiv.1009 b 7.
5. Diogenes Laertius, 1925: 441-443
6. Diogenes Laertius, 1925: 3
*1 Sam. 5: After the Philistines had captured the ark of God, they took it from Ebenezer to Ashdod. Then they carried the ark into Dagon’s temple and set it beside Dagon. When the people of Ashdod rose early the next day, there was Dagon, fallen on his face on the ground before the ark of the Lord!