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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas

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Evolutionism is a family of ideas which affirm that
the universe and some or all of its parts have undergone
irreversible, cumulative changes such that the number,
variety, and complexity of the parts have increased.
Evolutionism is thus opposed to the belief that the
universe and its parts are eternally the same; or that
they have been the same since they were created; or
that they are now the same as they have been periodi-
cally in the past; or that they are emanations from a
higher and perfect source. If only living things are
included, theories of organic evolution result. These
theories may embrace accounts of human, mental,
moral, and cultural evolution. If nonliving things are
included, there result theories of physical evolution
which may embrace the earth, the solar system, and
the spatiotemporal cosmos. If what is included is the
universe as a whole, or everything that is held to be
real, metaphysical theories of evolution result. Hence
many differences occur within the one family of ideas.
Early theories tend to be simple, vague, and specula-
tive. Later theories, particularly when given a scientific
formulation, are more intricate, exact, and verifiable.
There are many disagreements, however, about such
issues as the origin, character, and causes of evolu-
tionary processes. In the present article some of the
main stages in the history of this family of ideas will
be discussed.


Proto-evolutionary ideas occur very early in man's
thinking about the world. They were perhaps suggested
to him by the observation of processes of growth in
plants and animals. Such phenomena seem to have
served as a model for speculations about how the world
began and how it acquired the features it has. Evolu-
tionary cosmogonies, largely mythical in content, ap-
pear in ancient Chinese and Indian cultures. Confucius,
for example, is said to have held the view that “things
were originated from a single, simple source through
gradual unfolding and branching” (Chen, 1929). By
others it was believed that the primary elements of
the universe—water, fire, wood, metal, earth—had
come into being in an evolutionary order under the
influence of natural forces. Furthermore, “the Taoists
elaborated what comes very near to a statement of a
theory of evolution. At least they firmly denied the
fixity of biological species” (Needham, 1956). In early
Indian thought, one of the Buddhist groups affirmed
“that nature... is a unitary entity which evolves into
varying forms, including minds (here regarded as dis-
tinct from underlying souls)” (Smart, 1964). The term
“evolution” (parināma) in this context is said to imply
that nature successively manifests new properties as
a result of a process which began when an initial state
of equilibrium was disturbed. Yet the novelty involved
at each stage is only apparent, for whatever manifests
itself must have been implicit in unitary nature from
the start.


Ideas similar to these were advanced by early Greek
thinkers. Among the pre-Socratic philosophers, evolu-
tionary doctrines predominated and were largely de-
tached from mythical elements. The world-order was
represented as having come into existence by virtue
of the generative power of nature (physis). What took
place was without design (technē), and exemplified the
presence either of chance or of blind, irrational neces-
sity. Nature was assumed by some to be literally alive.
Like an organism it can initiate changes to which it
is itself subject. From this assumption it was only a
short step to an evolutionary conception of plants and

Both Anaximander and Anaximenes put forward the
view that living things were generated spontaneously
by the action of the sun's warmth on a primordial moist
element. Empedocles and Democritus regarded the
element as moist earth or slime. Such views were
undoubtedly influenced by the observation of flies,
maggots, and worms appearing on decomposed organic
matter (e.g., meat), and by the mistaken idea that this
phenomenon was a spontaneous generation of life. The
pre-Socratics did not limit the application of this idea
to simple organisms, but applied it speculatively in
such a way as to allow fanciful and fantastic discon-
tinuities in the history of living things. Thus Anaxi-
menes believed that plants, animals, and men appeared
on the earth in that order. But each was generated
directly from the primordial element. Democritus
likewise seems to have countenanced the ancient idea
that men originated from the earth. Empedocles pro-
posed that men had been formed by the random com-
ing together of separate limbs and organs which had
been produced spontaneously. Some of the combina-
tions proved to be viable and others perished. Anaxi-
mander thought that men first developed inside a fish-
like creature, from which they emerged to live on dry
land. These and other ideas were mere hints of a theory
of evolution as it was later to be understood.

In Democritus there occur the rudiments of a doc-
trine of social and cultural evolution. The ideas in-
volved were, however, not original with him, for they
were widely current in the fifth century and had largely
replaced earlier poetic and religious ideas of a “golden
age” in the past (Guthrie, 1962). According to the
evolutionary view, the first men lived like solitary
animals, without technical skills or social organization.
Their manner of life was highly precarious, and so the
need to survive forced them to band together into
societies. Here they developed the practical, and even-
tually the fine arts, and achieved a measure of civili-
zation. Human culture was thus the daughter of neces-
sity. Democritus called attention to the importance of
the evolution of language in this process. He was
among the earliest proponents of the view that words
have a conventional origin. They began as sounds
related quite arbitrarily to things or notions by men
who felt the need for a means of communication more
comprehensive and subtle than grunts or animal cries.
The growth of language in turn accelerated the evolu-
tion of culture.


The impetus of evolutionary thinking among the
Greeks was brought to an abrupt halt by the work of
Plato and Aristotle. Both of these influential thinkers
held views that were incompatible with any conception
of irreversible, cumulative changes taking place in the
real world. Plato maintained that the real world is a
realm of unchanging forms or archetypes apprehended
solely by thought. Things perceived by the senses are
imperfect copies of forms and are less than fully real.
When applied to living organisms this conception had
anti-evolutionary consequences. It implied that the
characteristics of organisms are to be explained by
resemblance to ideal archetypes, not by descent from
ancestors who had undergone changes of form and
function over long periods of time. Furthermore, this
Platonistic conception became a basis for classical
taxonomy in which plants and animals were classified
into kinds that are sharply demarcated and allow no
intergrading. This typological classification acted as a
block to the idea of a gradual transmutation of one
species into another. Evolutionary taxonomy is still in
the process of detaching itself from the influence of
Platonism (Simpson, 1961).

Aristotle represented the real world as a hierarchy
of kinds of things, each of which combines form and
matter. In his biological writings, however, he recog-
nizes that living organisms are not sharply classifiable
into kinds, for there are many intermediate types which
blur the lines of demarcation. He even says in one place
that “nature passes from lifeless objects to animals in
an unbroken sequence.” These views have led some
students to conclude that Aristotle must have been an
evolutionist. But such a conclusion is mistaken. It
wrongly supposes that because the affirmation of con-
tinuity in the living world is incompatible with a belief
in sharply discrete kinds, it implies that a historical
derivation of one kind from another must have taken
place. Aristotle certainly did not think that the inter-
grading of organisms had come about historically. It
would have been inconceivable to him that one species
of animal could slowly change into another species,
just as it would have been inconceivable that the com-
plex hierarchy of nature could have been gradually
developed from simple beginnings. For him the uni-
verse is eternal and unchanging. In it every thing has
its fixed nature which remains unaffected by the motion
which brings about its actuality from a state of potency.


The profoundly anti-evolutionary character of Aris-
totelianism helped to arrest all forms of evolutionism
for nearly two thousand years.

Another influence that worked in the same direction
during this period was Christianity. After the time of
Aristotle, there were occasional revivals of the idea
that living things had arisen naturally from terrestrial
elements and that human society had developed from
a state of barbarism. Lucretius, Cicero, and Horace
all advocated views of this kind. But such views were
eclipsed when the Christian world-outlook became
predominant in Europe. An essential part of this out-
look was the biblical story of creation, according to
which the universe was brought into being by an all-
powerful God who had made it complete in every
detail, with each kind of creature occupying its proper
place in the whole. The period since the creation was
relatively brief, being only a few thousand years. Adam,
the first man, was created by God in His image, and
hence could not possibly have had ancestors. The
human race is, indeed, central to the cosmic drama
which is being worked out according to the divine
plan. The rest of the universe merely forms the back-
ground for what is taking place. Thus the static cre-
ationism taught by Christianity made it difficult for
any idea of evolution to arise, let alone be defended.


The rebirth of evolutionism is associated with the
advance of the natural sciences in the period after the
Renaissance. Several stages in the process of rebirth
can be distinguished. The first was a result of the new
cosmogony. Theories of how the physical universe,
including the solar system, had been or might have
been produced in accordance with mechanical laws
were set forth by René Descartes in his Principles of
(1644), by Immanuel Kant in his Universal
Natural History and Theory of the Heavens
(1755), and
by Pierre Simon de Laplace in his Exposition of the
System of the World
(1796). As a consequence, the idea
that nature had a history emerged as a powerful rival
to the dogma of special creation, even though
Descartes presented his theory as a purely imaginative
exercise which was not intended to contradict the first
chapter of Genesis. Furthermore, the new cosmogony
supposed that originally the matter of the universe was
in a chaotic, nebular state from which it passed through
a succession of orderly changes to its existing complex
structure. Isaac Newton's Principia Mathematica (1687)
had given a definitive account of that structure, but
had said nothing about how nature developed. Yet it
was an obvious move to apply Newtonian principles
to cosmogonic problems, and thereby bring to the fore
the idea that the universe had developed in an orderly
way from an unorganized state.

A second phase in the rebirth of evolutionism was
due to the rise of geology and paleontology. These
sciences established three conclusions that were essen-
tial to the revival of evolutionary views.

(1) The changes in the surface features of the earth
through the ages are the result of physical forces whose
operation has been gradual and broadly constant. This
uniformitarian doctrine replaced the ancient biblical
story of the Flood, and also the conception that the
earth's surface had been subject to periodic catas-
trophes. The classical version of uniformitarianism
appeared in Sir Charles Lyell's Principles of Geology
(1830), a work that profoundly influenced the thought
of Charles Darwin.

(2) The age of the earth is far greater than biblical
chronology allowed. In 1650 Archbishop Ussher calcu-
lated that the Creation took place in 4004 B.C. A
century later, Buffon conjectured that some seventy
thousand years had elapsed since the molten earth
began to cool. By the beginning of the nineteenth
century, the age of the earth was estimated in millions
rather than thousands of years. This expansion of the
terrestrial time scale provided the setting needed for
the doctrine that biological evolution tends to take
place slowly.

(3) The fossils or “figured stones” which had been
noticed in the earth's crust ever since antiquity and
which posed an enigma to nonevolutionists, are in fact
the remains of organisms that lived in the past. One
of the first to support this conclusion was Leibniz
(Protogaea, 1680), although he did not surmise how
much time was needed for petrifactive processes to
occur. Later, Buffon and Maillet formulated geological
theories to account for the presence of fossils, but their
views were subjected to ridicule by Voltaire who was
hostile to the idea of development in nature (Haber,
1959). By Lyell's day, however, it was clearly under-
stood that many fossils were relics of species long
extinct, and that observed or reconstructed sequences
of fossils were direct evidence for evolution.


During the eighteenth century evolutionary ideas in
the biological sciences gradually matured, despite
strong opposition. The history of what happened is
complex, but broadly speaking, there were changes in
basic theoretical or philosophical principles, and new
empirical discoveries made in those sciences. On the
theoretical side, they were influenced by the doctrine
of continuity which had a considerable vogue at the
time. They were also influenced by the nominalism
which had become a feature of contemporary philoso-


phy. These doctrines encouraged biologists to question
Platonistic conceptions of species, and to investigate
the anatomy, embryonic development and variability
of individual organisms. Likewise, the theoretical
model of nature as a mechanical system governed by
external laws was confronted with a rival model, due
in part to Leibniz, of nature as a self-organizing system
functioning in accordance with inner dynamic forces.
On the empirical side, the biological sciences brought
forward new interpretations of observed facts in com-
parative anatomy, embryology, and genetics which
stimulated maturing evolutionism. Three influential
figures whose work embodies these ideas were Buffon,
Maupertuis, and Diderot.

Buffon's vast Histoire naturelle, in 44 volumes
(1749-1804), contains material which, as Lovejoy has
said, “both fostered and hindered the propagation of
evolutionary ideas in biology” (Lovejoy [1959], p. 111).
The contribution of Buffon's geological views has al-
ready been mentioned. In addition, he stated quite
explicitly the hypothesis of organic evolution, without
actually espousing it. He even suggested “that man and
ape have a common origin; that, in fact, all the families
among plants as well as animals, have come from a
common stock” (Buffon [1783], IV, 382). His knowledge
of anatomical homologies and of individual variations
inclined him to espouse evolutionism. Yet on the other
hand, he publicly denied that species are mutable.
They are “perduring entities, as ancient, as permanent,
as Nature herself.” In holding this view, however,
Buffon differed sharply from his contemporary, Carl
von Linnaeus, who had defined a species Platonistically
in terms of invariant characteristics. Buffon defined a
species in terms of the relation of interbreeding, so that
two animals of opposite sex belong to the same species
if their offspring are fertile, and belong to different
species if they fail to produce offspring or produce
offspring that are sterile. It has sometimes been said
that his refusal to espouse the transmutation of species
was due to his desire to avoid the hostility of the
Church. This may have been partly the case; but he
does offer arguments in support of his position drawn
from the biological knowledge of his day (cf. Lovejoy,

The importance of Maupertuis for evolutionism lies
in the fact that he not only envisaged the transmutation
and diversification of species, but also sketched an
explanation of how these processes might have come
about. His study of embryogeny impressed on him the
frequent occurrence of deviations from the norm in
individual development “Errors” arise that produce
new characteristics of organisms and are then trans-
mitted to offspring. If these characteristics enable the
organisms to adapt to the environment more success
fully than their predecessors, a new species will result.
Repeated deviations could lead to a diversification of
species such as now obtains on the earth. The whole
process might even have started “from two individuals
alone.” Furthermore, since the developmental “errors”
may be attributed to fortuitous rearrangements of the
basic hereditary particles, no design or teleology need
be postulated. This explanation appears to anticipate
in outline much later accounts of evolution which
appeal to genetic mutations and natural selection. Yet
Maupertuis' approach was more speculative than
empirical, and his ideas remained rather vague. Hence,
despite his importance, it is overstating the case to say
that “he must be ranked above all the precursors of
Darwin” (Glass [1959], p. 74; cf. Lovejoy, 1950).

Diderot was influenced by Buffon's Histoire naturelle
and by Maupertuis' Système de la nature (1751). He
recognized that the anatomical homologies mentioned
in Buffon's work supported the idea that species evolve.
He also recognized the value of Maupertuis' conjecture
that variations which occur in individual development
might, given sufficient time, lead to an immense diver-
sification of species. He shared with both men a predi-
lection for the idea of spontaneous generation, although
he did not accept Buffon's concept of “organic mole-
cules” or Maupertuis' speculation that the basic hered-
itary particles had some rudimentary form of intelli-
gence. The most he was prepared to admit was that
“sensitivity” is either an inherent property of matter
or a property which it acquires when it reaches a stage
of sufficient organization.

The distinctive feature of Diderot's transformism is
that it is part of an evolutionary metaphysics. Like
Spencer a century later, but much less systematically,
he aimed to explain how the universe had evolved from
a primitive state towards increasing complexity and
specialization. Unlike Spencer, however, he espoused
a thoroughgoing, dynamic materialism. Matter with its
inherent property of motion, and perhaps of sensitivity,
accounts for all that has come to be. The universe is
a self-organizing whole whose parts are interconnected
and ceaselessly changing. In the course of “millions
of years,” living things have undergone “an infinite
number of successive organizations and developments.”
These have brought about the existence of sensations,
thoughts, languages, laws, sciences, and arts on the
earth. Living things have “perhaps still other develop-
ments to undergo which are unknown to us.” The
process of universal change is neither purposive nor
mechanical but organic. Like the life-cycle of plants
and animals, it may well be subject to dissolution as
well as evolution.

These formulations of evolutionism in eighteenth-
century biology met resistance from within the science


itself. The chief resistance came from embryology
which was then dominated by the version of preforma-
tionism known as the “encapsulation (emboîtement)
theory,” defended with powerful arguments by Charles
Bonnet in his Considérations sur les corps organisés
(1762). This was one of the first works to use the term
“evolution” in a biological sense. For Bonnet, however,
“evolution” designated the process of ontogenesis in-
terpreted as the development of an individual organism
from a germ in which it, and all its potential descend-
ants, were contained. When the world was created,
all future generations of living things were “encapsu-
lated” in a set of primordial germs. Preformationism
thus implied that the boundaries between species were
permanently fixed. The counter-theory of epigenesis,
accepted by Maupertuis, Diderot, and K. F. Wolff, was
favorable to transformism because epigenesists re-
garded hereditary variations as adding characteristics
to living things in the course of their development.
But epigenesis had become linked with the notion of
spontaneous generation, and was discredited along with
that notion by the experiments of Lazaro Spallanzani
(1729-99) and others. Hence the temporary triumph
of preformationism arrested biological evolutionism
until the period of Lamarck. This situation may have
had something to do with the fact that even so eminent
a figure as kant, who was vaguely attracted to evolu-
tionistic modes of thought, rejected the idea that spe-
cies can change.


A new version of evolutionism began to make its
appearance in the latter half of the eighteenth century.
This was the metaphysical doctrine of universal
progress, or progressionism. It resulted in large measure
from what Lovejoy has called “the temporalizing of
the Chain of Being” (Lovejoy [1936], Ch. ix). According
to a conception derived from Platonic and Neo-
Platonic philosophy, the universe is a completed hier-
archy or “chain” which extends from entities having
a minimal degree of being, through all possible forms,
to the ens perfectissimum. This conception underwent
a modification which made its first appearance in
Leibniz. The stages of the hierarchy were regarded as
coming into existence successively in time, starting
with the lowest; and the movement towards the higher
stages was regarded as unfinished and as continually
producing new and diverse forms. Thus the conception
of a static chain of being became that of a unilinear
process of ascent to greater perfection.

The details of progressionism were worked out in
many different ways. Thus, Jean Jacques Rousseau and
Lord James Barrett Monboddo limited the scope of the
doctrine to man's advance from a primitive to a civi
lized state. This formulation not only gave a new
impetus to the idea of social or cultural evolution, but
also contained the radical suggestion that man was
derived from apelike ancestors, such as the orangutans,
with whom he forms a single species. Yet neither
Rousseau nor Monboddo accepted transformism. The
development of man did not imply for them that any
species-barriers were passed in the rise from animality
to humanity.

Another formulation of progressionism centered
around the idea that a single, basic prototype had been
more and more fully actualized in the history of nature.
This idea was clearly stated by Robinet in his De la
(1761). “A stone, an oak, a horse, a monkey,
a man are graduated variations of the prototype which
began to form itself with the least possible number of
elements” in the remote past. The succession of varia-
tions has been “so many steps towards the being of
humanity.” Herder advanced a similar idea in his Ideen
zu einer Philosophie der Geschichte der Menschheit

(1784-91), although he gave more emphasis to the
standard form (Hauptform) which is diversified in the
animal kingdom and most perfectly exemplified in man.
These ideas represented a response of speculative
minds to the facts of vertebrate homologies discussed
by Buffon and Louis Jean Marie Daubenton. The con-
clusions of the new science of comparative anatomy
were translated into terms of a teleological scheme
according to which the production of man has been
aimed at from the start and has been achieved by a
gradual perfecting of one prototype that appears in
all living things.

Various metaphysical explanations of this perfecting
process were offered. Robinet posited a “creative
power” (puissance active) that increased in strength
through the ages and produced higher forms despite
the resistance of brute matter. Herder attributed the
perfecting to vaguely conceived “purposes” of Nature
which have been realized in a necessary historical
order. Exponents of Naturphilosophie, such F. W. J.
Schelling and L. O. Oken, for whom progressionism
had a strong appeal, had recourse to the belief that
a divine power is expressed in the succession of forms.
God is gradually revealing his nature in the history
of the cosmos, and man is the being in whom at last
divinity is fully manifested. These teleological expla-
nation-schemes, especially the ones advocated by the
German Naturphilosophen, embodied the notion of
successive creation or spontaneous generation of kinds,
and hence were not transformist. They were rather
explanations which were strongly tinged with Neo-
Platonism, and formulated by minds of a romantic
rather than a scientific cast. Yet the biological sciences
in the early nineteenth century were much influenced


by such romantic speculations (cf. Nordenskiöld [1929],
Ch. xiv).

The linking of progressionism and transformism was
mainly due to Erasmus Darwin and Lamarck. These
men accepted the idea of a broad historical advance
of living things from simple to complex. But they
rejected the idea of a successive creation of kinds in
favor of the view that later kinds had descended with
modifications from earlier ones. Both men held that
what had occurred at successive stages of this descent
is amenable to explanation in natural terms. Erasmus
Darwin's explanation was sketchy and quasi-poetic;
Lamarck's explanation was more detailed and quasi-
scientific. The general pattern was similar in the two
cases. It invoked the notion that living things, by virtue
of an internal vital power, respond to the changing
environment in such a way as to satisfy their wants
or needs. As a result of this process, somatic charac-
teristics are developed which meet those wants or
needs, and are passed on to successive generations of
offspring. Thus in the course of time the organisms
concerned undergo alterations of form and function.
The alterations, however, are not random, for they are
phases of the progressive advance of living things from
lower to higher types.

Although Erasmus Darwin and Lamarck helped to
pave the way for the work of Charles Darwin, their
evolutionism was very different from his. They were
eighteenth-century deists, for whom the history of the
cosmos is the actualizing of a divine plan established
at creation. Deism and evolutionism were readily
combined in the view that God had so designed the
universe that evolution is the means by which His plan
is executed without miraculous intervention. The his-
torical succession of forms obeys the laws ordained by
God in the beginning. A basic aim of Erasmus Darwin
in his Zoonomia (1794-96), of Lamarck in his Phi-
losophie zoologique
(1809), and somewhat later, of
Robert Chambers in his popular Vestiges of the Natural
History of Creation
(1844), was to advocate deistic
evolutionism. All these works did indeed invoke em-
pirical facts. But the facts were introduced not to
support specific biological hypotheses, as was the case
with Charles Darwin. They were introduced to support
a general philosophy of nature. Furthermore, little
reference was made to the problem of the origin of
species. Erasmus Darwin scarcely mentions species,
whereas Lamarck took the position that since only
individual organisms exist in nature, species are arbi-
trary groupings which men establish. Moreover, indi-
vidual organisms are parts of a continuous, changing
process, which is constantly creating life at the bottom
of the scale and raising it upwards to more perfect
forms of organization (cf. Gillispie, 1959).

In the early nineteenth century biological progres-
sionism came under attack. The anatomist and paleon-
tologist, Cuvier, denied that living things can be ar-
ranged in a unilinear sequence. He contended that
there are four fundamental groups of animals, so
different that they cannot be integrated into an
ascending taxonomic scheme or regarded as belonging
to one historical series in which a single basic prototype
was gradually perfected. The embryologist, Karl E. von
Baer, and the paleontologist, Louis Agassiz, supported
these contentions. Von Baer argued that the develop-
mental processes in the four groups bear no significant
embryological relationships to each other. Serious
doubt was thus cast not only on the idea that living
things had evolved in a unilinear way, but also on the
idea that they had evolved at all. For Cuvier, von Baer,
and Agassiz rejected the notion of the mutability of
species. They were anti-evolutionists as well as anti-
progressionists. This fact tended to obscure the logical
point that since biological evolutionism does not entail
progressionism, it is quite possible to subscribe to the
former without subscribing to the latter. Hence in
much nineteenth-century thought evolution was
mistakenly identified with progress, not only in biology
but also in other disciplines.

The work of Cuvier and von Baer helped to under-
mine the influence of the idea of a great chain or scale
of beings. As zoological evidence accumulated, it be-
came hard to accept the progressionists' view that
living things form a single, tidy, unilinear series.
Lamarck, who was widely familiar with the evidence,
admitted that such a series could only be formed by
abstracting characteristics common to animal groups.
By the time of Charles Darwin, another metaphor had
come to the fore, namely, that of “a great tree” whose
twigs, branches, boughs, etc., represent respectively
species, genera, families, etc., of living things, ramify-
ing in a complex, irregular way from a single trunk,
or from two main trunks at the base. This figure of
the tree of life became a new paradigm in evolutionary
biology, bringing with it a shift in thought which
allowed account to be taken of the facts pointed out
by Cuvier and von Baer without rejecting the trans-
mutation of species. The book that accomplished this
revolutionary shift in thought was Charles Darwin's
On the Origin of Species (1859).


All the versions of evolutionism prior to 1859
suffered from two major limitations. They were not
able to produce a well-organized body of evidence to
show that evolution had occurred, and they were not
able to formulate a verifiable explanation of how it
had occurred. Darwin did both things for the theory


of organic evolution. His Origin of Species is, as he
says, “one long argument” which combines hypotheses,
deductions, and observations to support three major
propositions: (1) all species of organisms now on earth
have descended by a long, gradual process of modifica-
tion from a small number of very different species in
the remote past; (2) the chief cause of the transmuta-
tion of species is natural selection which acts on popu-
lations of organisms having varying and inheritable
characteristics and as a result there is differential sur-
vival and reproduction in the population, depending
on the extent to which the characteristics favor or
handicap the organisms in the struggle for existence;
(3) natural selection accounts for the adaptations of
viable organisms to widely different conditions of life;
it also tends to improve those adaptations, and con-
versely, it leads to the extinction of poorly adapted
species. Darwin did not profess to have invented any
of these ideas, and he was particularly cognizant of
his indebtedness to Thomas Malthus and Lyell. What
he did was to make evolutionism for the first time a
testable theory and to offer a powerful body of evi-
dence in its support. Consequently, before long it was
accepted by the whole scientific community. There was
indeed a “triumph of the Darwinian method” (cf.
Ghiselin, 1969).

Darwinism had a revolutionary impact on many
aspects of Western intellectual culture. It destroyed
the quasi-theological frame of mind in the sciences,
so that biologists no longer concerned themselves with
the biblical story of the creation of species, or geolo-
gists with the story of the Flood. Darwin's proof that
species change in a gradual, orderly way under the
influence of natural causes utilized the same uniformi-
tarian principle by which Lyell had made geology a
science. The adaptations of plants and animals to their
environments, cited by William Paley in his Natural
(1802) as evidence of providential design in
the world, were accounted for by Darwin without any
reference to divine purposes. Thus the living world
became amenable to explanation in mechanistic, or
more accurately naturalistic terms, just as the nonliving
world was. A new scientific outlook, altogether free
of theological presuppositions, was strongly reinforced
by Darwinism.

Of even greater importance was the impact of
Darwinism on man's conception of himself. It was a
clear implication of the Origin of Species that human
beings had descended not from an historical Adam
created by God in 4004 B.C., but from remote, pre-
human ancestors. T. H. Huxley developed this implica-
tion with reference to bodily traits in Man's Place in
(1863). Darwin developed it with reference to
mental, moral, and social traits in The Descent of Man
(1871). Once again it was not so much the novelty of
these ideas as the arguments offered in support of them
that caused a shock. Even some of Darwin's allies, such
as Lyell, Alfred Russel Wallace, George Romanes, and
Asa Gray, were unwilling to accept the conclusion that
the powers of the mind were evolutionary products.
Huxley came to believe that there was a fundamental
conflict between the operation of natural selection and
the ethical values cherished by men. Nevertheless, by
the end of the nineteenth century the force of the
Darwinian argument was augmented by the discovery
of various proto-human fossil remains, and the “death
of Adam” was widely admitted (cf. Greene, 1959).

The Darwinian theory excited bitter theological and
popular opposition, especially in England. Its oppo-
nents were mainly members of the privileged upper
classes who regarded the theory as a threat to the
Establishment. They associated the doctrine of evolu-
tion with the atheistic materialism which had been part
of the ideology of the French Revolution. The ancien
had been overthrown by those who held that
man can improve his lot and perfect himself by his
own efforts. Darwinism was believed to belong to this
same family of radical ideas. More than half a century
before its appearance, the influence of those ideas in
England had been counteracted by Malthus' Essay on
(1798) and by Paley's Natural Theology.
Malthus had contended that the improvement of man's
lot is made impossible by the rate of population in-
crease and the consequent need to keep the population
in check by a high rate of mortality in the struggle
for existence. But Darwin had shown that it was pre-
cisely mortality in the struggle for existence that en-
abled natural selection to improve adaptation among
those that survived. Furthermore, Darwin had ex-
ploded Paley's claim that the existence of adaptations
is evidence of the providential ordering of the world.
To Victorian conservatives all this proved that the
doctrine of evolution by natural selection was a threat
to Church and State which had to be resisted. Nor
would they have been reassured by the fact that
Darwin had declined Marx's invitation to allow Volume
I of Das Kapital to be dedicated to him (de Beer [1965],
p. 266).

In the later nineteenth century, attempts were made
to use Darwinism to support the system of laissez-faire
capitalism which had become dominant in the Western
world. Those who reaped the benefits of the system
but who were aware of its inequities, argued that it
conformed to a primal law of evolution. For since, as
Darwin had shown, competition in the struggle for
existence results in the survival of the fittest, the rich
are simply better adapted than the poor to the condi-
tions of social life. To remove or even mitigate compe-


tition would be to go against nature. This doctrine,
somewhat inappropriately called “Social Darwinism,”
was used to oppose government intervention in eco-
nomic affairs, the growth of trade unions, and the rising
tide of socialist ideas. Leading protagonists of the doc-
trine were Herbert Spencer in England and J. D.
Rockefeller and W. G. Sumner in the United States.
But Social Darwinism also had its critics, among whom
were C. S. Peirce, and also Peter Kropotkin, the author
of Mutual Aid (1907). The question of the bearing of
evolutionary theory on social philosophy and ethics
was much debated at this time, and is still being dis-
cussed (cf. Waddington, 1960; Flew, 1967).

The success of the Darwinian explanation scheme
in biology called attention to certain methodological
features of it which influenced subsequent science. (1)
Darwin showed that explanation can be historical
without losing its scientific character. For in biology
one is often able to explain phenomena by showing
how they originated and developed. To understand
“the tree of life” one has to understand how it grew.
(2) By getting rid of Platonistic elements in his treat-
ment of natural selection, Darwin established evolu-
tionary science on a nominalistic basis. He then intro-
duced statistical or “population” conceptions to permit
generalizations to be made about the changes which
selection produces in individuals. (3) The Origin of
explained what happened in evolution as an
outcome of accidental and orderly events combined.
Natural selection is an order-generating process. The
occurrence of variations, the survival and reproductive
success of organisms, etc., are matters of accident or
chance. It thus became clear that a discipline does not
need to establish what must necessarily happen ac-
cording to universal laws in order to be a science. (4)
The Darwinian explanation showed that although
adaptations are not the result of design, they are nev-
ertheless purposive. They serve certain ends and must
be so studied. Thus a scientific concept of teleology
can be admitted at the same time that theological and
metaphysical teleology are rejected.

These Darwinian ideas spread rapidly into the whole
intellectual domain. The social sciences, for example,
became strongly evolutionary. Facets of human culture
came to be investigated in terms of their origin, devel-
opment, and survival or disappearance. The word
“evolution” began to appear in the titles of works by
anthropologists, psychologists, sociologists, historians of
moral, legal, and political institutions, and so on. In-
deed, “it was not long before the lesson of evolution
filtered through to all fields of human endeavour, in-
cluding literature, art, music, and the history of ideas
in general” (de Beer [1965], p. 216). Darwinism excited
the interest and frequently the antipathy of English
men of letters, such as Tennyson, Samuel Butler, and
George Bernard Shaw. Above all it gave a renewed
impetus to cosmogonic speculation in philosophy. As
a result various systems of metaphysical evolutionism
were constructed after 1859.


Although Darwin himself disavowed any intention
to draw philosophical conclusions, it was clear that his
ideas could be readily generalized so as to constitute
a world-outlook. The final sentence of the Origin of
remarked on the “grandeur of this view of life,”
and thereby invited a metaphysical interpretation of
the book's conclusions. Such metaphysical inter-
pretations not only generalized those conclusions, but
also tended to deal with questions that Darwin legiti-
mately bypassed. Among these were the question of
how life began, why it started to evolve, whether
evolution had always been continuous, and to what
extent naturalistic principles adequately accounted for
cosmic order, teleology in nature, the appearance of
the human mind, ostensible freedom of action, and
human knowledge. In taking up these matters, evolu-
tionary philosophies sometimes tried to anticipate the
findings of the sciences, sometimes offered speculative
answers to nonscientific questions, and sometimes
undertook conceptual analysis and redefinition of
terms. Occasionally there was a failure of nerve in the
face of the Darwinian challenge, so that an anti-
evolutionary position ultimately emerged. It will be
convenient to deal with a few of the major evolutionary
philosophies under four headings: mechanistic evolu-
tionism, vitalistic evolutionism, emergent evolutionism,
and pragmatic evolutionism.

Mechanistic Evolutionism. According to one gener-
alized doctrine, the total universe has evolved as a
consequence of its basic stuff being acted on by ex-
trinsic forces or laws. The biologist Ernst Haeckel,
Darwin's vigorous champion in Germany, expounded
this doctrine in his popular work, The Riddle of the
(London, 1899), Chs. I and XIII. “Evolution”
was for him the magic conception which could lead
to the solution of every cosmic riddle. All natural
phenomena, he contended, “from the motion of
heavenly bodies... to the growth of plants and the
consciousness of man, obey one and the same great
law of causation.” It produces “a vast, uniform, un-
interrupted process of development.” In the process
countless types of organization arise, but “all may be
ultimately referred to the mechanics of atoms.” Yet
since continuity prevails throughout, the atoms which
constitute the world-stuff must be supposed to have
a rudimentary consciousness or “soul” from which the
consciousness of man was evolved. Hence atoms are


not just bits of physical matter. Haeckel therefore
referred to his doctrine as “monism,” not materialism.
It may be viewed as a philosophically crude but influ-
ential attempt to unite Darwinism with the cosmogony
initiated by Descartes, Kant, and Laplace.

A more sophisticated version of mechanistic evolu-
tionism was formulated by Herbert Spencer in A Sys-
tem of Synthetic Philosophy
(1862-93). He had pub-
lished an attack on the idea of fixed, created species,
and a defense of transmutation, in his essay, “The
Development Hypothesis” (1852). When the Origin of
appeared Spencer accepted its contention that
existing forms of life had descended with modifications
from common ancestors. He even coined the phrase
“survival of the fittest” which Darwin unwisely
adopted as a synonym for natural selection.

Yet Spencer was not a Darwinian. The general
definition of evolution he formulated was inspired by
von Baer's description of embryological development,
and also by Lamarckian progressionism. Evolution is
defined as “an integration of matter and a concomitant
dissipation of motion; during which the matter passes
from a relatively indefinite, incoherent homogeneity
to a relatively definite, coherent heterogeneity; and
during which the retained motion undergoes a parallel
transformation” (First Principles, 6th ed., p. 144). The
causes of this movement are mechanical, being ex-
trinsic to matter and motion. Spencer undertook to
apply his definition to all phenomena, from the forma-
tion of the solar system out of a primitive nebula to
the rise of civilization out of primitive human associa-
tions. The enterprise needed ten large volumes and
thirty years to complete. In its day it was world-

Part of the reason for its fame was that the Synthetic
proposed to reconcile science and religion.
But in doing so it largely negated evolutionism. For
in his opening volume, First Principles (1862), Spencer
adopted an epistemological premiss from Mansel's The
Limits of Religious Thought
(1858) according to which
ultimate reality cannot be known. Now religion in-
volves the consciousness of an Incomprehensible Power
behind phenomena, and science, since it is only con-
cerned with phenomena, can acknowledge that they
are manifestations of an unknowable reality. Hence
there need be no opposition between the respective
claims of religion and science. But it follows that the
process of evolution is a feature of phenomena alone.
Ultimate reality does not evolve. Moreover, even in
the domain of phenomena evolution is not all-
pervasive. For it is essentially a rearrangement of en-
during matter and motion in various sectors—
inorganic, organic, and super-organic. The mechanical
causes that operate are likewise enduring. And,
Spencer declares, more forthrightly than Diderot, uni-
versal development will eventually run its course. It
will then be followed by the reverse process of retro-
gression and dissolution in the grand cosmic cycle. Thus
despite the wealth of detail it encompasses, the Syn-
thetic Philosophy
turns out to be an anti-evolutionary
system or, as Henri Bergson put it, “evolutionism only
in name.”

Vitalistic Evolutionism. The ancient idea that orga-
nisms are animated by a vital force not found in inor-
ganic matter had been invoked to account for the
history of life by advocates of progressionism and
Naturphilosophie in the eighteenth century. The influ-
ence of these romantic speculations did not end with
the appearance of the Origin of Species, however, but
continued to be manifested in metaphysical doctrines
hostile to Darwinism. No objection was raised to the
conclusion that evolution had occurred. What was
objected to was the philosophical adequacy of
mechanistic or naturalistic explanations of evolution.
The issue of teleology, largely ignored by Haeckel and
Spencer, came in for much attention, as did the ques-
tion of why organisms had become ever more diversi-
fied and complex since arising on the earth. Answers
to such questions in terms of a generalized vitalism,
with strong romantic overtones, were offered by
Schopenhauer and Bergson.

The importance of Schopenhauer for the history of
evolutionism was first pointed out by Lovejoy (see
Lovejoy, 1911). The relevant material occurs mainly
in a late work, Zur Philosophie und Wissenschaft der
(1850), which Schopenhauer wrote under the
influence of Chambers' Vestiges of the Natural History
of Creation,
a book that prefigured many Darwinian
arguments for the theory of descent. Schopenhauer
used Chambers' ideas to develop an evolutionary phi-
losophy of nature as a final supplement to the earlier
system which Schopenhauer had worked out in Die
Welt als Wille und Vorstellung
(1818). According to
that system, absolute reality is Will, an unconscious,
striving, irrational power, beyond space and time,
which “objectifies” itself in the phenomenal world. By
1850 Schopenhauer construed this objectification as a
process of cosmic, geological, and biological evolution.
Each individual in the process embodies the will to
live. The general diversification of types and the
movement through sudden saltations towards com-
plexity are explicable in terms of a striving of the Will
for maximum expression. This is an “end” determined
by its nature, though not consciously pursued. Hence
the whole process is teleological, not mechanical. Yet
like Spencer, Schopenhauer refused to give ontological
primacy to evolution. For the Will in itself is timeless,
complete, and inscrutable. As Lovejoy remarks, “both


systems consist of an evolutionary philosophy of nature,
projected against the background of an essentially
mystical and negative metaphysics” (Lovejoy [1911],
p. 214).

A thoroughgoing evolutionary metaphysics was set
forth by Bergson in L'évolution créatrice (1907; trans.
as Creative Evolution, 1911). This ingenious speculative
work proclaimed the ontological priority of time and
becoming over being. It attributed the history of orga-
nisms and their living properties to the activity of a
primordial impulse (élan vital; poussée vitale) which
infused inert matter, created organic structures, and
endowed organisms with the capacity to grow and
adapt to the environment. The vital impulse freely
created forms in ever-increasing diversity, at each stage
“engrafting on to the necessity of physical forces the
largest possible amount of indetermination.” Like his
eighteenth-century predecessor, Robinet, Bergson sup-
posed that inert matter resisted the vital impulse, so
that there is a constant tendency for organisms to
relapse into repetitive, devitalized routines. Eventu-
ally, the individual organism dies, but the “current of
life” passes on to succeeding generations and gives rise
to unpredictable novelties. At bottom, the vital impulse
is “a current of consciousness” which has found expres-
sion in human intelligence as a result of “a sudden leap
from animal to man” (Creative Evolution, p. 195).

Bergson contended that this doctrine provided a far
more adequate account of evolutionary phenomena
than either Darwinism or Spencerian mechanism.
These theories, he held, failed to make intelligible the
springing up of new organic types, the drive towards
ever-increasing complexity of structure, and the pres-
ervation of adaptive functioning through phases of
rapid change. Such phenomena become intelligible if
they are regarded as consequences of the action of a
vital impulse. It works purposively to sustain each
organism for a short period, but it does not pursue any
final goal. There is “teleology without design” which
results in continuous progress, indefinitely pursued.
Man is the growing tip of this progressive movement.
In him true freedom is realized; and he has access to
ultimate reality in his intuition of time.

Bergson's evolutionism was attractive to those who
were in revolt against mechanistic and materialistic
ideas at the start of the twentieth century. Many
welcomed the important place he gave to mind in the
evolutionary picture. Philosophers such as William
James, and writers such as Marcel Proust, André Gide,
and Shaw were influenced by his emphasis on cre-
ativity, freedom, novelty, and the flow of consciousness.
His defense of metaphysics challenged the positivism
of Hippolyte Taine which had dominated French
intellectual life for some years before Bergson's works
appeared. Yet it was the romantic, imaginative quality
of those works rather than the presence in them of
cogent arguments and supporting evidence that made
Bergsonian evolutionism popular.

Emergent Evolutionism. A central theme in the
Origin of Species was that no abrupt changes had taken
place in the history of life. That history conformed to
the principle, natura non facit saltum (“nature makes
no leap”), and hence all evolutionary changes in orga-
nisms were gradual. Some of Darwin's supporters con-
sidered that his espousal of this principle was ill-
advised since it is not an essential part of his theory.
Thus, T. H. Huxley affirmed in Collected Essays (9 vols.,
1893-94) “that Nature does make jumps now and then,
and a recognition of the fact is of no small importance
in disposing of minor objections to the doctrine of
transmutation” (II, 77). A Darwinian could accept the
view that sudden novelties had arisen in evolution,
although it was not clear how he could then escape
from accepting the unpalatable conclusion of thinkers
like Schopenhauer and Bergson that the “leaps” to
novelty are due to a vital force. The conceptual diffi-
culties here were resolved by the formulation of the
doctrine of emergent evolutionism.

In its full statement emergent evolutionism is a
metaphysical doctrine. But one of its contentions is
empirical, namely, that emergent events can be ob-
served in nature. The results of certain chemical reac-
tions which happen suddenly provide a simple exam-
ple. Hence the claim that nature makes no leaps is
empirically false. Furthermore, when they first occur,
these emergent events add something new to the sum-
total of existence, and being genuinely novel, they are
unpredictable in principle. Emergents can also be
noted in the history of life at those points where new
organic types appeared on the scene. Their emergence
is a natural fact which does not require the postulation
of a vital impulse. The fact is, however, incompatible
with mechanistic, reductionist, or preformationist in-
terpretations of what took place. It is likewise incom-
patible with some, but not all, interpretations of the
causal principle. The emergence of novelties in biolog-
ical evolution illustrates the cumulative aspect of the

These contentions were embodied in systems of
metaphysical evolutionism by Lloyd Morgan in
Emergent Evolution (1923) and by Samuel Alexander
in Space, Time and Deity (1920). They construed
“emergence” as applying not to individual events or
to particular organic forms, but to broad “levels” of
being. Lloyd Morgan affirmed that the universe had
evolved by generating four temporally successive
levels: psycho-physical events, life, mind, and spirit or
God. Alexander distinguished five levels of complexes


and their qualities: space-time, matter, life, mind, and
deity. The supervening of each level on its predecessors
was declared to be inexplicable, a fact to be accepted
with “natural piety.” Other exponents of the doctrine
objected to this conclusion, and undertook to show that
emergents can be given a rational explanation ex post
without denying that when they occur they are
unpredictable novelties. There is no consensus about
how many or what kinds of levels cosmic evolution
has produced. By no means do all emergent evolution-
ists accept the view that one of the levels can be called
God. Naturalistic formulations of the doctrine have
been given in which the main categories are physical,
e.g., elementary particles, atoms, molecules, cells, or-
ganisms, and societies.

The notion of emergence has been accepted by many
biologists as a valid description of what happened at
critical stages of terrestrial evolution. The notion has
also been found useful as a device for integrating bio-
logical evolution and the unique products of mental,
moral, and cultural evolution that have enriched the
sum of things on the earth. These applications accord
with the view that discontinuities exist among living
systems because of the different degrees of complexity
in their organization. The metaphysical extension of
this view, however, is problematic. It requires the
postulation of such highly controversial ideas as an
overall, cosmic evolution, pervasive levels of being, and
an inherent tendency of the cosmos to produce novel-
ties. Furthermore, the model or paradigm associated
with these ideas is obscure. Emergent evolution is
envisaged neither as a temporal building up of a scale
of nature, nor as a temporalized chain of beings. For
it is said that each level which emerges “contains
within it” all earlier levels, and also that the superven-
ing of a level on others may engender novel qualities
at one or more of those other levels. The model here
would seem to be that of a developing organism which
during embryogenesis can be observed to manifest new
structures within which earlier structures are con-
tained. Emergent evolutionism has, indeed, an affinity
for organismic and epigenetic ideas, which have some-
times been combined with it.

Pragmatic Evolutionism. A distinctive generaliza-
tion of Darwinian conceptions took place in connection
with the rise of pragmatism in America. The initiators
of this doctrine accepted Darwin's view that evolution
is continuous. But they broadened his theory of chance
variations and natural selection so as to explain the
role of human thought and its multifarious creations.
Out of this explanation there developed a reconstruc-
tion of traditional philosophy. Its primary concern was
not with abstract speculation but with reflection on
concrete problems of scientific method, education,
jurisprudence, and social ethics. Pragmatism thus pro-
vided a way of understanding how cultural evolution
is related to biological evolution. At the same time,
pragmatic evolutionism did involve a world view, a
predominantly empirical and naturalistic metaphysics,
in which no appeal was made to cosmic purposes,
vitalistic agencies, or mechanistic laws.

On the pragmatic approach, man is recognized to
be engaged, like every other living thing, in a constant
process of adapting to his environment. His mental
capacities are, therefore, adaptive devices which serve
him well or ill in this process. Ideas are instruments
for coping with the world, and must be tested by
observation and experiment to determine their worth.
Thought and action, when functioning properly, are
inseparable, for man adapts to an existing situation
either by making his behavior conform to it or by
actively changing the situation to meet his needs. This
pragmatic approach to mind had its roots not only in
Darwinism but also in Bain's conception of belief as
a “preparation to act,” in Chauncey Wright's view of
scientific principles as “working hypotheses,” and in
Peirce's contention in Collected Papers (8 vols.,
1931-58) that “the elements of every concept enter
into logical thought at the gate of perception and make
their exit at the gate of purposive action” (Collected
[1934], V, 212). John Dewey developed these
notions into a full-blown evolutionary logic in his
Logic: The Theory of Inquiry (1938). Another prag-
matist, G. H. Mead, put the matter strikingly when
he said that “the scientific method is, after all, only
the evolutionary process grown self-conscious” (Move-
ments of Thought in the Nineteenth Century
p. 364). For in the history of science ideas, like somatic
variations in the history of life, have been subject to
a selective process which has resulted in a survival of
the fittest.

The world view which pragmatic evolutionism in-
volved was, with one notable exception, pluralistic and
open-ended. “Nature” was the basic ontological cate-
gory which embraced the multiplicity of events whose
interactions are sometimes regular and sometimes ran-
dom. There is no fixed cosmic order and no overall
direction in cosmic history. Yet a cumulative, determi-
nate past is being built up by the actualization of some
events out of the array of indeterminate possibilities.
Wright compared the physical history of the universe
to meteorological phenomena, in his doctrine of “cos-
mic weather,” where what happens is causally deter-
mined but shows no dominant trend. William James,
in opposing the Hegelian “block universe,” suggested
that world events are “only strung along, not rounded
in and closed.” Dewey urged, in The Influence of
Darwin on Philosophy,
that a philosopher who has


learned the lesson of Darwinism will “forswear inquiry
after absolute origins and absolute finalities in order
to explore specific values and the specific conditions
that generate them” (1910, p. 13). Pragmatism can find
no meaning in a “wholesale theory” of first and last

The exception to all this was the speculative evolu-
tionism of Peirce. Although he had a sound grasp of
the logic of Darwinism, recognizing as few did its use
of the statistical method, he never accepted the theory
as a complete explanation of either biological or cul-
tural evolution. Thus he held that the diversification
which has occurred among organisms cannot be ac-
counted for by any lawlike mechanism such as natural
selection. It points rather to the operation of an in-
trinsic spontaneity in the universe. Furthermore, the
principle of continuity implies that evolution is growth
in the widest sense of the word. But whatever grows
must be present in the process from the start. Hence
such phenomena as feeling and thought, so far from
being late arrivals on the evolutionary scene, have
always been in existence, at least in an inchoate form,
throughout the cosmos. In man these phenomena have
developed through the forming of habits, especially
habits involving the use of signs and symbols, to their
present state. Accordingly, man's adaptation is primar-
ily to a semiotic environment and only secondarily to
a bio-physical one. An adequate pragmatism will
therefore conclude that the purposive action into
which thought passes, is directed to the increase of
concrete reasonableness, and is not simply a bodily

Peirce generalized these themes into a “cosmogonic”
evolutionism reminiscent of Schelling, to whom he
acknowledged his indebtedness. The universe is repre-
sented as growing from a state of total randomness in
the infinitely distant past towards a state of total order
in the infinitely distant future. Cosmic evolution is also
represented as beginning with “a chaos of unpersonal-
ized feeling” and ending with “an absolutely perfect,
rational, and symmetrical system” in which mind be-
comes “at last crystallized.” What happens in this
process is not causally necessitated. Yet it is destined
or “fated” to occur, partly because it involves a pro-
gressive unfolding of God's purpose in nature. These
and other descriptions can hardly be said to form a
perspicuous and logically consistent doctrine. In this
area of his thought, Peirce's transcendental and reli-
gious predilections often led him to make vague,
grandiose claims. These claims were not only at vari-
ance with the philosophical method he advocated else-
where, but were also at variance with the principles
that guided other pragmatic evolutionists (cf. Wiener,
1949; Goudge, 1950).


The influence of the idea of evolution outside the
sciences and philosophy is well illustrated by the work
of Samuel Butler, Friedrich Nietzsche, and George
Bernard Shaw. They were primarily men of letters, and
may be taken to represent respectively the fields of
the novel, classical philology, and drama. All accepted
the idea of descent with modification, but all were
hostile to Darwinism and favorable to Lamarckism.
They did not, however, embody their objections in
scientific or philosophical arguments. They used vari-
ous literary forms for the expression of their views, and
often mingled rhetoric and invective with exposition.

Four broad themes appear in the writings of these
literary evolutionists.

(1) They objected to Darwin's admission of chance
or accident as an element in the evolutionary process.
Butler contended in his Evolution, Old and New (1879)
that a theory which invoked the notion of accidental
variations ultimately failed to account for the origin
of species. Erasmus Darwin and Lamarck were, he
held, on much firmer ground when they attributed
variations to the purposive activity of organisms. Shaw
echoed Butler's contention in the Preface to his play,
Back to Methuselah (1921). The underlying concern
appears to have been to block any suggestion that
man's mental powers arose by chance, by affirming that
like all other organic attributes they are the outcome
of what living things have done to meet their needs
in the course of evolution.

(2) The literary evolutionists rejected Darwin's the-
ory of natural selection as a mechanistic misconception
which assigned far too much importance to the envi-
ronment. “The influence of 'environment' is nonsensi-
cally over-rated in Darwin,” Nietzsche wrote. “The
essential factor in the process of life is precisely the
tremendous inner power to shape and create new
forms, which merely uses, exploits 'environment'” (The
Will to Power,
II, Sec. 647). Butler asserts in Luck or
(1887) that living forms “design themselves
... into physical conformity with their own inten-
tions.” They do so by means of “unconscious memory”
which binds the generations together, allowing each
to profit from the experience of its ancestors. Shaw
ridicules the Darwinian theory which he calls “Cir-
cumstantial Selection.” It ignores “the simple fact” that
the impulse which produces evolution is creative. No
matter what the environment, “the will to do anything
can and does, at a certain pitch of intensity... create
and organize new tissue to do it with” (Preface, Back
to Methuselah

(3) These vitalistic views were part of the basis on
which Nietzsche and Shaw envisaged the possibility
of the evolutionary improvement of man. Unlike pre-


Darwinian advocates of human perfectibility, they
believed that man has the capacity to surpass himself
and to become a new species. But this development
will not take place automatically. It has to be initiated
by men as they are now. Both writers were vague about
the steps needed to set the development going, and
also about the distinctive qualities that are to charac-
terize the new type of homo—referred to as the
Übermensch by Nietzsche and as the superman by
Shaw. In the Prologue to Also Sprach Zarathustra
(1883), Nietzsche urged that man must be seen as a
transitional being, “a rope tied between beast and
Übermensch—a rope across an abyss.... What is great
in man is that he is a bridge and not a goal.” Shaw
rejected the idea that the superman can be brought
about by any program of social reform. What is needed
is a profound collaboration with the creative impulse
or Life Force whose purposes are being realized in
the evolutionary process. Behind this theme lay the
recognition that evolutionism, by dissolving the con-
ception of a fixed human essence, had opened up
the possibility for man so to arrange things that
his descendants will become beings far superior to

(4) Shaw regarded his doctrine of the Life Force as
an evolutionary theology. In his plays, prefaces, and
speeches he identified the Life Force with God who
is striving to make himself. God is affirmed to be not
an infinite, omnipotent, and perfect being, but a finite
power, limited to working through the process of
evolution. The only method he can use in the effort
to become perfect is that of trial and error. This ac-
counts for the many failures which mark the history
of life. Man is the latest experiment to be tried, and
he is still on probation. If he fails to advance God's
purpose he will be scrapped, as the numerous extinct
species were. “We are not very successful attempts at
God,” Shaw declared; but we can nevertheless “work
towards that ideal, until we get to be supermen, and
then super-supermen, and then a world of organisms
who have achieved and realized God” (“The Religion
of the Future” [1911], p. 35).

Shaw's evolutionary theology was one of a number
of formulations of the idea of a finite, developing God
advocated in the twentieth century. The idea occurs
in William James, Bergson, Samuel Alexander, A. N.
Whitehead, and others. It appeared to provide a way
of reconciling the presence of a divine power in the
world with the suffering, cruelty, and waste exhibited
by the evolutionary process. The reconciliation is in
fact difficult to achieve. But the attempt to undertake
it shows how profoundly evolutionism had penetrated
the thought of the times.


During recent decades the explanatory range of the
doctrine of evolution has expanded, its conceptual
structure has become more intricate, and several fur-
ther attempts have been made to give it a metaphysical
formulation. Evolutionary explanations now occur in
biochemistry, cultural anthropology, and relativistic
cosmology as well as in biology. Classical Darwinism
has been replaced by an enlarged theory of natural
selection which does greater justice to the facts of the
living world. The changes that have taken place in the
history of life are recognized to be extremely complex,
and a corresponding complexity has had to be intro-
duced into the conceptual schemes employed to ac-
count for those changes. At the same time, interest in
schemes of metaphysical evolutionism has continued,
especially among philosophically-minded biologists. A
brief account of these trends will conclude the present

In Darwin's day there was little knowledge of the
causes and the nature of variations which occur in
populations. The laws of heredity were first worked
out by Mendel in 1865, but they did not become widely
known until 1900. The laws provided the basis for the
science of genetics which advanced rapidly in the first
three decades of the twentieth century. During that
period geneticists were indifferent or hostile to
Darwinian selection. By the fourth decade, however,
a theoretical breakthrough had been achieved which
enabled R. A. Fisher (1930) and J. B. S. Haldane (1932)
to restate the doctrine of natural selection so as to
reconcile it with the principles of genetics. The result
has come to be known as the “synthetic theory” of
evolution which is now generally accepted (J. Huxley,
1943; B. Rensch, 1947; G. G. Simpson, 1949).

The new synthetic theory, like classical Darwinism,
undertakes to explain evolutionary changes in natural-
istic terms. But it avoids past oversimplifications by
correlating a number of causal factors to account for
those changes. Hence the theory admits phenomena
unrecognized by the Darwinians, such as different rates
and levels of evolution, different degrees of selection
pressure, evolution without speciation, etc. Further-
more, in the new theory the central feature of selection
is differential reproduction, not individual survival.
Hence the struggle for existence, the destruction of the
unfit, and the survival of the fit become special cases
of selection rather than identical with it. T. H. Huxley's
“gladiatorial theory of existence” can now be charac-
terized as a Victorian myth (Simpson, 1949).

The causal factors assembled by the synthetic theory
purport to explain pre-human biological evolution, but
they do not purport to explain what happened after


man emerged. For it is conceded that human evolution
has been powerfully influenced by cultural factors that
man himself has produced. Hence his history has been
quite unique among living things. Other animals have
been made by natural processes acting on them. Man
has very largely made himself by means of culture,
a new kind of adaptive mechanism. These facts were
systematically underlined by the rise of evolutionary
cultural anthropology in the nineteenth century. Works
such as Sir Henry Maine's Ancient Law (1861), E. B.
Tylor's Primitive Culture (1871), and Lewis Henry
Morgan's Ancient Society (1877) laid some of the foun-
dations for a science of cultural evolution. After the
turn of the century, interest in this subject waned for
a time, but it has recently been revived by the writings
of L. A. White (1949), V. G. Childe (1936; 1951), and
J. H. Steward (1955). The subject contains many un-
solved problems, but evolutionary explanations appear
to provide one fruitful way of tackling them (see
Dobzhansky, 1962).

At the other end of the scale, evolutionary explana-
tions have been introduced into discussions of the ori-
gin of life. Innumerable accounts of how the first living
things came to be occurred in ancient religious tradi-
tions. But the subject eluded a scientific treatment, so
that Darwin could say as late as 1863, “it is mere
rubbish, thinking at present of the origin of life.” Nev-
ertheless, T. H. Huxley dealt with it in 1868, as did
John Tyndall in his Belfast address of 1874. With the
rise of twentieth-century biochemistry an evolutionary
approach to the subject became possible. A most influ-
ential hypothesis was stated by A. I. Oparin (1924;
trans. as The Origin of Life, New York, 1938) and by
Haldane (1929). According to a recent modified version
of this hypothesis, life originated by a process of chem-
ical evolution on the earth, before there was free oxy-
gen in its atmosphere. Through the action of ultraviolet
light, inorganic material gave rise to organic molecules,
which in turn evolved into complex biological
polymers having a primitive capacity to reproduce.
From these diffused polymers, specific closed organisms
developed, culminating in the nucleated cell. At this
stage chemical evolution was succeeded by organic
evolution (see Bernal, 1967).

This speculative reconstruction recognizes a sub-
stantial difference between chemical and organic evo-
lution. Yet the two processes are assumed to have some
formal elements in common. “One of these is the con-
cept of the survival of the fittest, of the maintenance
of one particular molecular pathway as against others
for which certain material substances proved to be
lacking” (Bernal, p. 30). It is supposed that random
combinations of inorganic elements were subject to a
kind of natural selection by which increasingly complex
and efficient aggregations were built up. Ultimately
one type of aggregation survived, and gave rise to
proto-life. Many unsolved problems remain in this area,
including that of explaining how the capacity for mo-
lecular replication or reproduction could have evolved.

Evolutionary conceptions figure in modern astron-
omy at two points. (1) There is a well-grounded theory
of stellar evolution which concerns the life-cycle of
main sequence stars. A developmental pattern has been
worked out that specifies a regular succession of phases
in a normal star's history. (2) There is also a group
of cosmological theories—relativistic descendants of
the cosmologies of Descartes, Kant, and Laplace—
which are based on evolutionary models. Here accounts
of the evolution of the nebulae from a primordial,
hyper-dense mass are proposed. These accounts are
based partly on mathematical deductions from obser-
vations and partly on purely hypothetical interpola-
tions that are not in conflict with observations. Yet as
in the case of the origin of life, cosmological evolution
is a subject containing many disputed issues.

The spread of evolutionary ideas in the sciences has
kept alive an interest in giving the ideas a metaphysical
generalization. This interest has been mainly mani-
fested, however, among workers in the life sciences
rather than among professional philosophers whose
anti-speculative predilections have been strong in re-
cent decades. Accordingly, generalized evolutionism
has tended to be lacking in philosophical finesse, and
has been little more than a semi-popular extension of
scientific material.

In various publications, Sir Julian Huxley has con-
tended that evolution encompasses “all the historical
processes of change and development at work in the
universe: in fact, it is the universe historically re-
garded” (1960, pp. 20-21). The overall process from
“cosmic star-dust to human society” is continuous, yet
it has three distinguishable phases which have super-
vened in the course of time: the cosmological, the
biological, and the psycho-social. Each of the phases
has its own self-transforming mechanisms, which dis-
play increasing efficiency, and so ensure genuine evo-
lutionary progress. Basically, what undergoes evolu-
tion, Huxley contends, is “the world stuff.” It is per
se neither mental nor material, but it has mental and
material aspects or “potentialities.” Prior to the
psycho-social phase, the universe was devoid of pur-
pose. With the appearance of homo sapiens, however,
purposes entered the cosmic scene. Human purposes
allow men to influence the course of evolution, if they
so decide, and hence man has become “the sole agent
of future evolutionary advance” (1953, p. 132).


A materialistic form of evolutionism is advocated by
Simpson (1949; 1964). He distinguishes (a) the nonevo-
lutionary dimension of the universe—the enduring
properties of matter-energy—from (b) the evolutionary
dimension—the temporally successive, cumulative
changes of configuration or structure that make up the
history of life. The properties in (a) constitute the
ultimate causal explanation of events, but historical
explanations do have a limited place in relation to (b).
Man is unique in being “the highest form of orga-
nization of matter and energy” (1949, p. 344). He is
the result of a purposeless, materialistic process. But
he does exhibit some behavior that is purposeful, and
that can be influenced by “an ethical need” within and
peculiar to himself. The need impels him to adopt
ethical standards for the guidance of his conduct in
society, but these standards are relative to changing
circumstances, and are never absolute. Simpson stresses
man's basic trait of “responsibility.” It is through the
exercise of this trait at the present critical point of
human affairs that homo sapiens can ensure either the
future welfare of the species or its early extinction.
As to whether mankind will face up to that respon-
sibility, Simpson finds no reason for despair, “but a
good deal of reason for pessimism.”

A more optimistic, religiously-oriented form of evo-
lutionism is presented in the posthumous writings of
the Jesuit paleoanthropologist, Teilhard de Chardin
(1955 ff.). Like Julian Huxley, he has espoused a
grandiose vision of cosmic evolution, or “cosmo-
genesis,” which is orthogenetic in the sense that it
depicts evolution as having been marked by a steady
increase in the complexity and concentration of the
stuff of the universe. This stuff has an external “material
face,” but inwardly it is psychical or spiritual. In its
evolution, successive thresholds of integration have
been passed, so that each later level is more intensely
concentrated or “involuted” than its predecessors. The
human level has added to the planet a new envelope,
the “noosphere,” which has been superimposed on the
biosphere. The concentration engendered by the
noosphere will make possible further human evolution.
Its outer manifestation will be the forming of a single
world-culture, and its inner state will be the melding
of individual consciousnesses in a Hyper-Personal
Consciousness “at a point which we might call
Omega.” Teilhard's concept of Point Omega is obscure,
like much else in his evolutionism. Apparently, Omega
is God, insofar as He determines the direction and
constitutes the goal of cosmic history. The melding of
personal consciousnesses at Omega will be achieved
by the power of love, which forms “le Milieu divin
within which evolution takes place. All this represents
the expression of a mystical outlook having little con
cern with precise ideas or with the relation of what
is affirmed to any evidence.

It is plain that evolutionism is a family of concep-
tions having great vitality and viability. Its long, influ-
ential history is likely to be matched by its continuing
future impact on man's thinking about the world and
about himself.


J. D. Bernal, The Origin of Life (Cleveland and New York,
1967). Chapter 2 contains an interesting account of the
history of ideas on the origin of life. G. L. L., Comte de
Buffon, Histoire naturelle générale et particulière (Paris,
1783), IV, 382. Tze Tuan Chen, “Twenty Five Centuries
Before Charles Darwin,” The Scientific Monthly, 29 (1929),
49-52. V. G. Childe, Man Makes Himself (London, 1936);
idem, Social Evolution (London, 1951). Sir Gavin de Beer,
Charles Darwin, Natural History Library edition (New York,
1965), by far the best available account of Darwin's work.
T. Dobzhansky, Mankind Evolving (New Haven and
London, 1962), a comprehensive discussion with numerous
historical references. L. Eiseley, Darwin's Century: Evolu-
tion and the Men Who Discovered It
(New York, 1958), an
excellent, brief history of evolutionary thought. A. G. N.
Flew, Evolutionary Ethics (London, 1967). Sir R. A. Fisher,
The Genetical Theory of Natural Selection (Oxford, 1930).
M. T. Ghiselin, The Triumph of the Darwinian Method
(Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1969). C. C. Gillispie, Genesis and
(Cambridge, Mass., 1951); idem, “Lamarck and
Darwin in the History of Science,” Forerunners of Darwin
(Baltimore, 1959), pp. 265-91; idem, The Edge of Objectivity
(Princeton, 1960). Chapters VII and VIII are particularly
relevant to the present article. B. Glass, O. Temkin, and
W. L. Straus, Jr., eds., Forerunners of Darwin: 1745-1859
(Baltimore, 1959). The fifteen essays in this book are indis-
pensable for the understanding of evolutionism in the cen-
tury before Darwin. B. Glass, “Maupertuis, Pioneer of Ge-
netics and Evolution,” Forerunners of Darwin, pp. 51-83.
T. A. Goudge, The Thought of C. S. Pierce (Toronto, 1950);
idem, The Ascent of Life: A Philosophical Study of the
Theory of Evolution
(London and Toronto, 1961). J. C.
Greene, The Death of Adam: Evolution and Its Impact on
Western Thought
(Ames, Iowa, 1959). A well-documented
history. W. K. C. Guthrie, A History of Greek Philosophy,
Vol. I (Cambridge, 1962). F. C. Haber, The Ages of the
World: Moses to Darwin
(Baltimore, 1959). J. B. S. Haldane,
The Causes of Evolution (London, 1932); idem, “The Origin
of Life” (1929), in Science and Life: Essays of a Rationalist
(London, 1968), pp. 1-11. Sir Julian Huxley, Evolution: The
Modern Synthesis
(London, 1943); idem, Evolution in Action
(London, 1953); idem, Knowledge, Morality and Destiny
(New York, 1960), also published with the title New Bottles
for New Wine
(New York, 1957). A. O. Lovejoy, “Buffon
and the Problem of Species,” Forerunners of Darwin, pp.
84-113; idem, “Some Eighteenth Century Evolutionists,”
The Scientific Monthly, 71 (1950), 162-78; idem, The Great
Chain of Being
(Cambridge, Mass., 1936); idem, “Schopen-


hauer as an Evolutionist,” The Monist, 21 (1911), 195-222.
These works are examples of the history of ideas at its best.
J. Needham, Science and Civilization in China, Vol. II,
History of Scientific Thought (Cambridge, 1956). E. Norden-
skiöld, Biologins Historia, 3 vols. (Stockholm, 1920-24),
trans. as The History of Biology (New York, 1929). Despite
some inaccuracies, this work is a valuable source of ideas
on the interrelations of biology, philosophy, and cultural
history. B. Rensch, Neuere Probleme der Abstammungslehre
(Stuttgart, 1947), trans. of the 2nd ed., Evolution Above the
Species Level
(New York, 1960). G. B. Shaw, The Prefaces
(London, 1934); idem, The Religious Speeches of Bernard
(University Park, Pa., 1963), contains the essay, “The
Religion of the Future” (1911). G. G. Simpson, The Meaning
of Evolution
(New Haven, 1949; rev. ed. 1967), the best
introduction to the new synthetic theory of evolution; idem,
The Principles of Animal Taxonomy (New York, 1961); idem,
This View of Life: The World of an Evolutionist (New York,
1964). Part One contains interesting material on the history
of the doctrine of evolution. N. Smart, Doctrine and Argu-
ment in Indian Philosophy
(London, 1964). J. H. Steward,
Theory of Culture Change (Urbana, 1955). P. Teilhard de
Chardin, Oeuvres, 9 vols. to date (Paris, 1955 ff.). The most
widely read of the works is probably le Phénomène humain
(1955); trans. Bernard Wall as The Phenomenon of Man
(New York and London, 1959). C. H. Waddington, The
Ethical Animal
(London, 1960). L. A. White, The Science
of Culture
(New York, 1949). P. P. Wiener, Evolution and
the Founders of Pragmatism
(Cambridge, Mass., 1949).


[See also Biological Conceptions in Antiquity; Chain of
Being; Evolution of Literature; Genetic Continuity; God;
Inheritance Through Pengenesis; Pragmatism; Progress;
Spontaneous Generation; Uniformitarian-