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Evolution Versus Design: An Ancient Debate

Neil Thomas
Photo: Epicurus, in The Louvre, by Sting, CC BY-SA 2.5 , via Wikimedia Commons.

Editor’s note: This article is excerpted from Taking Leave of Darwin: A Longtime Agnostic Discovers the Case for Design, by Neil Thomas, newly released by Discovery Institute Press.

Let us begin at the beginning. Surviving written records indicate that philosophical speculation about the origin and development of the world reach back at least as far as the Greek Anaximander (611–547 BC) and his follower Anaximenes (588–542 BC), who thought that the earth was initially muddy and that out of this primordial slime there arose first plants and animals, then human beings. At first partly aquatic, humans subsequently moved their abode to land. Notably, Anaximander’s wholly naturalistic explanation of things did away with the necessity for invoking mythological explanations involving the Greek gods.1 Common to both ancient and modern debates about creation and evolution is a tension between the argument for divine creation-cum-superintendence and the opposing argument which strives to exclude god(s) and seeks explanations for the phenomena of life along strictly material lines.

In the Homeric and Virgilian epics and in other imaginative literature of the Greek and Roman worlds, the numerous deities (often personifications of natural forces) appear in directly interventionist roles, but their existence was vehemently disputed in a number of ancient philosophical traditions. For philosophers such as Empedocles, Democritus, Epicurus, and Lucretius, life is not a divine creation but simply an emanation of the natural flux of things, part of a common continuum with the sea and sky. Empedocles addressed the problem of the world’s complexity by speculating that the flux tossed up all sorts of different shapes and objects generated at random by the chance interaction of elements. One text above all others from Roman antiquity appears to have exerted a particular influence on the post-1700 world: De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things) by the philosopher-poet Lucretius (c. 50 BC). This work also influenced more than one generation of the Darwin family, as will become clear below.

Inspired by Epicurus

The ultimate inspiration for Lucretius’s extended verse poem was a philosophical treatise, The Art of Happiness by the Greek Epicurus (342–270 BC), whose austere propositions were transposed by Lucretius into a more accessible verse form, which enabled it eventually to capture the imagination of European posterity. What was the essence of the Epicurean philosophy versified by Epicurus’s Roman disciple, and what is its relevance to the Darwins? Let us begin with its fundamental propositions, which I will summarize in the following three paragraphs.

The universe, according to Epicureanism, is mindless and without a creator, being a purposeless and non-intelligent concourse of atoms without any cosmic source of direction sustaining it. Its invisible particles or atoms are constantly in motion, jostling against one another without guidance or direction. There is no end or purpose to existence, only ceaseless mutation, creation, and destruction, governed entirely by chance, in which atoms swerve around now this way, now that. Since there is no original scene of mythic creation to be invoked, Epicureanism proposes that plants and animals evolved via an extended process of trial and error. This random process, which continued over immeasurable tracts of time, is said to be responsible for the emergence of all species, animal and human. In some cases that random process was unsuccessfulresulting in creatures not properly equipped to compete for resources or to create offspring, and which succumbed to extinction — in contradistinction to perfectly formed creatures able to adapt and reproduce.

In sum, they held that despite appearances to the contrary, things come about by happenstance rather than by design: sight did not exist before the birth of the eyes nor speech before that of the tongue (i.e., these organs were not created purposefully for our use). Language was not a divine gift. Humans, like animals, produced sounds, but in the human lineage those sounds in time evolved into more complex codes of understanding (although the precise mechanics of this human advance in sophistication went unexplained). Music was developed by humans imitating the warbling of birds. The earth was not created for human habitation, and it is a delusion to suppose we have a central position in it: there is in fact no reason to give humans a status greater than other animals with which they share many similar qualities. Humans are also part of a larger material process which links them not only to inorganic matter and the animal world, but even to the stars in the sky.

The origins of humans did not occur in some paradisal location but in a primitive battle of survival (of the fittest), struggling to eat and to avoid being eaten — although some rudimentary capacity for communal living did at length evolve. There is no soul and no afterlife, according to the Epicureans, and nobody should be concerned about his or her death since neither a paradisal nor an infernal fate awaits us at the end of our days. Indeed, there is no need to believe in any of the superstitious delusions promulgated by religion. People’s fantasies about superior beings in the heavens who must be propitiated are without foundation. There are no Fates, harpies, daemons, genii, satyrs, dryads, or the like. Such delusions are simply obstacles to our happiness. Epicurus and his followers exhort us to forsake the cruelties of religion, which demand ascetic self-denial, violent retribution, and (in the classical world) even human sacrifice (as in Agamemnon’s sacrifice of his daughter, Iphigenia). Bearing in mind that the Greek pantheon of gods was nothing if not fractious and homicidal, it is not difficult to see why the Epicureans would have viewed emancipation from such harmful fancies as conferring happiness on humankind.

A Foreshadowing of Darwin

The above summary unmistakably contains prototypical expressions of ideas favored by Charles Darwin. As Neal Gillespie put it, Darwin’s “vision of a masterless and undesigned nature brought with it hints of ancient atomism and its attendant atheism.”2 The trial-and-error development of life described in Lucretius foreshadows in some sense the notion of natural selection, while the idea of animals too weak or ill-adapted to compete with their fellows brings to mind the Malthusian/Darwinian idea of the survival of the fittest. It is surely no mere coincidence that Renaissance scholar Stephen Greenblatt reports that he experienced a shock of recognition when, as a young student, he first encountered Lucretius’s writings.3 He was struck by the familiar atheistic tenor to which he had been exposed in the elite intellectual circles in which he moved in late 20th-century America, circles which by that time had been adjusting to the influence of Darwinism for more than a century.

The ancient Greeks were not experimental scientists but thinkers who brooked no constraints on their speculative flights. As George Strodach explains, the atomists were good at producing “bold metaphysical postulates,” but “the Greeks neither understood nor employed experimental method to any significant extent. In certain cases they erected brilliant hypotheses, such as the atomic theory, and then dogmatically asserted the truth of such hypotheses without rigorous testing.”4

Whatever reservations might be held about the truth status of their ideas, however, it was more the sacrilegious nature of the Epicurean/Lucretian take on the world that proved so unacceptable to both ancient and medieval people. Hence atomism as a theory of reality swiftly disappeared from view and was almost lost to history. It was snatched from oblivion only when the humanist scholar and ancient manuscript-seeker Poggio Braccioloni tracked down a transcribed copy of it in a German monastery in the first part of the 15th century, and it was still not much visible until the 17th century, when it was set before the public eye by the Jesuit Pierre Gassendi, a contemporary of Descartes.

The poem’s first translation into English came in 1682 from the pen of a young Oxford don, Thomas Creech, and this was republished throughout the 18th century. Hence its reintroduction into the European literary/philosophical canon came at a propitious moment coinciding with the beginning of the Enlightenment. By the end of the 18th century there is evidence that atomist ideas influenced David Hume in his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, where one of the disputants in the imagined debate tells us that, over vast swaths of time, matter itself can produce ordered forms having the appearance of design. God’s design, on that argument, represents an unnecessary hypothesis.5


  1. Philip G. Forthergill, Historical Aspects of Organic Evolution (London: Hollis and Carter, 1952), 13–14. For more on Anaximander and Anaximenes and other pre-Socratic philosophers, see G. S. Kirk and J. E. Raven, The Pre-Socratic Philosophers (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1957).
  2. Neal Gillespie, Charles Darwin and the Problem of Creation (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1979), 105.
  3. Stephen Greenblatt, The Swerve: How the Renaissance Began (London: Vintage, 2012). For the text of Lucretius in English translation see The Nature of Things, trans. A. E. Stallings (London: Penguin, 2012).
  4. George K Strodach, introduction to The Art of Happiness, by Epicurus, trans. George K. Strodach (London: Penguin, 2012), 7.
  5. David Hume, Dialogues and Natural History of Religion [1779], ed. J. C. A. Gaskin (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008).