In his work On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, Charles Darwin talks generally of his classical forerunners, although his only direct reference is to Aristotle. The passage cited by Darwin is, however, in reality a quotation from Empedocles. Although evolutionary thinking in the ancient world is most commonly connected with the said Empedocles, and with Lucretius, one may also point to Anaximander of Miletus. Doxography has preserved several remarks which may portray Anaximander as the precursor of evolutionary thought. Despite the incompleteness of these remarks, it is clear that in Anaximander’s writing there was an account of zoogony and anthropogony. One may suppose that the origin of life was treated by Anaximander as the last phase in the origin of the whole world. This latter was the direct result of the drying of the primal wetness by the sun’s heat. That he connected the drying of the wetness and the origin of life is, however, not supported by direct evidence. The point of departure for the origin of life was most probably water in conjunction with the earth. In the water there lived the first living beings, wrapped in spiny bark which burst open as soon as they came on to dry land. The bark here may be meant as part of a concrete analogy with a cosmogony, and it is indirect evidence that, for Anaximander, there was a direct parallel betwen the description of the world and of living organisms. About living beings we have no other documentary information. We cannot tell, therefore, whether there was, in Anaximander’s system, just one primal species from which all the others developed, or a plurality of primal species which constituted exemplars of species existing at present. Nor is it possible to show whether Anaximander took into account the adaption of species to their new environment, and whether indeed he thought the influence of environment had any effect on their development. Anaximander also presented a pioneering conception of anthropogony. Because of the long-term helplessness of man, he associated human origin with fish, or at least with beings similar to fish. Within these creatures, man originally developed to maturity. Influential on Anaximander’s thinking here is the original environment of water which man could not directly inhabit. On account of the problematic nature of the extant texts we are not in a position to adequately delineate Anaximander’s conception of zoogony and anthropogony. Most probably, however, Anaximander only explained the origin of the first living beings rather than their development into their present form. There are, to be sure, no extant remarks to the effect that Anaximander thought that there was a development of higher species out of lower, or that he took into account adaption to environmental conditions. The attribution of evolutionary thought to Anaximander is not therefore fully warranted. It is probably not justified either.
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