1902 Encyclopedia > Evolution > History of the Idea of Evolution

(Part 7)


History of the Idea of Evolution.—The doctrine of evolution in its finished and definite form is a modern product. It required for its formation an amount of scientific knowledge which could only be very gradually acquired. It is vain, therefore, to look for clearly defined and systematic presentations of the idea among ancient writers. On the other hand, nearly all systems of philosophy have discussed the problems underlying evolution. Such questions as the origin of the cosmos as a whole, the production of organic beings and of conscious minds, and the meaning of the observable grades of creation, have from the dawn of speculation occupied men’s minds ; and the answers to these questions often imply a vague recognition of the idea of a gradual evolution of things. Accordingly, in tracing the antecedents of the modern philosophic doctrine we shall have to glance at most of the principal systems of cosmology, ancient and modern. Yet since in these system the two inquiries into the esse and fieri of the world are rarely distinguished with any precision, it will be necessary to indicate very briefly the general outlines of the system so far as they are necessary for understanding their bearing on the problems of evolution. Mythological Interpretation.—The problem of the origin of the world was the first to engage man’s speculative activity. Nor was this line of inquiry pursued simply as a step in the more practical problem of man’s final destiny. The order of ideas observable in children suggests the reflection that man began to discuss the "whence" of existence before the "whither." At first, as in the case of the child, the problem of the genesis of things was conceived anthropomorphically : the question "How did the world arise?" first shaped itself to the human mind under the form "Who made the world?" As long as the problem was conceived in this simple manner there was, of course, no room for the idea of a necessary self-conditioned evolution. Yet the first indistinct germ of such an idea appears to emerge in combination with that of creation in some of the ancient systems of theogony. (See article COSMOGONY.) Thus, for example, in the myth of the ancient Parsees, the gods Ormuz and Ahriman are said to evolve themselves out of a primordial matter. It may be supposed that these crude fancies embody a dim recognition of the physical forces and objects personified under the forms of deities, and a rude attempt to account for their genesis as a natural process. These first unscientific ideas of a genesis of the permanent objects of nature took as their pattern the process of organic reproduction and development, and this, not only because these objects were regarded as personalities but also because this particular mode of becoming would most impress these early observers. Thus same way of looking at the origin of the material world is illustrated in the Egyptian notion of a cosmic egg out of which issues the god (Phta) who creates the world.

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