From the Greeks to Darwin

From the Greeks to Darwin: an Outline of the Development of the Evolution Idea was written by Henry Fairfield Osborn, Sc.D, da Costa Professor of Zoology at Columbia University, and curator of the American Museum of Natural History. It grew out of a series of lectures first delivered by Osborn at Princeton in 1890, and completed in a fuller course he conducted at Columbia in 1893. Originally published by McMillan and Company in July, 1894. It was reprinted in 1896, 1899, 1902 and as a 1905 second edition. This edition was part of the Columbia University Biological Series and was dedicated to Osborn's teacher, James McCosh, ex-president of Princeton College. The following quotes are taken from the 1905 second edition.




  • When I began the study my object was to bring forward the many strong and true features of pre-Darwinian Evolution which are so generally passed over or misunderstood.
    • Preface

Ch.1 The Anticipation and Interpretation of Nature

  • In the growth of the numerous lesser ideas which have converged into the central idea of the history of life by Evolution, we find ancient pedigrees for all that we are apt to consider modern.
  • Darwin owes more even to the Greeks than we have ever recognized.
  • The Evolution law was reached not by any decided leap, but by the progressive development of every subordinate idea connected with it until it was recognized as a whole by Lamarck, and later by Darwin.
  • I endeavor to trace back some of these lesser ideas to their sources, and to bring the comparatively little known early evolutionists into their true relief as original thinkers and contributors, or mere borrowers and imitators.
  • The greatest defects I find in the historical literature of this subject are the lack of sense of proportion as to the original merits of different writers, and the non-appreciation of the continuity of evolution thought.
  • We meet with many remarkable coincidences in the lines of independent and even simultaneous discovery, notably those between Erasmus Darwin and Lamarck, between Lamarck and Treviranus, before we reach the crowning and most exceptional case of Darwin and Wallace.
  • At different periods similar facts were leading men to similar conclusions, and we gather many fine illustrations of the force of unconscious induction. Means of intercommunication were slow, and we should advance cautiously before concluding that any of the greater evolutionists were dealing with borrowed ideas.
  • When we study single passages, we are often led widely afield. Haeckel, for example, appears to have far overstated the relative merits of Oken... Krause has placed Erasmus Darwin over Lamarck without sufficient consideration. Huxley has treated Treviranus and Lamarck with almost equal respect; they are really found to be most unequal.
  • We must inquire into the sources or grounds of the conclusions advanced by each writer, how far derived from others how far from observation of Nature, and consider the soundness of each as well as his suggestiveness and originality, before we can judge fairly what permanent links he may have added or welded into the chain of thought.
  • We are now taking our uncertain steps in search of the separate factors of this law, and cannot foresee when these will be completed. 'Before and after Darwin' will always be the ante et post urbem conditam [before and after the founding of the city] of biological history. Before Darwin, the theory; after Darwin, the factors.
  • Lamarck has lately risen in popular knowledge as having propounded Evolution, but among his contemporaries and predecessors in France, Germany, and England, we find Buffon, Erasmus Darwin, Goethe, Treviranus, and searching for their inspiration, we are led back to the natural philosophers, beginning with Bacon, and ending with Herder. Among these men we find the second birth or renaissance of the idea, and among the Greeks its first birth.
  • We know that Greek philosophy tinctured early Christian theology; it is not so generally realized that the Aristotelian notion of the development of life led to the true interpretation of the Mosaic account of the Creation.
  • As late as the seventeenth century, the Jesuit Suarez and others contended that the Book of Genesis contained a literal account of the mode of Creation, and thereby Special Creation acquired a firm status as a theory in the contemporary philosophy. Singularly enough, Milton's epics appeared shortly afterwards, exerting an equally profound influence upon English Protestant thought, so that Huxley has aptly termed Special Creation, 'the Miltonic hypothesis.' Thus the opportunity of a free unchecked development out of natural science was lost.