Early Biological Theory

For two thousand years, however, evolution was considered an impossibility. The theory of forms

(also called his theory of ideas) proposed by Plato (c. 428-348 b.c.e.) gave rise to the notion that each species had an unchanging "essence" incapable of evolutionary change. As a result, most scientists from Aristotle (384-322 b.c.e.) to Carolus Linnaeus (1707-1778) insisted upon the immutability of species.

Many of these scientists tried to arrange all species in a single linear sequence known as the scale of being (also called the great chain of being or scala naturae), a concept supported well into the nineteenth century by many philosophers and theologians as well. The sequence in this scale of being was usually interpreted as a static "ladder of perfection" in God's creation, arranged from higher to lower forms. The scale had to be continuous, for any gap would detract from the perfection of God's creation. Much exploration was devoted to searching for missing links in the chain, but it was generally agreed that the entire system was static and incapable of evolutionary change. Pierre-Louis Moreau de Maupertuis and Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (1744-1829) were among the scientists who tried to reinterpret the scale of being as an evolutionary sequence, but this single-sequence idea was later replaced by the concept of branching evolution proposed by Charles Darwin (1809-1882). Georges Cuvier (1769-1832) finally showed that the major groups of animals had such strikingly different anatomical structures that no possible scale of being could connect them all; the idea of a scale of being lost most of its scientific support as a result.

The theory that new biological species could arise from changes in existing species was not readily accepted at first. Linnaeus and other classical biologists emphasized the immutability of species under the Platonic-Aristotelian concept of essentialism. Those who believed in the concept of evolution realized that no such idea could gain acceptance until a suitable mechanism of evolution could be found. Many possible mechanisms were therefore proposed. Etienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire (1805-1861) proposed that the environment directly induced physiological changes, which he thought would be inherited, a theory now known as Geof-froyism. Lamarck proposed that there was an overall linear ascent of the scale of being but that organisms could also adapt to local environments by voluntary exercise, which would strengthen the organs used; unused organs would deteriorate. He thought that the characteristics acquired by use and disuse would be passed on to later generations, but the inheritance of acquired characteristics was later disproved. Central to both these explanations was the concept of adaptation, or the possession by organisms of characteristics that suit them to their environments or to their ways of life. In eighteenth century England, the Reverend William Paley (1743-1805) and his numerous scientific supporters believed that such adaptations could be explained only by the action of an omnipotent, benevolent God. In criticizing Lamarck, the supporters of Paley pointed out that birds migrated toward warmer climates before winter set in and that the heart of the human fetus had features that anticipated the changes of function that take place at birth. No amount of use and disuse could explain these cases of anticipation, they claimed; only an omniscient God who could foretell future events could have designed things with their future utility in mind.

Was this article helpful?

0 0

Post a comment