In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section History of Evolutionary Thought before Darwin

  • Introduction
  • Classic Overviews
  • France in the 18th Century
  • Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon (b. 1707–d. 1788)
  • Jean-Baptiste Lamarck’s Works
  • Lamarck’s Many Doctrines
  • Lamarck, French Institutions, and Society
  • Lamarck in England
  • Ėtienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire (b. 1772–d. 1844)
  • Early-19th-Century Debates on Life and Its Transformations
  • The Question of Evolution in the United Kingdom and the United States, 1830–1860
  • Robert Chambers and the Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation
  • German-Speaking Countries
  • Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace before 1859
  • Darwin’s “Historical Sketch”

Evolutionary Biology History of Evolutionary Thought before Darwin
Pietro Corsi
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 November 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 April 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199941728-0030


The history of early theories of evolution has suffered from two opposite assumptions. The most popular one insists that Charles Darwin (b. 1809–d. 1882) was an isolated genius working against crowds of creationists. A minority tradition believes that Darwin simply added his voice to a disjointed chorus of precursors spread throughout time and space. The work of Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (b. 1744–d. 1829) has been referred to, especially by French and anti-Darwinian commentators past and present, to show how far the British naturalist lacked originality. Some historians have pushed the search further back into the past and traced the beginning of the doctrine of evolution to Greek times, or to Latin authors such as Titus Lucretius Carus (b. c. 99 BCE –d. c. 55 BCE). Others have called attention to 18th-century France as the intellectual cradle of evolution. Still others have pointed out that the attribution of evolutionary intentions to naturalists of the past is often based on sentences or paragraphs extrapolated from their context; in other words, the sin of anachronism has produced many illegitimate precursors. One feature unites the opposite camps: the past is studied to determine its relevance to present-day concerns. Studied on its own terms, the past is much more interesting and fascinating than the obsessive autobiography of the present we are used to. Recent scholarship is exploring the many ways in which, from the mid-18th century to the first half of the 19th, a plurality of commentators—naturalists, anthropologists, travelers, philosophers, even theologians—asked questions concerning the history of life, its geographical distribution, and the extent to which change could and did occur. After the turmoil of the French Revolution, naturalists working within institutions and members of the social elite worried by atheism and subversion opposed all forms of speculation concerning life and its history. However, authors addressing the curiosity of the reading public engaged in speculations on the history of the universe, of life, and of mankind. Successful popular encyclopedias, dictionaries of natural history, and journals throughout Europe kept alive a debate that “official” science shunned. To reduce such an intense scientific and social debate to the sole figures of Lamarck and Darwin is to miss the greater part of the story. Reactions to Lamarck and Darwin prove that contemporaries had much to say on their work simply because many had their own views on organic change. Darwin’s On the Origin of Species did not convert contemporaries to evolution; it provided authoritative support for doctrines many had already embraced.

Classic Overviews

There are countless histories of evolution, often based on myths and anachronistic simplifications. A few general and reliable overviews are available, however, though they rarely refer to debates on life current within the educated elites and the reading public. Lovejoy 1964 and Glass, et al. 1959 provide exemplary instances on the best of the history of ideas tradition. Glass, et al. 1959, in particular, offers the contribution by Owsei Temkin on German debates in the early 19th century. Richards 1993 is equally important for understanding the German scene. The viewpoint of a leading protagonist of 20th-century evolutionary biology is represented in Mayr 1982, whereas Bowler 1989 is a widely used textbook. Barsanti 2005 argues against the linear approach of past historiography, which saw evolutionary theories emerging from wide-ranging 18th- and early-19th-century debates. A balanced and up-to-date overview of studies in the history of evolution theories is provided in Sloan 2021.

  • Barsanti, Giulio. 2005. Una lunga pazienza cieca: Storia dell’evoluzionismo. Turin, Italy: Einaudi.

    Denies that any of the “precursors” was really one, and argues that the paternity for the theory of evolution firmly rests with Lamarck and Darwin.

  • Bowler, Peter J. 1989. Evolution: The history of an idea. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

    A classic, linear account of the debates on species from 18th-century France to today. First edition, 1984; second edition, 1989; third edition, paperback, 2003; 25th anniversary edition, 2009.

  • Glass, Bentley, Owsei Temkin, and William L. Straus, Jr., eds. 1959. Forerunners of Darwin, 1745–1859. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press.

    A very erudite and thorough discussion of several “precursors” of Darwin in the 18th and 19th centuries. Probably the best production of the “precursor” hunting school. Paperback edition published in 1968.

  • Lovejoy, Arthur O. 1964. The Great Chain of Being: A study of the history of an idea. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press.

    For several decades a classic of the history-of-ideas tradition, stressing continuities throughout cultures and ages. Paperback edition published 1990.

  • Mayr, Ernst. 1982. The growth of biological thought: Diversity, evolution and inheritance. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press.

    The influential view of a leading evolutionary biologist of the 20th century on the history of his discipline.

  • Richards, Robert R. 1993. The meaning of evolution: The morphological construction and ideological reconstruction of Darwin’s theory. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

    A thoughtful reconstruction of the origin of the debates on species in early- and mid-19th-century Europe, with particular reference to Germany.

  • Sloan, Phillip. 2021. Evolution. In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by Edward N. Zalta. Stanford, CA: Stanford Univ.

    A comprehensive, accessible, and well-documented short history of evolution, with relevant select bibliography of primary and secondary sources.

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