Evolving Thoughts

Evolution, culture, philosophy and chocolate! John Wilkins' continuing struggle to come to terms with impermanence... "Humanus sum, nihil humanum a me alienum puto" - Terence

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Thos. Burnet and Epicurus

Before there was Darwin to kick around, the conservative orthodox had Epicurus. Not just Christians, but Jews and even the "righteous pagans" like Cicero objected to Epicurus' conception of the world as ruled by "blind law" and "chance". A lot of the objections had to Darwin were had to Epicurus beforehand, and Darwin was often referred to as an Epicurean by his orthodox contemporaries.

So, this passage from 1684, by Thomas Burnet Esq., comes as a surprise - it seems that theists didn't always see the need to oppose science, even when (as in this work) they were busy defending as literally true the Genesis Flood and the other parts of the Pentateuchal history.
'Tis true, this opinion of the spontaneous Origin of Animals in the first Earth hath lain under some Odium, because it was commonly reckon'd to be Epicurus's opinion peculiarly; and he extended it not only to all brute Creatures, but to Mankind also, whom he suppos'd to grow out of the Earth in great numbers in several parts and Countries, like other Animals; which is a notion very contrary to the Sacred writings; for they assure us that all Mankind, though diffus'd now through the several parts and Regions of the Earth, rise at first from one Head or single Man and Woman; which is a Conclusion of great importance, and that could not, I think, by the Light of Nature have ever been discover'd. And this makes the Epicurean opinion the more improbable, for why should two rise only, if they sprung from the Earth? or how could they rise in their full growth and perfection, as Adam and Eve did? But as for the opinion of Animals rising out of the Earth at first, that was not at all peculiar to Epicurus; The Stoicks were of the same mind, and the Pythagoreans and the Ægyptians, and, I think, all that suppos'd the Earth to rise from a Chaos. Neither do I know any harm in that opinion, if duly limited and stated; for what inconvenience is it, or what diminution of Providence, that there should be the principles of Life as well as the principles of Vegetation in the new Earth?
[Thomas Burnet, The Sacred Theory of the Earth, Book 2, chapter 1, The Primeval Earth and Paradise, pages 182-3, online here.]
It seems that the entire debate hasn't really proceeded all that far in 321 years, has it?

[Late correction - Initially I said 411, but hey, I'm a philosopher and therefore totally innumerate.]