The Origin of Evolutionism: It Didn’t Begin with Darwin

Editor’s Note: First published in St. Louis MetroVoice 5, no. 5 (May 1995).

Evolutionism is a belief system based upon the assumption that there is a purely materialistic explanation for the origin of virtually everything that ever has existed or ever will exist. The essential feature of this belief (often called materialism) is that everything in nature arose spontaneously by a process of self-transformation without the necessity of supernatural intervention. Julian Huxley once said,

The whole of reality is evolution, a single process of self-transformation (Evolution and Genetics, Simon & Shuster, 1955, p. 278).

In today’s public schools, history teachers teach how the universe evolved; earth science teachers tell how the earth evolved; biology teachers relate how living things evolved; and social studies teachers preach about how our values and religion evolved—however, students are rarely instructed in how belief in evolutionism itself evolved. To be sure, it didn’t begin with Darwin, nor was it first proposed by scientists working in the field or in the laboratory.

Ancient Greek philosophers were perhaps the first to clearly formulate a materialistic evolutionary concept of origins.

Ancient Greek philosophers were perhaps the first to clearly formulate a materialistic evolutionary concept of origins. It must be emphasized that these Greek philosophers were neither scientists nor experimentalists; rather they speculated on the origin of the universe in a way consistent with their religious and philosophical beliefs. Although many of the earliest Greek philosophers considered their gods to be creators, this began to change with the influence of Thales of Miletus. Thales (who lived at the time of Nebuchadnezzar’s destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BC) founded the Milesian school of natural philosophy. One of the primary assumptions of this school of thought was that the origin of everything in nature could be explained in terms of its own material composition. Thus, they sought to explain the origin of everything by a process of self-assembly from some underlying material element. Thales believed that water was that basic element from which all things evolved.

Anaximenes (560–502 BC), a disciple of Thales’ Milesian school, believed that air was the basic element from which everything evolved. He insisted that virtually everything in the universe (including the gods) was merely rarefied or condensed air! He believed that when air rarefied, it became fire—which formed the sun and heavenly bodies—and that when it condensed, it became cold and formed wind, water, and earth.

Heraclitus of Ephesus (535–475 BC) preferred fire as the basic element from which everything in the universe evolved. Like modern day evolutionists, Heraclitus was preoccupied with the idea of limitless change. He attempted to eliminate any necessity for a Creator by postulating a constantly changing world with neither beginning nor end. Since anything man declares to be eternal becomes his god, nature itself became the god of materialism.

Empedocles (484–424 BC) attempted to cover all bases by proposing that everything in the universe evolved from four basic elements—water, air, fire, and earth. He believed that all parts of living organisms were formed independently and were brought together in random combinations. Those combinations that were not well suited to live perished, while the better-suited combinations survived. This ludicrous speculation is strikingly similar to Darwinian “survival of the fittest,” yet Empedocles predated Darwin by over 2,000 years!

Epicurus (341–270 BC) would have been very comfortable with “modern” evolutionary cosmologists. He believed that everything in the universe evolved by chance combinations of randomly moving elementary particles called atoms! Epicurus was the father of an influential philosophical system known as Epicureanism, which taught that the universe was eternal and that nothing could influence it from without. The seeds of today’s crass materialism were sown in the Epicurean assumptions that the whole of existence is made of atomic particles or is a void—and sensation is the sole source of all knowledge.

The most detailed account of the role of evolutionary materialism in Epicurean philosophy is found in Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things) written in the first century BC. Lucretius came remarkably close to Darwin’s views on natural selection when he told of the existence of monstrous creatures early in the earth’s history, which eventually disappeared because they proved to be unsuited to their changing environment. Like the other Greek philosophers of his day, Lucretius attempted to satisfy a deep, philosophical need for a self-assembling cosmos without a sovereign Creator. For him, evolutionary materialism was an attempt to emancipate men from two great fears—the fear of the arbitrary interference of the gods in the affairs of men, and the fear of accountability after death.

Epicurean philosophers were among those whom the apostle Paul encountered on his third missionary journey to Athens. Paul described them as men who “spent their time in nothing else but either to tell or to hear some new thing” (Acts 17:21). Paul pointed out to them that the primary difference between their gods (idols) and the true God hinged on the critically important matters of creation and our accountability to our Creator. He said:

I proclaim to you God, who made the world and everything in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands. Nor is He worshipped with men’s hands, as though He needed anything, since He gives to all life, breath, and all things. And He has made from one blood every nation of men to dwell on all the face of the earth, and has determined their pre-appointed times and the boundaries of their dwellings, so that they should seek the Lord, in the hope that they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us; for in Him we live and move and have our being, as also some of your own poets have said, “For we are also His offspring.” Therefore, since we are the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the Divine Nature is like gold or silver or stone, something shaped by art and man’s devising. Truly, these times of ignorance God overlooked, but now commands all men everywhere to repent, because He has appointed a day on which He will judge the world in righteousness by the Man whom He has ordained. He has given assurance of this to all by raising Him from the dead (Acts 17:23–31; NKJV).

Sadly, even today there are many who profess to be Christians or Jews who seem unaware of the essential difference between Greek idols and the Creator God. The Scriptures tell us that our Creator “does whatever He pleases” (Psalm 115:3; NKJV), while idols cannot physically do anything—“They have mouths, but they do not speak; eyes they have, but they do not see; they have ears, but they do not hear” (Psalm 115:5–7; NKJV). Even some atheists have noticed that many liberal Christians and Jews appear to believe in a god that doesn’t physically do anything (at least nothing specific to which they will admit). In an atheist tract titled “There Is No God” (The American Atheists, PO Box 2117, Austin TX, 78768), Fred Woodworth states that the religious liberal denies that he believes in the “old God” but his “new god serves no purpose that he will define, so it cannot be attacked, but only denied.” Woodworth correctly points out that “this is only an attempt to preserve the notion of a god after the substance has been destroyed. Lacking any separate function, such as being creator of the universe, etc., the idea of a god is completely to no purpose.”

It is indeed tragic that God at times must use the likes of atheists and Balaam’s ass (Numbers 22:23–34) to instruct those who should know better.

Essays on Origins: Creation vs. Evolution

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