The “standard model” of intellectual history presents the Presocratics as the pioneers of naturalistic explanations of the universe around us. This narrative explains how the messy natural philosophy of the Presocratics gave way to the more metaphysical and ethical schools of the late Classical and Hellenistic and Roman eras. In any case, Socialist Swine asks below:
I know that prior to Darwin people had some notion of evolution though they didn’t have a notion of the mechanism involved. Do you have any idea, who might have first suggested that species change over time?
Well, 10 minutes of google print pointed me to Empedocles, who did happen to be a Presocratic. His “theory of evolution” wasn’t exactly a process of evolution as we understand today. But, it is naturalistic, and it shows that evolutionary thought was not totally novel. The internet encyclopedia of philosophy has extensive commentary on Empedocles’ ideas, but if you want more, I suggest google print, or amazon’s search feature.
I have expressed the opinion that the human mind is biased against Darwinian evolution, but, the idea space that our species explores can be rather large. Even if you have an expectation, human variation (variance or error) often dictates that there are always those who swim against the current and generate some inevitable turbidity in the sea of human experience. In The Alternative Tradition: A Study of Unbelief in the Ancient World we see that movements like the Epicureans in ancient Greece, the Carvaka in India or the non-supernatural strain in Confucianism exemplified by sage Xunzi exhibit the naturalistic strain in intellectual history. This strain comes to the fore in complex literate civilizations where dissenters can attain critical mass and organize a counter-culture against normative supernaturalism (for instance, the Pyrrohnian Skeptics dominated the intellectual life of Athens until the rise of Neoplatonism during the Roman period). Of course we don’t need to look just to the naturalistic paradigm to see glimmers of a conception of evolution, the legends and mythologies of most peoples are riddled with transformation of animal to man and vice versa, so extracting the magical elements should naturally occur to some.
Addendum: From A Primer of Conservation Genetics:
The rate of mutation is critical to its role in evolution. Rates are low. For a range of loci in eukaryotic species, the typical spontaneous mutation rate is one new mutation per locus per 100,000 gametes (10-5) per generation (Table 3.1). Mutation rates are similar across all eukaryotes, apart from those for microsatellites.
…Mutation rates for quantitative characters are approximately 10-3 times the environmental variance per generation for a range of characters across a range of species. This apparently high rate, compared to single loci, is because a mutation at any of the many loci underlying the character can effect the trait.
What does this have to do with the rest of the post? I conceive of predisposition to religous belief as a quantitative trait. Some people are very “zealous,” some people not at all, and most people somewhere in the middle. The suggestion I’m offering here is that atheists and their ilk (our ilk) might, in part, be a byproduct of the genetic load of any population which is continuously replenished by loss of function mutation. In other words, the reason why we are always hanging around no matter the fact that our stereotypical asociality results in reduced fitness is that we are the end product of inevitable mutational processes. The low, but persistent, frequency of atheists and agnostics within a population might be a case of mutation-selection balance….