I’m reading Paul Johnson’s wonderful short biography of Charles Darwin, Darwin: Portrait of a Genius, and one of the things that surprised me was how old the theory of evolution was. Being the best traveled naturalist of his time, he simply provided the why with his theory of natural selection:
It was arguable that Francis Bacon had posited some form of evolution, and even that it went back to the pre-Socratic Greeks. Moreover, by the late 1830s, evolution, as opposed to revolution, was a commonplace of philosophers, political and economic, as a natural and desirable way of proceeding in the development of institutions, societies, and much else. The German philosophical heavyweights, Kant, and, still more, Hegel, had shown evolution to be inherent in many disciplines and in religion itself. Art, architecture, music, and literature evolved. The English constitution, seen as perfect by many Englishmen and widely admired all over the world, was regarded as a model instance of evolution. The principle was constantly invoked by Goethe. The word comes from classical times and denotes the motion of unrolling a scroll. As set out in Buffon’s evolutionary theory of 1762, what happens in nature is that the embryo or germ, instead of being brought into existence by the process of fecundation, is a development or expansion of a preexisting form, which contains the rudiments of all the parts of the future organism.