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Creationism and its critics in Antiquity

A review by Gert Korthof   29 May 2008 (updated: 18 Mar 2009)

book Creationism and its critics in Antiquity.
by David Sedley (2007) University of California Press, hardback, 269 pages.

Creationism and its critics in Antiquity In Antiquity basically two solutions for the origin of organisms were proposed: 'Design' and 'Accident'. The creationists Socrates and Plato argued for design. The Atomists Empedocles and Epicurus argued for accident. The Atomists needed an infinite universe to explain why accident could produce highly improbable adaptations such as the eye.
Charles Darwin can be viewed as the successor of The Atomists. The big improvement was natural selection, which is a non-random factor and eliminates the need of an infinite universe.

Why is this book important for evolutionists, ID-ists and creationists alike?

If one is interested in the roots of the Creation-Evolution controversy, this is the book to read. I suspected for a long time that theories to explain the origin of the world must have existed in Greek Philosophy, but I did not know any accessible introduction for the non-specialist. I am very glad that philosopher David Sedley opened up the world of Greek philosophy for all those who never dared to read Plato or Aristotle. But Sedley did not write a general introduction to Greek philosophy. His unique focus is the origin and the nature of the world. He describes those ideas with modern concepts such as: 'creationism', 'design argument', 'the ultimate creationist manifesto' (Timaeus of Plato), 'Scientific Creationism' (p.25), 'The origin of species' (p.127), 'the survival of the fittest' (p.43), and 'atheism'. I wonder if it is not anachronistic to use modern concepts to describe ideas of 2300 years old. What would his colleagues say about that? Whatever they say, I think the use of those modern concepts contributes unmistakably to the accessibility of Greek philosophers to us. They come closer to us. We recognize our own concerns with evolution and creation.

Design or accident

It is no surprise that Greek philosophers ascribed the origin of the world to the gods, but the big surprise was to find out that a group of thinkers existed who opposed creationism and developed an amazing naturalist worldview with a materialist manifesto:
"To show how accident is fully capable of accounting for even the most purposive seeming features of the world".
And this all happened some 300 years before Christ. That is really an amazing fact, because it means explaining all design-like features without Darwinian evolution. Remember Richard Dawkins words in The Blind Watchmaker :
"Although atheism might have been logically tenable before Darwin, Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist"
(see: here), (6)
Dawkins did not tells us how such a "logically tenable" theory would look like, neither was he interested very much in finding out.

Did Darwin cause atheism?

Is ancient atheistic theorizing not relevant today? Surely, this is relevant and important, because it shows modern readers that explaining the world without invoking of gods existed more than 2000 years before Darwin! (9). Darwin was not the first to propose a non-theistic ('atheistic') explanation of the origin of species. Indeed, Sedley's book shows that Charles Darwin (1859) is certainly not the origin of atheism. Darwin may be the cause of the popularity and the growth of atheism, but he definitely is not the cause of atheism. Sedley explains us how it was logically possible to be an atheist in those days. However, my point here is not atheism per se. My point is the explanation of design-like features (8) of the world without invoking gods. If one rejects creationism as a valid explanation of the world, you are confronted with the task to explain design-like features! This holds as much today as in those days.

The Atomists

Sedley explains how a group of philosophers, the Atomists, solved that problem. That makes some fascinating reading. From today's point of view, the Atomists failed. But it is still very useful and instructive to find out why non-evolutionary non-theistic explanations of design-like features fail.
We know that Darwin's origin of species was a reply to Paley. But Paley did not invent the argument for design. The argument for design has always been the default explanation. As far as I can see, the originality of Antiquity is the Atomist position.
Today there exist rare individuals who try to explain design-like features of the world without evolution and without gods. For example Senapathy (1994) claims:
"There is no scientific theory that has ever been propounded to explain the origin and diversity of organisms on earth that does not involve evolution."
(see: my review)
After reading David Sedley (2007) 'Creationism and its Critics in Antiquity' we know for sure that Senapathy's claim to be the first to develop a non-creationist and non-evolutionary explanation, is wrong. The philosophers of Antiquity, discussed already issues that we today call the Creation-Evolution controversy. The Atomists were the first to develop a naturalistic explanation of the universe and the origin of species. It is clearly the merit of philosopher Sedley to show this to us. It is a huge loss to dismiss evolutionary explanations, because in my view Darwinian evolution is the greatest improvement of the Atomists position since Antiquity.


"When the number of random events are large enough, the unbelievable will certainly happen"
(Senapathy, 1994, p.332)
These words are from a living writer, but could easily have been written by Democritus! In fact this modern author did not go substantially beyond Atomism: lions and oak trees are the product of purely accidental interaction of water and fire (just substitute 'water and fire' with the building blocks of DNA). Despite his intentions, this modern author is very helpful in showing us why Darwinism is an improvement despite all its deficiencies, limitations, and unsolved riddles. Rejecting the power of trial and error, natural selection, the amplification of successful trials, is throwing away an invaluable explanatory resource. It throws one back into Greek Atomism. That is no progress. In fact people like Senapathy can be justly criticised for subscribing to the Boeing-747 metaphor or infinite monkey theorem which says:
A monkey hitting keys at random on a typewriter keyboard for an infinite amount of time will almost surely type a particular chosen text, such as the complete works of William Shakespeare.
Greek Atomists had no choice. They did not have Darwinian evolution available. Modern authors rejecting evolution do so at their own peril (1). Tragically, lots of people think Darwinian evolution equals 'chance' or 'accident' (2).

Survival of the fittest

I wrote that the Greek Atomists did not have Darwinian evolution available as an explanation. However, this is not quite true. It is widely assumed in the ancient tradition that life originated by Spontaneous Generation. Sedley writes "This second stage is the most famous phase of Empedocles' zoogony [origin of animals], partly because it is widely admired as an early anticipation of Darwinian survival of the fittest" (p. 43). In the first stage of the origin of life flesh, bone and blood were created and also feathers, leaves and scales. "Thrown together at random, the complex combination of body parts in numerous cases prove non-viable, and perish; but some prove capable of long-term survival" (p. 43). Indeed, this is very similar to Darwinian surivial of the fittest. However, this is far from a complete theory of the origin of adaptations. To begin with: survival is not enough. The ability and the drive to reproduce is the cornerstone of the Darwinian theory of evolution. The Greek survival-of-the-fittest is basically an one-time event, but in the Darwinian theory reproduction and the subsequent selection is a never ending cyclic process. A further difference is common descent (7).

A modern Empedocles

"Perhaps among the organisms produced in the primordial pond, some had only secondary sex organs, but no genital organ to copulate; whereas other organisms would have the latter but not the former. There could have been many seed cells producing individuals, with wrong combinations of male and female sex organs and secondary sex characteristics. Only those individuals with the absolutely right organs will survive." (Senapathy, 1994, page 358-359.)

This could have been written by Empedocles, but enthralling fact is that the author is a living author: Periannan Senapathy (see my review of his book). Even more amazing is that Senapathy is not aware of the fact! He reinvented Greek philosophical thinking about the origin of life without knowing it!


Robert Shapiro wrote "the scientific theories of Aristotle are as dead as the gentleman himself" (4). In my view Aristotle made a very important conceptual step. Unlike his contemporaries, who believed that animals were created for the benefit of humans, Aristotle pointed out that specialized defence mechanisms such as spines and horns are for their own advantage. This is called Aristotle's doctrine that each animal's endowments function for its own benefit (p.236).
In retrospect this is an extremely important step towards Darwinian thinking and away from creationist anthropocentric thinking. This is even more clearer from the statement: 'the innate instinct for survival and propagation' (p.236). Survival and reproduction are the cornerstones of the modern theory of evolution. It is still very hard for many religious people to digest the idea that plants and animals are not created for humans (5). Aristotle's step was logically necessary but not sufficient for Darwinism. Darwin (1859) wrote that if any feature of an animal existed for the exclusive benefit of another animal or species, his theory would break down. The basic insight of Darwinism is that every organism exists because it survived and reproduced. Both Aristotle and Darwin rejected the creationist anthropocentric thinking and Darwin made it the cornerstone of his theory. Thanks to Sedley it is easy to see that Aristotle as a precursor of Darwinism. As far as I know Darwin did not read Aristotle.

Fine Tuning

The examples of 'design' are marvellous. I recommend the book if only for the beautiful examples of fine tuning. For evolutionists as well as creationists and ID-ists those examples are extremely useful for thinking about questions like 'What does it mean that the world is fine tuned for the benefit of humans?'; 'How can we know that the world is fine tuned for the benefit of human beings?'; 'What constitutes good evidence that the world is fine tuned for the benefit of the human species?'.
One of these beautiful evidences is the fact that our eyes are positioned in the front of our head, that is in the same direction as we walk. They are not on the back or on the left and right side of our head. This is viewed as a wise and beneficial design of a Creator (Demiurge). Today, having available Darwinism, we would interpret this fact as an adaptation. However, anybody who rejects Darwinian explanations, has no other option than to endorse the beneficial-design-explanation for all biological adaptations, and physical fine tuning of the universe for life (3). As far as I can see, this holds even for creationists who reject the above example of the eyes as too naive.

How new is this story?

I wondered whether all this is known to authors writing about the history of evolution and creationism. Ernst Mayr (1982) The Growth of Biological Thought included a paragraph Antiquity (pp. 84-91), in which he discussed shortly Epicurus en Lucretius (p.90):
"Epicurus established a well thought-out materialistic explanation of the inanimate and living world, all things happening through natural causes. Lucretius presented a well-reasoned argument against the concept of design."
That's all. Mayr does not see the forerunners of creation - evolution controversy in Greek philosophers. He does not see that arguments by creationists and evolutionists of today are already present by Greek philosophers. He does not seem to be impressed by the first attempts to explain design-like features in the world. Historian of evolution Peter Bowler (2003) Evolution. The history of an idea ignores the contribution of Greek philosophers. Michael Ruse, philosopher and evolution expert, wrote many books about evolution and the Evolution-Creation controversy and its history. Only one book Darwin and Design (2003) describes Plato's Argument from design and Aristotle's theory (8 pages). It contains one short paragraph about atomism, coming close to describing survival of the fittest, but he does not notice that he is describing survival of the fittest!
Sedley clearly views Greek philosphers as direct predecessors of modern thinkers about the origin of the world and gives far more details.

What do we learn from history?

I learned from Sedley that Darwinism is the first great improvement of the Atomist position. Darwin's theory does not rely on pure randomness. Natural selection is the crucial non-random part of this theory. However, it is true that viability of combined random parts in Empedocles theory also presents a non-random factor. What sets Darwin's theory apart from the Atomist theory, is that mutation and selection is not a one-time historical event, but is a never-ending trial and error process.
Darwin in principle solved the origin of species. It is now easier to see Darwinism as the next, not the final step in the explanation of design-like features of the world. Neo-Darwinism has gaps, and is unfinished. That should not surprise us. We don't have difficulty accepting that Darwin had an incomplete theory because his theory of evolution lacked a proper theory of heredity. It is highly unlikely that we have finished the huge task of explaining the design-like features of the world. Sedley's book helps us to set this in historical perspective. The only theories that are finished are Creationism/ID and the modern version of Atomism (Independent Origin: 1 ). The reason is this: both theories are not capable of answering further questions. They are the final answer. Creationists, ID-ists and Fine Tuners could learn a lot from the evidences of the Greek creationists. Other beneficial effects of reading Sedley are the feeling of direct contact with Greek thinkers such as Plato and Aristotle.
From now on, teaching the theory of evolution to the public should start with creationism and its critics in Antiquity. The reason is that the public has no knowledge of modern biology, just as the Greek philosophers, and intuitively understand the questions they asked and the answers they proposed.


  1. Significantly, Senapathy uses natural selection and common descent in disguised and restricted ways! See for details: my review. See also my review at amazon. Similarly, ID-scientist Michael Behe uses mutation and natural selection to a certain extent.
  2. A common objection is: "Complex structures could not have arisen by chance". See here for the explanation.
  3. Recent examples of the wise and beneficial design of the universe are astronomer Hugh Ross (2001) The Creator and the Cosmos, and Guillermo Gonzalez and Jay Richards (2004) The privileged planet: how our place in the cosmos is designed for discovery. For more examples see: Fine Tuning on the Introduction page of this website.
  4. Robert Shapiro (1986) "Origins. A skeptic's guide to the creation of life on earth", page 38.
  5. Of course humans need plants (and animals) to survive, but that does not prove they are created for us. We would simply not have evolved if there were no plants and animals.
  6. Michael Ruse wrote: "One of the most interesting questions about evolutionary biology is whether, before Charles Darwin, Alfred Russel Wallace and the discovery of natural selection, one could get away from the God hypothesis. Many (Dawkins, for instance) argue that the design-like nature of the world -the hand and the eye- calls out for an explanation, and Dawkins maintains that before Darwin it was impossible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist." (American Scientist, July 2008)
  7. Sedley refers to Gordon Campbell (2000) 'Zoogony and evolution in Plato's Timaeus, the Presocratics, Lucretius and Darwin', pp.145-180, which is chapter 8 in: M. R. Wright (2000) Reason and Necessity. Essays on Plato's Timaeus. Fortunately, the chapter can be downloaded as pdf. Campbell explains the difference between Empedocles and Darwin and much more. Recommended! Sedley explains that Empedocles' survival of the fittest is partly a creationist theory, because an intelligent source used trial and error to generate the vast diversity of life forms! Design and accident is not a weird combination. Remember that intelligent creatures design, produce and use dice!
  8. "Evolutionary theory is a theory of design. More specifically it accounts for the origins and persistence of apparent design in organisms by regarding them as a consequence of natural selection." Thomas E. Dickins in Evolutionary Psychology, http://www.epjournal.net/ 2005. 3: 79-84. I think Richard Dawkins was first in describing the purpose of the theory of evolution in this way. Maybe 'desing-like' is just another word for 'adaptation'.
  9. Furthermore, religious knowledge was attacked long before Darwin. See: Age of Enlightenment (eighteenth century). Example: David Hume (1711-1776).


  • Nature, 452, 153 (13 March 2008) : "David Sedley argues that, for the philosophers of ancient Greece, the central cosmological question was this: is the world, and all that it contains, the handiwork of an intelligent designer?". (large part of the review is free accessible).

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Copyright ©G. Korthof 2008 First published: 29 May 2008 Updated: 18 Mar 2009 F.R./N: 17 Jul 2010