Science Before Darwin

For more than 2.5 million years, human beings had gathered plants and hunted animals that lived and reproduced without man’s intervention. We were nomads, that is, our species did not have a fixed settlement. We were constantly on the move.

All of this changed about 10 thousand years ago, when Homo sapiens started to manipulate the lives of some plants and animals, classifying, organizing and improving them for mankind’s own benefit. Therefore, man’s dependence on nature is not new, and neither is our search for knowledge. The use of this knowledge to our own benefit has been with us for many years, even before it became known as Science.

The Krahô

A myth of the Krahô Indians (natives that live in the Northeast of Brazil, in areas of the states of Piauí, Maranhão and Tocantins) – tells that the animals got together to hold a party. “During the festivity, they decided to race in pairs; the winner of each race would live in the ‘Cerrado’ (a tropical savannah ecoregion of Brazil), whereas the loser would have to live in the forest […]. The message left unsaid in the legend is that the animals that are not good runners have to avoid danger by hiding – to which the forest is more suitable –, whereas the good runners do not need to hide and can live in the ‘Cerrado’, because they can flee from danger by running.” 

— Julio Cezar Melatti

Sistemas de Classificação de Animais e Plantas pelos Índios, 1975 

2.2 Aristóteles (384 a.C-322 a.C)

Aristotle, who was one of the first to think of organizing the living creatures in a system, contributed with relevant studies on Natural History. He was one of the Ichthyology (the study of fish) forerunners, the first to establish a difference between aquatic mammals, such as whales, which breathe through lungs, and fish, which breathe through gills. 

It was Aristóles who organized and spread the theory of  the “spontaneous generation” recognized by natural philosophers prior to him. According to this theory, which is disfavoured nowadays, it might be possible for specific living beings to emerge from inorganic matter without the need for any form of reproduction. Thus, fish would be the offspring of stones, for instance.

2.3 Vitruvian Man (1st century)

The Vitruvian Man is a concept that has been considered the Canon of Proportions for the human body, according to a specific mathematical reasoning, drawn by the renaissance artist Leonardo da Vinci. Firstly described by the Roman architect Marco Vitruvio Polião, the man whose proportions are perfect, in line with the classic concept of beauty, is an ideal model for the human being.

2.4 Buffon (1707–1788)

According to Darwin, French naturalist Comte de Bouffon was one of the first to study the origin of species. For Buffon, the organization of animals is defined by their relationship with man. Therefore, domesticated animals that are useful to man, like the horse, the donkey and the ox, are privileged mostly due to their nobility or usefulness, whereas the subsequent order seems almost arbitrary. 

2.5 Goldsmith (1728–1774)

Oliver Goldsmith was an Irish playwright and novelist who was fascinated by the environment. He sought to create a definitive text that would record biologic life on the planet, which resulted in the eight volumes of A History of Earth and the Living Nature. The book was known not only for the breadth information about wildlife, but also for its early distinction of the various types of Science. 

2.6 Carl Von Linné (1707–1778)

Swedish botanist Carl von Linné proposes a continuous line of living beings, a linear evolution. He further envisions the Garden of Eden as the place from which all species dispersed themselves. His argument was that all living things form the Great Chain of Being. Linné conceived the idea of “division” and “naming” as a way of organizing the living creatures.

From the need to name things and organize them into knowledge, Linné creates a system of classification, cataloguing the living beings in kingdoms, classes and orders, following a division that is similar to the hierarchy of nobility, directly connected to the impending notion of system of that time, which is still used nowadays.


“But it is very far from true that the principle is a modern discovery. I could give several references to works of high antiquity, in which the full importance of the principle is acknowledged…. The principle of selection I find distinctly given in an ancient Chinese encyclopaedia. Explicit rules are laid down by some of the Roman classical writers. From passages in Genesis, it is clear that the colour of domestic animals was at that early period attended to.”

Charles DarwinOn the Origin of Species, 1859