History of theories of creation

A theory of creation (also known as a creation theory) is an older term that has been overshadowed by the terms creation science and especially creationism since 1980 (see Ngrams here and here). This overlooks the long history of theories of creation, and implies that the subject is of recent vintage, purely a reaction to theories of evolution, which is badly mistaken.

This brief survey shows that there were and are various theories of creation before and after Darwin and Huxley. First, let us show when creationism arose. The Online Etymology Dictionary states about creationism:

1847, originally a Christian theological position that God immediately created out of nothing a soul for each person born; from creation + -ism.

As “science teaching based on a fundamentalist interpretation of the Book of Genesis, the scientific theory attributing the origin of matter and life to immediate acts of God,” opposed to evolutionism, it is attested from 1880. Century Dictionary (1897) defines creationism in this sense as “The doctrine that matter and all things were created, substantially as they now exist, by the fiat of an omnipotent Creator, and not gradually evolved or developed.”

A search of the text of Darwin’s Origin of Species shows that what he called “the theory of creation” is the same as the 1897 definition of creationism. Darwin referenced no exponent of this theory, and yet he made it the sole foil for his “theory of descent with modification”. The conclusion is that Darwin is the originator of the creation theory he has in mind. What for Darwin was bad science was for TH Huxley not science at all, as if he could remove pre-Darwinian biologists from science.

Let’s start with a long view of theories of origin. In Creationism and Its Critics in Antiquity David Sedley’s anachronistic use of the term leads him to review the positions of Anaxagoras, Empedocles, Socrates, Plato, Atomists, Aristotle, the Stoics, and Galen. For Anaxagoras mind accounts for the creation of the world (see here for these snippets). For Empedocles the variety of nature is produced in a great burst of birth in the beginning and then whittled down by extinctions into the creatures we see today. For Socrates the world, including lower animal species, was divinely created for human benefit. For Plato his Timaeus gives an account of the creation of the universe by the Demiurge, who does not create ex nihilo, but rather orders the cosmos out of chaotic elemental matter, imitating the eternal Forms. For An atomist such as Democritus bodies come into existence out of atoms, and ultimately entire worlds appear and disappear from and to eternity. For Aristotle there is a Great Chain of Being, in which each species is formed individually with its own purpose and place in nature and where no species evolves into a new species. For the Stoics the entire cosmos is a living thing, and God stands to the cosmos as an animal’s life force stands to the animal’s body. Galen advocated the Platonic intelligent designer and criticized what he called the Mosaic ex nihilo creator.

This variety of positions continued from ancient to modern times. The history continues with these excerpts from Sloan‘s article:

Plato’s account initiated the long tradition of reflection that was continued in Neo-Platonism and in aspects of Stoicism to form the foundation of the argument that organic beings could not be explained by chance-like processes either in their origins or in their complex design. Particularly as developed in the influential writings of the Greek physician Claudius Galenus (129–200 CE), a long heritage in the life sciences relied upon anatomy as evidence of rational design. These interpretations of “teleological design” interacted in complex ways with Jewish, Christian, and Islamic Biblical concepts of creation (Sedley 2007). One common meaning of “teleology” commonly encountered in discussions of evolution since Darwin—that of externally imposed design by an intelligent agency (demiurge, nature, God) on pre-existing matter— originates in these ancient discussions and is not accurately identified with the Biblical concept of creatio ex nihilo (Carroll 2014 in Sloan et al. 2015).

In Aristotle’s (384–322 BCE) seminal biological writings, the external teleology of a designer-creator was replaced by an internal teleological purposiveness associated with the immanent action of an internal cause—in living beings their informing soul (psuche)— which functioned as the formal, final and efficient cause of life (De anima II: 415b 10–30). Aristotle also did not endorse the concept of an historical origin of the world, affirming instead the eternity of the world order.

On one hand, Aristotle’s apparent metaphysical requirement that the soul-as-form (eidos) be permanent and enduring through the process of the generation of “like by like” seemed for much of the tradition to amount to a denial of the possibility that natural species could change over time in their essential properties, even though local adaptation in “accidental” properties was fully possible. Since individual beings were dynamic composites of a material substrate and an immaterial and eternal form (eidos), the accidental differentiation of the substantial form in individuals did not affect the metaphysical endurance of the species. It also made species extinction metaphysically impossible. In living beings, the soul-as-form is serially passed on through time in the act of generation to create an eternal continuity of the form. This supplied a metaphysical foundation for the notion of species permanence without reliance on an external creative agency. Denials have, however, been made to the claim that Aristotle was such a strong “essentialist” in his biology, and the “essentialism story” that has been established by the writings of John Dewey, Ernst Mayr, and David Hull has been challenged by recent historical scholarship. One interpretive issue in the exegesis of Aristotle’s conception of species concerns the degree to which he was committed to asserting more than the eternity of the three main groups—plants, animals and humans—rather than the eternity of each individual kind [Sloan 1.1 and De generatione animalium II. 731b 32–732a5].

“It cannot be claimed that either Aristotle or later Scholastics such as Aquinas are responsible for the strong ‘essentialist’ position often attributed to them in the literature (R. A. Richards 2010, chp.2). As developed below, it can be argued that the species concept was only ‘hardened’ in the early modern period with the rise of the mechanical philosophy and preformationist embryology.” [Sloan 1.2]

Two traditions can be traced out in the wake of Descartes’s reflections. Beginning with the De solido intra solidum naturaliter contento dissertationis prodromus of 1669 by the Danish Cartesian Nicholas Steno (1638–86), efforts commenced to draw the historical origins of living beings into the Cartesian cosmology, in this case primarily by granting that fossils were the remains of once existing organisms on an earth that had formed historically. There was, however, no effort made to account for the origins of these beings on Cartesian principles (Rudwick 1972).

A second tradition established a series of published reflections in the later seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries that came to be known generically as “theories of the earth” in subsequent literature. This tradition commenced with the Telluris theoria sacra, published in 1681 (English edition 1684) by the English clergyman, Thomas Burnet (1635–1715). Burnet sought to reconcile a Cartesian-derived historical account of the origins of the Earth with the creation account of the Mosaic tradition. In Burnet’s account, the Earth began from an original chaos fashioned by divine action into the existing Earth through a series of changes that involved the gradual separation of the continents, the reversal of the poles, and the Mosaic flood. To explain the origin of living beings, Burnet relied on the “spontaneous fruitfulness of the ground” in the primeval Edenic world, rather than on the direct creation of forms through divine action. By connecting this account to the Biblical story of Genesis I, Burnet broke with Cartesian counterfactualism, offering for the first time a fully realistic interpretation of a Cartesian-style developmental history of nature that also included the origins of living forms.

The issues involved in the subsequent “theory of the earth” tradition, as they were amplified by such natural philosophers as John Ray (1627–1705), John Woodward (1665–1728), and William Whiston (1667–1752), failed to achieve a consensus position on the question of a naturalistic explanation of the origins of organisms (Rudwick 1972, 2005).


With the introduction of the theory of divine creation in Jewish, Christian and Islamic thought, a distinction had to be made between the first origin of species in historical time, and the normal generation of the individual. The origin of species was attributed to divine action, but its temporal emergence need not be instantaneous. Such a doctrine was the basis of Augustine’s theory of the original creation of primordial seeds (rationes seminales) of each species at an original moment in time which then emerged in historical time as discussed in (1.2). This Augustinian view of the immediate creation of potential seeds of each species that simply unfolded or developed later in historical time was, however, in tension with the Aristotelian theory of the gradual development of the individual that could also be seen as an analogy of the species (Roger 1997a, 264–66). As many interpreted Augustine’s arguments in the early-modern period, he was seen to provide support for the claim that both the species and the individual were products of direct divine creation.

Pre-existence Theory

As a consequence of the failure of “mechanistic” epigenesis, post-Cartesian mechanists, particularly those on the Continent, who were concerned to bring organisms within the purview of the mechanical philosophy, opted instead for some version of a preformation theory of origins, or more accurately, a “pre-existence” theory of generation. On this view the new organism is not generated in secular time, but has pre-existed since the original creation of the world. This theory, often supported by appeals to Augustine’s theory of the creation of original seeds, and buttressed with new empirical support from improved microscopes, was in some form to become the consensus view for nearly a century. First set forth by Dutch microscopist Jan Swammerdam (1637–80) in the late 1660s, and then given an influential philosophical statement by Oratorian priest Nicholas Malebranche (1638–1715) in his Recherche de la vérité of 1674, pre-existence theory was closely thereafter associated with the some form of the mechanical philosophy, and entered the medical textbooks as well as scientific treatises widely by the early eighteenth century. The question of both individual and species origin were by this theory removed to divine action at the first creation of the world (Roger 1997a, chp. 6).

The theory of pre-existence was seen to solve many problems. First, it explained the intimate interrelation of structure and function that seemed to require the existence of parts of the organism in an integrated system. The heart presumably could not beat without ennervation, and the nerves could not exist without the heart. Consequently the entire organism must pre-exist, so the argument went. The existence of such integrated systems seemed otherwise difficult to explain by the sequential development of parts, as implied in Aristotelian and other “epigenetic” theories of development. Second, this account was easily harmonized with theological developments in the seventeenth century, particularly on the Continent with the growth of Calvinism (Protestant) and Jansenism (Catholic). In both of these traditions, Augustine’s solution formed the basis for a “theistic” mechanism that emphasized God’s omnipotence and the passivity of nature (Deason in Lindberg and Numbers, 1986; Roger 1997a, chp. 6). As a third strength of the theory, the pre-existence theory, at least in the versions that embraced the “germ” theory, allowed for the appearance of life in secular time, as seemed to be suggested by the existence of fossil forms. At the same time it did not imply any change of species or development of one species from another over history. Finally, some kind of preformation of the embryo could be reconciled with the best microscopic observations of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, as these were reported by such experts on this instrument as Anton van Leeuwenhoek (1632–1723), Jan Swammerdam, Marcello Malpighi (1628–94), and Henry Baker (1690–1774).

The immediate consequence of this theory was a new rigidity given to the concept of species that it had not possessed in the Aristotelian and Scholastic traditions. Pre-existence theory reinforced a sharp distinction between “essential” and “accidental” properties to a degree not implied by the prior tradition. This theory made it difficult to explain obvious empirical phenomena, such as monstrosity, the regeneration of lost parts, the resemblances of offspring to both parents, evidence for geographical variation, racial differences, or even the existence of hybrid forms such as the mule. It seemed necessary to attribute these anomalies to divine action at an original creation. These difficulties in the theory resulted in a variety of criticisms that were eventually to lead to the downfall of preexistence theory in its original form, although the theory was to have a long subsequent history through a modification of the “germ” theory (Detlefsen 2006 in Smith 2006; Roger 1997a, chp. 7; Roe, 1981). [Sloan 2.2]


The first beginnings of these inquiries can be conveniently dated to the 1740s. In 1744 the Swedish naturalist, Carl von Linné (Linnaeus) (1707–1778) offered a speculative theory in his Oratio de telluris habitabilis incremento (Oration on the Increase of the Habitated World), in which he presented a narrative of a historical creation of the present world and its inhabitants by descent from a few original forms that had been created by divine action on a primeval equatorial island (R. A. Richards 2010, chp. 3; Wilkins 2009, chp. 4). In response to evidence for the sudden creation of new species that was drawn to Linnaeus’s attention in 1744, he then developed a theory of how the original forms had likely hybridized to create new species in time. This Linnaean thesis of species origin by the hybridization of original forms was to have a long history, extending to the work of Gregor Mendel. The hybridization theory does not, however, imply a genuine historical change of species in response to external conditions in the way this developed in later transformism, and in some respects it was to form a source of opposition to Darwinian transformism.

Maupertuis drew upon Newtonian attraction between corresponding particles as an explanatory principle. In his last formulations he relied on a theory that claimed the particles themselves were endowed with an internal principle that led them to arrange themselves to form specific parts of the fetus. With Maupertuis, we can distinguish a new version of mechanistic epigenesis that tied it to a theory of vital matter. This was one of the first moves toward a theory of vital matter and vital forces that constituted a major intellectual break with the theory of universal mechanism in the eighteenth century.

Lamarck developed the theory of species change over time to the point that it introduced a new term—transformisme—to describe the theory of species change into the scientific literature…. In most fundamental terms, his theory of species change was tied to his reversal of the taxonomic ordering of forms originally presented in his early systematic arrangements. In his first arrangements, these were ordered as a series of animal groups arranged in a simple linear series that began with the most complex forms (cephalopods) and terminated in the least organized (infusorians). By 1800, Lamarck decided that this ordering was artificial, and that the “natural” arrangement was from simple to complex. The evolutionary theory he developed involved the claim that this new order of arrangement was also the sequence in which forms had been historically generated one from another over time. [Sloan 2.6]

By means of this theory, Owen claimed he could coherently explain both the deep resemblance of forms in their internal anatomy, emphasized by Geoffroy St. Hilaire, and also the close fitting of structure and function to the organism’s “conditions of existence,” the point emphasized by Cuvier.

To distinguish these two meanings of relationship, Owen introduced into the literature a crucial distinction between resemblances of “homology,” meaning the presence of the same parts in every variety of form and function—Geoffroyean relationships—from “analogy,” denoting solely the similarity of parts in their functional adaptations—Cuvierian relationships. Developing this concept of homology in relation to his theory of the archetype, Owen claimed he could at last give a coherent meaning to the concept of “sameness” in anatomical relationships. Furthermore, as this theory was developed in relation to his work on the fossil record, the theory of the archetype as an immanent law working in time led Owen to embrace a concept of branching and diversifying relations of forms as divergences from this ideal archetypal form over time. Owen thus broke with a linear historical progressionism from simple to complex forms assumed in transformist theories like those of Lamarck, particularly in Lamarck’s writings before 1815.

Owen’s model cannot be considered a genuine species transformism—species do not change historically one into another and the archetype exists as a law or idealization rather than as an actual historical form—. Nonetheless, his integration of comparative anatomy, paleontology, and even embryology in this framework set out a sophisticated model of relationship that later was reinterpreted by Darwin from the viewpoint of his theory of material derivation from common historical ancestors. [Sloan 3.1]

RA Richards adds to the account:

A truly natural system would reflect all the many differences in nature, and the continuity in these differences. Most naturalists of the time, John Ray in particular, read this passage as denying the practical possibility of a truly complete and consistent natural system. James Larson explains:

… The idea of continuity, however, did have one immediate effect upon classification; it tended to make the whole notion of a hierarchical system appear a convenient but artificial division of natural forms, with no counterpart in nature.

There is a tension here as well. On one understanding of Aristotle, a classification should be based on the functionally essential traits — reproductive in particular. But on another understanding, what was important was that a natural classification be based on all traits — in all their complexity and continuity — not just the essential. This view is also Aristotelian. Aristotle had denied that the method of division could be applied to generate animal kinds, precisely because of this complexity among living things. p.55

For Ray, genealogy and reproduction were the true criteria for species membership, not the possession of essential properties.

Perhaps the central figure in the Essentialism story is Carolus Linnaeus (or Carl von Linné), born in 1707, two years after the death of Ray. … He explicitly adopted a hierarchical system, and then expanded the classificatory scheme to include kingdoms, classes, and orders. He restricted species to a fixed level of classification, although he also continued to apply the term outside the biological realm, to minerals in particular. And he systematically used the familiar binomial nomenclature, giving species the familiar genus-species name. What he concluded seems to contradict the Essentialism Story. p.56

According to the Essentialism Story, Linnarus used Aristotle’s method of division to classify organisms into species on the basis of essential, or necessary and sufficient, properties. This is usually taken to imply that, for Linnaeus, species taxa where unchanging, eternal and discrete. As the set of defining essential traits is timeless and unchanging, so mus be the species taxa defined by them. The first problem with this story is that only at the beginning of his career did Linnaeus accept anything like the standard essentialist assumption that species were fixed, discrete and timeless. … Since offspring closely resemble parents, and since members of species tend to multiply over time, he inferred that there must have been some single original pair or individual of each species created by God, analogous to the creation of the original human pair — Adam and Eve.

But in 1742, seven years later, he encountered a specimen of the flower Linaria that also had distinct attributes associated with Peloria. This convinced him that new species could arise through hybridization. The apparent offspring species of these two kinds of flowers produced seeds that developed into fertile offspring that also resembled the parents in various ways. Linnaeus took this to be evidence of change, not just of degree but in kind. p.57

Linnaeus incorporated this discovery into later editions of the Systema Naturae. In the tenth edition of 1758, he wrote that God created an original individual or mating pair for each genus and that new species were produced by inter-generic crosses. And in the thirteenth edition of 1770, he speculated that the original breeding pairs or individuals might instead represent orders, rather than genera, and that even new genera, as well as species, might be formed through hybridization. … Significantly, he declined to speculate about whether there were limits to this creative process. p.58

First, shortly after asserting the fixity of species in the first edition of his Systema Naturae, Linnaeus seemingly abandoned this commitment. For at least thirty years he was instead committed to the view that new species and even new genera could be formed out of old. He believed in a dynamic process of species formation, and saw it as a natural process governed by law and with no assumed limits …. p.59

A logical, systemic approach was easy to remember, and easy to use, but could not fully represent all of the continuities and complexities in nature. This … echoes Aristotle’s reservations about the method of division in his biological works. In his Parts of Animals we found the outright rejection: “It is impossible then to reach any of the ultimate animal forms by dichotomous division.” (Aristotle 644a12-13). In short, a logical system was, for Linnaeus, unnatural. Nevertheless, he favored the logical, hierarchical system, at least partly for practical reasons. p.62


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Morris, Henry M., A History of Modern Creationism (Master Books, 1984)

Richards, RA, The Species Problem: A Philosophical Analysis (Cambridge UP, 2010)

Roger, J., The Life Sciences in Eighteenth-Century French Thought, K. Benson, (ed.), trans. R. Ellrich (Stanford University Press, 1997)

Rudwick, M., The Meaning of Fossils (MacDonald, 1972)

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