Empedocles of Aragas is believed to have lived in the fifth century B. C. E. (G. S. Kirk and J. E. Raven, The Presocratic Philosophers, 1957). He was one of the ancients who speculated on aspects of evolution. He is regarded as the originator of the four-element theory of matter in ancient Greece. He referred to the elements as the roots (rizomata) of everything. As he put it, “Hear first the four roots of all things: bright Zeus (fire), life-giving Hera (air), Aidoneus (earth), and Nestis (water) who moistens the springs of men with her tears.” (Fragments, I.33) He wrote, “For from these (elements) come all things that are or have been or shall be; from these there grew up trees and men and women, wild beasts and birds and water-nourished fishes, and the very gods, long-lived, highest in honor.” (I.104) He declared the elements to be eternal: one might say, an early formulation of the law of mass conservation. His reflections had a long range impact on the history of ideas, endorsed and propagated largely by other eminent Greek thinkers like Plato, Aristotle, and Hippocrates.
Empedocles introduced the idea of two fundamental forces giving rise to natural phenomena: The forces of attraction and repulsion were described by him as love (philia) and hate or strife (neikos). This may be looked upon as one of the first formulations of TOE (Theory of Everything), for it says essentially that the world arises from fundamental particles (the four basic elements) and fundamental force fields (love and strife). He elaborated this view by saying: “For all things are united, themselves with parts of themselves – the beaming sun and earth and sky and sea – whatever things are friendly but have separated in mortal things. And so, in the same way, whatever things are the more adapted for mixing, these are loved by each other and made alike by Aphrodite. But what ever things are hostile are separated as far as possible from each other, both in their origin and in their mixing and in the forms impressed on them, absolutely unwonted to unite and very baneful, at the suggestion of Strife, since it has wrought their birth.” (186)
Thus, in Empedocles’ vision the attractive force of love plays an important role in binding the organs created by nature into successful and unsuccessful creatures. The former are the ones that manage to survive and propagate themselves. Empedocles believed that chance plays a role in how these come about. Or, as we would say now, the so-called natural selection is not pre-determined, but just happens in utterly unpredictable ways.
Observing the variety of animals, Empedocles noted that there is an order here from the simple to the complex: lower ones and higher animals. He stated that the latter arose from the former. If this is not a faint vision of evolution, what is? In this context, he introduced another interesting idea when he said that because of the dual action of love and hate, things get unified, then they are disintegrated, and so on, and these two processes alternate indefinitely. In other words, everything in the world develops into more and more complex forms, and these also gradually revert back into their primordial separateness due to the force of strife. This view is somewhat analogous to the expansion and contraction of the universe, envisaged in the modern oscillating universe model.
Needless to say, the ideas of Empedocles were all in the framework of ancient science, and it would be simplistic to claim that they presaged current scientific theories. Empedocles spoke of and believed in reincarnation. He said: “… before this I was born once a boy, and a maiden, and a plant, and a bird, and a darting fish in the sea.” This line reflects a gradual evolution of life forms. Incidentally, this also reminds me of the Tamil mystic poet Makikkavasakar (6th century CE?) who had expressed a somewhat similar idea in his Sivapuranam:
After being grass, shrub, worm, and tree
After being a prairie dog, bird, and snake
After being as stones, humans, mean spirits, and trifles,
Demons and sages and divine beings
As I tired of taking all these births, my Lord
In truth seeing your golden feet,
I have achieved emancipation