Fire, Air, Earth, Water and Natural Selection

Remember that philosopher who proposed that everything was made of fire, air, earth and water? Besides his name, (his name is Empedocles) what most of us probably don’t know about this guy is that he predicted a sort of natural selection circa 600 BC. To understand how, first we must understand how he believed these four elements operated in the world.

It was in a poem, On Nature, where Empedocles lays forth these four elements as the basic building blocks of all things. But these elements can neither be combined nor divided without the two opposing forces of love and strife. Love blends the elements while strife pulls them apart. Continual alternation between the forces creates cycles of formation and dissolution1. It is never the case that any of the elements appear or disappear—it is everything made from these elements that appear and disappear.

As part of the cycling of love and strife, Empedocles describes the development of a cosmos and the development of animals. In writing about the development of animals, we see some of his insights into natural selection. He writes that there “sprang up many faces without necks, arms wandered without shoulders, unattached, and eyes strayed alone, in need of foreheads…”. These vagrant parts become assembled into viable creatures by the force of love (and somewhat randomly). Many of the creatures created by love soon disappear because the parts are not well suited for each other. It is strife that is responsible for condemning these creatures to disintegration if they are unable to survive.

Sure, Empedocles didn’t mean to comment on evolution as we know it… but he did dream up a force that would allow complex creatures to survive if their parts were well suited in combination, and that worked against creatures with parts that were not. It is a rather elegant theory for the time. So now… remember that philosopher who (kind of) predicted natural selection and thought that everything was made of fire, air, earth and water?


Thank you to the “timeline” in Essential Readings in Evolutionary Biology by Ayala and Avise for the idea, and the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy for more information!

1. ”cycles”: the extremes of the cycles and the number of cycles seem up for debate by interpreters of the texts, but read in greater detail at Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

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