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In my world there was a sentient being who was able to witness the evolution of life on the planet for a few million years. He watched as human beings evolved from monkeys. This knowledge may not be widely known, except among a few scholars, but I wonder what implications that this knowledge might have on a magical world at a roughly medieval tech level, if any at all.

Also in my world evolution and creationism are not mutually exclusive. Throughout the world's history the gods have acted as bioengineers and probably seeded the world with life. While humans evolved naturally a number of intelligent species were created.

Obviously the impacts would be culturally relative, but my world has a very wide range of cultures so I am thinking in broad general terms. Some cultures may be completely unaware of evolution while it may be common knowledge in others.

How might knowledge of evolutionary theory impact this medieval society?

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    $\begingroup$ Humans beings did not evolve from monkeys. They evolved ALONGSIDE monkeys. $\endgroup$ – Jimmy360 May 29 '15 at 2:56
  • $\begingroup$ They did not evolve from an extant species of monkey but modern humans and monkeys share a common primate ancestor. Whether you call it a monkey or a primate people more of less know what you mean. Plus we are talking about a fantasy world so they could have evolved from a extant species of shapeshifting fire-breathing turtles. $\endgroup$ – Belverk May 29 '15 at 3:03
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    $\begingroup$ Also, I just did a little research to find a better term for 'tree dwelling primate with a tail' and I still feel 'monkey' gets the point across best. Saying Rukwapithecus fleaglei would be meaningless to most people. $\endgroup$ – Belverk May 29 '15 at 3:26
  • $\begingroup$ Since you have a wide range of cultures in your world, won't they all experience the concept of evolution differently? If so, that makes this question hopelessly broad. (Not voting to close, yet.) $\endgroup$ – Frostfyre May 29 '15 at 3:36
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    $\begingroup$ Sounds like you already have your answer. $\endgroup$ – Frostfyre May 29 '15 at 4:10
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Improved Plant and Animal Breeding

People have been domesticating and breeding animals for ages. Putting that on a better scientific basis should increase the effect. Even without genetic manipulation and hormone treatments, present-day milk production per cow greatly exceeds medieval levels. Of course it helps that modern cows get plentiful food.

That brings us to plants. Modern breeds have germination rates far in excess of historical breeds, and even without pesticides they should bring far higher yields.

All this was an ongoing process since the dawn of civilization. Evolutionary theory will accelerate it.

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    $\begingroup$ You don't need evolutionary theory to breed animals. You don't even need genetics, although that helps. Breeding was being done for thousands of years before either. $\endgroup$ – Oldcat May 29 '15 at 22:27
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    $\begingroup$ You don't need genetics, but it helps. An understanding of dominant and recessive traits, Mendelian inheritance vs. Lysenkoism would allow a more effective breeding program. $\endgroup$ – o.m. May 30 '15 at 5:55
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Not much would change, on the whole.

This might seem a bit boring, and it's all my opinion. Discussion welcome.

Cultures all around our world can be said to have had a fair idea of genealogy at different times, even without genetics. Humans have domesticated dogs, horses, corn, and who knows what else, all by observing phenotypes (look it up, I can't post 3 links).

In humans themselves, Western cultures had the royalty and nobility who were assumed to be "better" in some way, and the caste system of Hindu fame comes to mind. With scientific methodology to quantify certain desirable traits, there's the possibility that evolutionarily ideal people would find themselves in the top rungs of society. Ideal being a relative term. These people would, for the sake of the future, be allowed somewhat loosened ideas on reproductive morality. People who were deemed to have no positive contributions to the gene pool would be allowed to starve, or at least have to support those with uncommon genes for the greater good.

You might see the evolutionarily "better" ruling class be deposed by peasants who would rather live better today than let somebody else's offspring be the wave of the future for their country. The French Revolution in the 18th century comes to mind as being very similar to how that scenario might play out in your world.

I'd like to mention the "society of supermen" scenario from Star Trek (NG, redone in a recent movie). That is the most significant possibility I could imagine this enabling.

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Eugenics is a social philosophy that was popular in the US and Europe in the first half of the 20th century. The movement’s goal was to improve the quality of the human race by applying the same techniques used in animal and plant breeding to humans. Essentially, by encouraging the reproduction of humans with good traits, and discouraging the reproduction of humans with bad traits the good traits will become more prevalent over the bad traits. This movement quickly followed the popularization of Darwin’s evolutionary theory. Many countries, and some US states, introduced eugenics programs which involved the forced sterilization of people deemed unworthy to reproduce. The movement ended somewhat abruptly after World War 2 when the Nazi’s use of eugenic concepts in the Holocaust made the ideas unpopular.

Eugenics requires an understanding of biological inheritance that a theory of evolution provides It seems possible to me, that selectively breeding human populations for desired traits could become popular among the Medieval aristocracy. The royalty own the land and the serfs that lived on and work the land. Their descendants will own the same land and the descendants of those same serfs. It only seems natural that a land-owner would want to improve the quality of the serfs that work their land.

Another philosophy that emerged due to Darwin’s theories was Social Darwinism. Social Darwinists think natural selection is applicable to individuals in human society. They believe that inequalities in society are natural and are the result of superior individuals triumphing over inferior ones. Medieval societies were for the most part, extremely unequal. Concepts from Social Darwinism could be used as additional justifications for the existence of royalty and reinforce the idea that the king’s rightful place was at the throne while the peasants rightful place was in the hovel.

Of course these ideas are a product of their time, and wouldn't necessarily follow just from an understanding of human evolution, but I think these are potentially interesting for your world.

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Well, surprisingly they did have a poor understanding of evolution. They knew about animal husbandry and knew how to get good stock from good stock.

They also believed that the people where in the class they were in by breeding (mixed with divine intervention). Kings were the 'best' and most worthy stock with their royal relatives, and were followed by the nobility etc, etc. KNOWING about evolution, would have likely strengthened their notions of separation from the lower classes. Might even have encouraged nobles to 'breed' with more of their peasant women to 'get a higher quality' serf, (or at least use it as another excuse to poke all the pretty lasses).

But I don't see it doing much more than that.

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As o.m. has said, the effect of earlier knowledge of evolution on agriculture would be to make improvements in agriculture more scientific and hence more successful. This in turn would give a society the ability to feed a large population at an earlier level of general technology, compared to our world. Expect an initial increase in instability, as kings and rulers no longer have the size of their armies limited by the ability to feed them. The age of great conquerors like Napoleon with mass armies comes earlier than in our world.

Hopefully this would eventually be followed by a more comfortable era in which wars and discontents caused by famine are a thing of the past.

The political and cultural effects of an earlier understanding of evolution might not be wholly benign. In our world attempts to derive a moral ethos from "survival of the fittest" have often stressed ruthless competition and ideas of the "highly evolved" races suppressing or even exterminating the "lesser" races or species. (I would like to add that in my opinion any attempt to get from "is" to "ought" is philosophically meaningless, but plenty of people disagree.)

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    $\begingroup$ Evolution isn't the issue here, but genetics. Not the same thing at all. $\endgroup$ – Oldcat May 29 '15 at 22:30
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    $\begingroup$ I am not sure how well advanced the idea of 'survival of the fittest' would be. All that people know in this world, is that life changes and seems to adapt to its environment over very long spans of time. That said, I have considered the idea of social Darwinism perhaps playing a part in the development of at least one of the societies, and then another with a strong understanding/appreciation of ecology. I really like the idea of different cultures taking the philosophical ramifications of ET in completely different directions. $\endgroup$ – Belverk May 30 '15 at 2:30
  • $\begingroup$ I was also thinking that Social Darwinism developed out of European Imperialism. The human cultures that are currently aware of evolution in my world are quite diverse. Rather than develop racial distinctions between groups of humans they are more likely to see human diversity as interconnected rather than racially distinct. Perhaps the idea of 'survival of the fittest' would in some cases be more likely to reinforce individualism rather than racism per se. It could be interesting to explore the concept of cultural relativity in early scientific thought within the context of a fantasy world. $\endgroup$ – Belverk May 30 '15 at 3:09
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    $\begingroup$ @Oldcat, Understanding of the particulate nature of inheritance of characteristics is crucial to an understanding of evolution ( en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Particulate_inheritance ). In our timeline Darwin and Mendel worked almost at the same time but did not know of each other's work. Darwin was troubled because he could not see how variation of species arose in the first place for natural selection to work upon. In Belverk's world, since evolution is accepted, the linkage of the two ideas would be clear. The practical uses of knowledge of evolution mostly relate to genetics. $\endgroup$ – Lostinfrance May 30 '15 at 5:42
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    $\begingroup$ @Belverk writes, "It could be interesting to explore the concept of cultural relativity in early scientific thought within the context of a fantasy world." True, but even the most interesting fictional exploration of a concept is made more interesting by the presence of baddies. Extra points if the baddies are motivated by ideas that most of your readers associate with progress! There's a reason why the subtitle of Origin of Species mentioned "the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life" - as a generator of plot conflict the idea of evolution has certain natural advantages. $\endgroup$ – Lostinfrance May 30 '15 at 5:57
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It would probably have the same impact that it had on society in the 19th century, a boom of scientific thought and learning.

The thing that made Medieval times known as the "Dark Ages" was the blanket ban on any pursuit of knowledge that challenged the Church. All the great thinkers of the Dark Ages were branded as heretics, blasphemers, or devils and burnt at the stake, which stunted the progression of the human race for a thousand years.

If a medieval society was open to such concepts as evolution, that means that they are not closed to new ideas, or free forms of thinking. Had the medieval earthlings been as open minded, we would probably be a thousand years more advanced than we are right now.

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    $\begingroup$ This leads me to consider to what extent such knowledge might be repressed. Conservative authoritarian societies have always been resistant to any ideas that challenge the status quo. Evolution then might be seen as a challenge to the idea that the universe ordered according to the way it is meant to be, including perhaps the idea that peasants are in their proper place in the social order. That everything is as it always has been. $\endgroup$ – Belverk May 29 '15 at 8:22
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    $\begingroup$ This interpretation is flawed, the very concept of 'Dark ages' is not popular among historians today, certainly not one where the church crushed all science and thought. The truth is that science and development were held back as much due to a lack of education (which was mostly only preserved by the Church in Christendom), the fact that the scientific method had yet to be developed and the economic and urban decline that left Europe a lot less interconnected and more regionalised compared to the days of Rome. $\endgroup$ – Khwarezm May 29 '15 at 18:59
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    $\begingroup$ Developing a theory of evolution would have taken extended observations over a long period of time (and preferably over large areas of the world to see how different lifeforms act in different, and also the same environments), rigid record keeping and the ability to independently verify any results that lead to the an evolutionary conclusion, understanding what fossils are helps too. Your long lived character has the first part down but people would be taking him at his word without the other factors. Would this individual thus be an important religious figure? $\endgroup$ – Khwarezm May 29 '15 at 19:14
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    $\begingroup$ What made them the Dark Ages was the fact that people were too busy fighting for survival to write stuff down. The Catholic Church was a few men huddled in Rome under the thumb of the Lombards and had no influence outside a day's march. $\endgroup$ – Oldcat May 29 '15 at 22:29
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    $\begingroup$ I agree it was a time when much was lost rather than necessarily repressed. Interestingly, the Islamic world was experiencing a sort of scientific golden age at much the same time, preserving and building upon the knowledge of the ancient world. It is my understanding that the Renaissance owes much to those early Muslim scholars. $\endgroup$ – Belverk May 30 '15 at 2:36

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