To this day, some "primitive" tribes still don't have any concept of god or religion. When presented with the idea of a divine being, they will call you a liar or a fool the moment you say "no, I've never met Jesus"

But still even in places without any god, tradition and speculation easily become religion if the dogma is stronger than the evidence and the reason.

But outside of isolated tribes in the real world, on a global level, in another world.

How early could the concept of evolution develop? Hence understanding that people weren't always people, lizards weren't always lizards and so on, would it be possible for this concept to develop faster than dogmatic organised religions based on creationism?


Evolution is the process through which species change over time, driven by factors like genetic variation, natural selection, mutation, and environmental influences. It leads to the development of new traits, species, and the diversity of life.

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    $\begingroup$ the problem is "religion" is such a nebulous term that it may well predate homo sapiens. also people were not always people is part of many religions. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Mar 16 at 18:08
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    $\begingroup$ Please edit the question to indicate clearly what is meant by "the concept of evolution". The word "evolution" by itself simply means "change". The concept of evolution is very much larger than the notion of $\rightarrow$natural$\leftarrow$ evolution. The Latin word evolutio comes from volvo "I roll something up"; initially it meant "unrolling". Cicero in the 1st century BCE already uses the word evolutio to mean "unrolling a scroll", reading a book. P.S. Natural evolution does not say that people were not always people, it says that there was a time when there were no people at all... $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Mar 16 at 19:01
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    $\begingroup$ Of course people weren't always people and lizards weren't always lizards! Before Earth conceived and bore Sky, who impregnated her so that she would bring forth the living things and the Titans and the primordial Monsters, people and lizards were mud! $\endgroup$
    – g s
    Mar 16 at 20:14
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    $\begingroup$ I would generally say that there is no definitive answer for your question. The concept of evolution could come in existence in probability any era. So you can basically make it come into existence whenever you want. Though it would basically come into place whenever you have some scientific minded people think about it. $\endgroup$ Mar 16 at 20:50
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    $\begingroup$ It might help you to do some research into the history of religion. I don't think anyone would expect a culture with animistic beliefs to take monotheism seriously at first sight, but I'm not seeing the barrier to appreciating change - unless there is none or no evidence of it in their environment, beyond what the seasons bring. $\endgroup$ Mar 16 at 22:58

6 Answers 6


Humans domesticated many animal and plant species in antiquity -- dogs at least 15,000 years ago, rice and wheat some 13,000 years ago, cattle, sheep, and goats 11 kya, etc. (according to Wikipedia). Therefore, it follows that the ancients must have been aware it was possible for species to change from generation to generation, in response to selective pressures favoring a certain trait. It would not have been a huge leap to realize that if species could be bred to favor a trait selected for by human breeders, they could also evolve to favor a trait selected for by their environment.

Thus, if a hypothetical alien society is capable of domesticating animals before it becomes civilized, it stands to reason that it would certainly be capable of conceiving of evolution at the same time. If anything, the anomaly is that any society familiar with domestication and selective breeding would ever conceive of the belief that species were immutable.

Indeed, this is conjectural, but it seems logical that the ancients must have been aware of naturally occurring species change to some degree in order to conceive of the idea of breeding new traits intentionally. Prehistoric humans may have originally had some concept of evolution that was later forgotten once certain religious dogmas took hold.

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    $\begingroup$ There's no problem with being conjectural. It's impossible to prove any answer to a question like what the OP's asking. The OP might be literally trying to determine a date, "It could have been done by X because Y...." But the basis of this Stack is suspension of disbelief. Your answer is wonderful because it's a perfectly good rationalization for why the idea could be used believably in a story. Cheers. $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Mar 17 at 4:40
  • $\begingroup$ The early domestication events were accidental rather than deliberate, and it's highly doubtful any single individual will have 'noticed' it happening, howsoever, any that actively breed livestock for particular traits can be argued to already have the concept of evolution be it formally formulated and published or not, we might almost say that Darwin merely put into words posh people could understand what farmers already knew, though most farmers may not have thought to project it from breed characteristics to species. $\endgroup$
    – Pelinore
    Mar 17 at 11:08
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    $\begingroup$ It could easily be observed without domestication of animals that "Og have mum's nose." But the notion of heritable traits (or trying to select for them) isn't evolutionary theory. See Lamarckism. $\endgroup$
    – Jedediah
    Mar 17 at 11:55
  • $\begingroup$ Except that the first set of beliefs (eg. Lightning is retribution from the Deity) showed up well before 15k years ago. Maybe it wasn’t an organized religion, though I am not sure if that is what the OP had in mind. $\endgroup$
    – Telastyn
    Mar 17 at 14:33
  • $\begingroup$ @Telastyn I'm ok with people having beliefs unrelated to creationism $\endgroup$
    – Xenophile
    Mar 17 at 15:41

Any concept could develop, but without supporting evidence from geology, paleontology, genetics and others it's still only a belief, not understanding. So there is no disagreement with creationism nor religion. The priests say evolution happened because Creator wanted it to be so. And noone is any wiser, there's no reason, no alternative explanation, no knowledge how it happened.

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    $\begingroup$ "The priests say evolution happened because Creator wanted it to be so": Which is what they actually do say. Mainstream Christian churches has no problem with natural evolution, which they perceive a nothing more than the doctrinally completely irrelevant mechanics behind Genesis 1:12 and so forth: when we read "God said, let the earth bring forth the living creature after his kind, cattle, and creeping thing, and beast of the earth after his kind: and it was so", it does not matter the mechanics which made it be so. Natural evolution is a perfectly good description of how it happened. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Mar 16 at 19:06
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    $\begingroup$ @AlexP but OP was asking about primitive society without any existing church doctrines and even without accepted notion of logical consistency. $\endgroup$
    – Juraj
    Mar 17 at 8:20
  • $\begingroup$ What if a world, forced evolution for life to proceed up various steps (mountain engulfed valleys) and kept these environmental developments relatively stable. So you could actually see the various stages of development and environment adaption along the "stairs"? $\endgroup$
    – Pica
    Mar 18 at 13:43

I don't know how early can $\rightarrow$the$\leftarrow$ concept of evolution come to be; but the ancient Greeks and Romans absolutely had available $\rightarrow$a$\leftarrow$ concept of evolution. It was not the dominant understanding of the world, but it also was not a marginal and irrelevant world view; it was one of the three-to-five mainstream philosphical systems prevalent in the classical world before the devastating ascent of Christianity.

In the year of our Lord 1417 the small world of Italian humanists was abuzz with the exciting news that Poggio Bracciolini, the famous and indefatigable manuscript hunter¹, had found an almost complete and previously unknown Latin didactic poem in the unexplored wilderness of the library of an unnamed German monastery; it was probably the monastery of Fulda, but he never actually said where he had found it.

¹) When it comes to finding copies of ancient works, Poggio Bracciolini was the real life Indiana Jones. He is the one who found Vitruvius's De architectura and Quintilian's Institutio oratoria, to mention only the two absolutely essential ancient books he brought back to light; without those two books, the Renaissance would have been completely different.

And what a find! Unlike the tame and wholesome Stoic philosphy of Cicero and Seneca, which everybody knew, so tame and so wholesome that the Universal Church had officiously accepted that those pagan authors had, by the Grace of God, transceded their paganness and had declared that everything they had written was perfectly good and fit to be read and applied by good Christians, this poem came from a completely different philosophical tradition and was deliciously and unashamedly heretical!

(Today we know that the poem had not really been completely lost before its rediscovery by Bracciolini at the beginning of the 15th century. Select scholars, such as Lovato Lovati, and maybe even the great Dante, had read it hundreds of years before. But they had not dared to publish it; it was far too heretical. The world had to wait for the enlightened times of the 15th century to read again what the Romans had had no trouble reading at the height of their long-gone civilization.)

For, you see, T. Lucretius Carus had been an Epicurean. Unlike the tame and wholesome Stoic philosphy which, even the Church agreed, was a fit and proper philosophy, good for the soul, the Epicureans were bad. Materialists, no less, or at least unrepentant deists. Maybe gods exist, they taught, but in any case they live in their own god-world and have no interest in our sub-lunar world, which, for all intents and purposes, operates under its own materialistic laws, with no intervention from the divinity.

Lucretius's poem, De rerum natura, that is, On the Nature of Things, is an introduction to this bad Epicurean philosophy. The following summary is from Wikipedia, judiciously pruned of fluff:

The poem commences with an enunciation of the proposition on the nature and being of the deities, which leads to an invective against the evils of superstition. Lucretius then dedicates time to exploring the axiom that nothing can be produced from nothing, and that nothing can be reduced to nothing: Nil fieri ex nihilo, in nihilum nil posse reverti. Following this, the poet argues that the universe comprises an infinite number of Atoms, which are scattered about in an infinite and vast void. The shape of these atoms, their properties, their movements, the laws under which they enter into combination and assume forms and qualities appreciable by the senses, with other preliminary matters on their nature and affections, [...] occupy the first two books.

The fifth book [...] addresses the origin of the world and of all things therein, the movements of the heavenly bodies, the changing of the seasons, day and night, the rise and progress of humankind, society, political institutions, and the invention of the various arts and sciences which embellish and ennoble life.

T. Lucretius Carus, De rerum natura, around 60 BCE; book V, lines 821-836 (text from Perseus Digital Library):

  • Latin:

    Quare etiam atque etiam maternum nomen adepta
    terra tenet merito, quoniam genus ipsa creavit
    humanum atque animal prope certo tempore fudit
    omne quod in magnis bacchatur montibus passim,
    aëriasque simul volucres variantibus formis.

    Sed quia finem aliquam pariendi debet habere,
    destitit, ut mulier spatio defessa vetusto.
    Mutat enim mundi naturam totius aetas
    ex alioque alius status excipere omnia debet
    nec manet ulla sui similis res: omnia migrant,
    omnia commutat natura et vertere cogit.
    Namque aliud putrescit et aevo debile languet,
    porro aliud succrescit et e contemptibus exit.

    Sic igitur mundi naturam totius aetas
    mutat, et ex alio terram status excipit alter,
    quod potuit nequeat, possit quod non tulit ante.

  • English translation by William Ellery Leonard (1816) (text from the same Perseus Digital Library):

    Wherefore, again, again, how merited is that adopted name of Earth, the Mother! Since she herself begat the human race, and at one well-nigh fixed time brought forth each breast that ranges raving round about upon the mighty mountains and all birds aerial with many a varied shape.

    But, lo, because her bearing years must end, she ceased, like to a woman worn by eld. For lapsing aeons change the nature of the whole wide world, and all things needs must take one status after other, nor aught persists forever like itself. All things depart; nature she changeth all, compelleth all to transformation. Lo, this moulders down, a-slack with weary eld, and that, again, prospers in glory, issuing from contempt.

    In suchwise, then, the lapsing aeons change the nature of the whole wide world, and earth taketh one status after other. and what she bore of old, she now can bear no longer, and what she never bore, she can to-day.

A good scholarly discussion relevant to the specific topic of this question is Gordon Campbell's Lucretius on Creation and Evolution: A Commentary on De rerum natura 5.772--1104, Oxford University Press, 2003. (Not cheap at all, but more adventurous trouble-seeking fighters against the system can find it in the usual, ahem, liberated places.) A review by Brooke Holmes (Institute for Research in Classical Philosophy and Science, Aestimatio 2 (2005), pp. 142–162), is freely available online.

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    $\begingroup$ Interesting, but how does this answer the question? A vague concept of evolution could potentially be read into De Rerum Natura, but the change spoken of seems to be a visual change, a panta rhei, and, even so, it does not predate religion, or get us any closer to whether or not the one preceded the other, which seems to be what the OP is after. $\endgroup$
    – Joachim
    Mar 16 at 22:39

Yes, and in theory, that had happened. There were and still are cultures that never developed religion the way we recognize it (though they have superstitions).

Famously, huge part of the Huns were effectively atheists. There used to be entire tribes in Syberia and Yakutia who never had religious ideas (they are still atheists, but now due to Soviet influence, so it is not a clear example). The Brazilian Pirahas and the Yamamimas of Amazon had no religion either. Most of Pygmy tribes, and some of the Tasmanian Aboriginals had no religion either.

And yet, the Asiatic Steppe peoples who had no religion bred animals and understood the rules of breeding selection. The Aforementioned hunter-gatherer tribes understood the basic concept of children inheriting their mother's traits (though some, like the Yamamimas were not clear on the idea whether fathers matter).

Basically, every human tribe and culture that existed or exists now, understood that if animal with X trait has young, the young might have trait X too, and that some traits makes you better at survival. This is essentially understanding evolution, just not in so many words.


Not much earlier than it happened historically

First, development of theory of evolution doesn't have a lot to do with religion. Yes, at first Darwin's ideas drew some opposition from Christian clergy and religious people, because if was perceived to undermine the idea of God creating all the species. However it's not the main problem with developing such a theory.

Consider China. It never really developed a religion with a supreme God who created all the species, including man at the end. They had traditional animist beliefs in the spirit world mixed with some moral philosophy like Confucianism, which some people consider a kind of religion but which never really cared about God or Gods. Later on Buddhism from India became popular but that religion doesn't really have an idea of a supreme Creator either. Still, a theory of evolution never developed in China, in spite of it having one of the most advanced societies in the world in ancient and medieval eras.

The idea that a species can develop from a completely different one is too counterintuitive - cows are cows and deer is deer and horses are horses, the idea that a horse can evolve from a deer (for argument's sake, I know that's not how evolution went), is going to be too strange for people to come up with. This is different from the idea of breeding - people have been creating different breeds of dogs for centuries, but to their mind all the different breeds were still fundamentally different from wolves.

To come up with an idea that one species can evolve from another you need to have people with deep systemic knowledge of many animal species who have dedicated their life to research. For that you need to have science, and in order to have science you need a very advanced, post-renaissance type of society.

Maybe you could speed things up a bit if people could observe evolution happening. Let's say that from time to time you have natural events which greatly increase radioactivity in an area. I don't know how that would happen - maybe volcanic eruptions throw up a lot of radioactive elements. People will see a lot of animal life in the area get sick and die, but they will also see animals and plants in the area start to change. But they would probably put that down to evil magic from some malevolent supernatural entity.


** Frame challenge: Evolution AS a religion.**

A Buddha (like) character dedicates their life to observing the flow of life around them. The growth, seeding and death of plants, the birth of even the simplest of animals, their growth, breeding, competition with one another and eventual death. He or she 'deep dives' into the simplest of life forms in ponds and streams and on through to the mightiest of creatures in their local forests, plains and oceans. And in doing so? See's the same patterns repeating. Birth, growth, competition and death.

They realize that all living things of course are born, live and then die, leaving more of their kind in their wake. But also that at every turn life is a competition. And then, one night contemplating all they have learned they have a 'eureka' moment;

  1. All life is on a journey;

  2. All life is interlinked and dependent on one another:

  3. All life is also intrinsically in competition with its neighbors. Mostly they compete, in some (rear) cases they co-operate but in all cases the fittest/strongest survive. And because they survive, they form the next generation. And life goes on.

  4. All life forms, including humans are forged by their interactions with each other and with other different life forms. And in the process of being forged? They change as they grow, age and then die? And if individuals members of species are subject to change then collectively a species as a whole must also be subject to change, generation by generation.

  5. A set of rules on how to view and live ones life follows from these observations.

Edit: A couple of generations later followers of the original philosopher as they tend their gardens and follow his principles of observing the littlest parts of creation find they can create 'change' in some of their plants (peas anyone) by cross-breeding for desired traits. This just confirms the wisdom and insight of their master.

Much later when the sciences have developed and ecology, genetics and biology etc are a 'thing'? Future generations of scientists, start cursing because some random philosopher/priest a thousand years ago broadly defined a draft theory of evolution it lay terminology before they could.


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