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By medieval, I am referring to a planet equivalent to earth in 1000 AD. There is lots of variation, with places like Europe, the Middle East, China, and so on. It is not a "dark ages" for science across the world. There are plenty of places where intellectualism thrives.

By theory of evolution, I mean just the basic concept that species change over time, humans came from apes, and that we weren't all created by some divine being.

Assuming the best case scenario, could one of these societies develop the theory of evolution?

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    $\begingroup$ What do you mean by "evolution?" Humans have been tinkering with the idea of animals descending from other types of animals since about 600 B.C. (which answers your question). Source. If you believe there's still a question to be asked, please be specific about what stage of understanding evolution you're trying to achieve. There's a big difference between what people thought about 2600 years ago and what we understand today. There's even a big difference between today and Darwin. $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Apr 16 at 5:42
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    $\begingroup$ What do you mean by "develop the theory of evolution"? We in the 21st century are still in the process of developing our understanding of natural evolution. There have been quite a few different theories of evolution... Lamarck, Saint-Hilaire, de Vries, Darwin of course, Mayr. Dobzhansky... $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Apr 16 at 8:25
  • $\begingroup$ do they have books and widespread literacy then yes. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Apr 16 at 19:54
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    $\begingroup$ Untrue things have indeed become "common knowledge" before in a colloquial sense, but not in any absolute sense. $\endgroup$
    – pygosceles
    Apr 16 at 21:54
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    $\begingroup$ As a side note: Middle-Ages in Europe were not any kind of "dark ages" - this is a 19th-century invention (and to some extent - 15th-century). The other thing is that we do not descend from apes, we have a common ancestor and at some point our paths split. $\endgroup$
    – WoJ
    Apr 18 at 14:37

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Darwin was a naturalist, but he was motivated to discover natural selection by the work of an economist: Thomas Malthus.

One of Malthus' observations is that people, animals, and plants all reproduced at a rate that exceeded their available supply of food. Thus, a struggle for survival was inherent in all life, and it was impossible for everyone/everything to be a winner. Malthus realized where the struggle was, and Darwin realized that struggle would automatically reinforce positive adaptations and discourage negative adaptations. This is what we call natural selection.

There was no scientific or technological evidence that was prerequisite for Darwin's discovery. If we follow Malthus, the prerequisite was a certain competitive social structure that exposed the hidden population pressures that influenced people's lives.

In that light, medieval Europe would have been a poor place for such an idea to emerge. The feudal system necessarily requires an economic surplus, and while the feudal lord demanded that surplus, the feudal lord also had to be sensitive to the people's needs. Starving all your peasants was not good policy or good economics. For most times and places we call medieval, there was plenty of land and plenty of food.

But that motivation is not strictly required. Darwin and other naturalists had seen and understood the concept of adaptation for a long time, and even posited different reasons for the emergence of different species. What Darwin discovered was the mechanism that explains why adaptation occurs, not the concept of evolution in the first place. Pre-Darwin, random evolution might just occur for no reason. Post-Darwin, we understand that evolution occurs because an organism is better adapting to the struggle for existence.

So sure, there's no strict reason why a talented and curious person couldn't put it all together and strike on the concept of natural selection. And the concept of evolution in general was known well prior to Darwin as well- as far back as the ancient Greeks there are commentaries on the idea that some animals change or evolve to fit the environment that they can thrive in.

I think the biggest practical reason that natural selection and much other basic science was not "discovered" earlier is just that very few people had the opportunity to write down their ideas and learn from predecessors. In the medieval period you have a lot of peasant farmers, and certainly these people could be working in the field and notice that some plants grow taller than others, or walking in the forest and notice that some animals blend in better, or whatever.

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    $\begingroup$ Thanks for reminding me of Malthus's role. $\endgroup$ Apr 16 at 21:32
  • $\begingroup$ Great answer. Malthus played a huge role in darwins thinking and the "struggle for existence " is a key element. Rather than "he was motivated to discover natural selection by ....Thomas Malthus. " it would be more accurate to say that malthus played a key, perhaps essential role. $\endgroup$
    – N Brouwer
    Apr 17 at 0:35
  • $\begingroup$ "For most times and places we call medieval, there was plenty of land and plenty of food." ahistoric nonsense. There was constant warfare (overpopulation) using up that oversupply. Afghanistan is a good window into medieval times. Not peaceful. $\endgroup$
    – Pica
    Apr 17 at 8:36
  • $\begingroup$ @Pica The European population did not grow appreciably between 500-1000AD, roughly tripled between 1000AD and 1350AD. Around 1300AD is the only point at which Europe could be said to be overpopulated. Then, the black plague killed about 50% of Europeans, and population would stay low for several hundred years due to recurrent plagues. Another Malthusian pressure would be the little ice age, which reduced crop yields. But, all that said, "for most medieval times and places" there was not a lot of population pressure. $\endgroup$
    – David
    Apr 17 at 16:03
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    $\begingroup$ I think that the role Linnaeus' taxonomy played in the development of the theory of evolution is under-appreciated. $\endgroup$ Apr 17 at 20:52
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Have Mendel Darwin live a few centuries earlier.

In the real world, most of the stuff needed to come up with the theory of evolution has been around since the Roman Empire. For example, St. Augustine of Hippo (quite possibly one of the most important Christian theologians to ever live) proposed a form of theistic evolution all the way back in the early 400s A.D.

The only thing missing for evolution in its modern form is the Mendelian understanding of inheritance.

EDIT: As Jack Aidley so helpfully pointed out, Darwin wasn't aware of Mendel's work when he discovered evolution. As such, while Mendelian genetics would help, it isn't necessary. All you really need is for someone to take a look at the world and ask the right questions.

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    $\begingroup$ Darwin, rather famously, didn't know about Mendel's theory. $\endgroup$ Apr 17 at 15:59
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    $\begingroup$ @JackAidley Good point; I'd forgotten about that. I'll get around to editing my answer eventually. $\endgroup$ Apr 17 at 17:30
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Have them notice Mendelian inheritance and apply it to animal husbandry on a large scale. Once they are familiar with concepts like inherited traits, selective breeding, and so on, someone might create a generalized theory to describe what happens, even if it lacks any concept of DNA. Say they talk about combining the life forces of husband and wife.

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  • $\begingroup$ This seems pretty implausible. In actual history, cultures practiced animal breeding (artificial selection), applying knowledge of inherited traits, for millenia (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Selective_breeding#History) before Darwin came up with his theory of evolution, suggesting that this alone was not sufficient. Conversely, he didn't have access to information about Mendelian inheritance or DNA, showing that the latter concepts aren't essential to the theory. $\endgroup$
    – LarsH
    Apr 17 at 21:33
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IMHO it would be difficult if you mean Darwinian evolution by Natural Selection. Darwin gained an important insight from the Galapagos islands, and other parts of the Beagle voyage; Wallace came to the same idea independently in the Malay peninsula after working in the Amazon. A widely traveled medieval person in the West might have gone to the Crusades or the Haj. Could they have been exposed to the right distribution of species? Somehow I doubt it. What Asia? The Ming Treasure Voyages might have had an opportunity.

Darwin's presence on the Beagle was something of an accident. Fitz Roy wanted a companion, as British naval protocol greatly constrained his interactions with his officers, and somehow he got Darwin.

As other have pointed out, Darwin didn't invent the idea of evolution: he and Wallace were the ones who made the idea work. Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon already had the idea, as did Jean-Baptiste Lamarck. Both men had access to Le Jardin des Plantes, which had a collection from all over the world. This might be difficult in a earlier era.

Darwin also was inspired by animal husbandry; generations of breeders keeping detailed records. I wonder whether that sort of record keeping existed during the Middle Ages.

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Yes

So, there are a few key things that helped or hindered the development of the Theory of Evolution.

Let us get the big hinderance out the way to start with:

Religion - Specifically, any religion which posits a creator. This to this day remains the biggest opponent of Evolution. Now - I am not trying to revive the good-old debates of the mid-2000s Atheists - but the simple fact is this: If people have a reasonable explanation for a phenomena, they are disinclined to investigate further.

Case in point - we are all using the Internet to interact, how many of you know how it works? A few of us - most are happy with the explanation that it works because IT Nerds make it work. A Society where Religion has a Dogmatic grip on the populace is the biggest hurdle.

Locations where Evolution does strange things - This is the next Help and Hinderance - Hinderance because IIRC one of the driving factors for Darwin to create his theory (and there's another chap who came really close whose name completely escapes me) was observing that Animals in similar environments, but geographically distinct regions shared similar attributes - and particularly in places that didnt have a lot of human interaction (by doing silly things like travelling distances by boat and ruining things by introducing species where they do not belong) - Also these places tend to be rather remote (for the aforementioned reasons) - If you can get your transportation reliable enough to go somewhere remote enough to observe evolution, then it is possible.

Evolution was a theory made primarily from observation of Fossils and of Animals - This is the main reason I said yes - All that was needed to derive a theory of Evolution is to observe similarities in the Fossil record to modern living animals, observe adaptation to environments and observe commonalities.

Now, I make this sound simple and self-evident - in some ways it is, but to put it in context, when the whole world believed that animals were fixed and determined by a Deity, this is a huge leap.

This is one, perhaps issue though:

If your population doesn't have knowledge of Animal Husbandry or plant breeding, that will make the link much harder to derive

Edit

SARAWAK! Sarawak Law is the other thing I was thinking of. Not just Convergence (sorry this is kinda an edit reply to one of the Comments) - but also Divergence - where there are two regions that are physically close, but have some form of geographic barrier where similar species were unable to traverse, so you get wildly different evolutionary paths, despite being close.

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By theory of evolution, I mean just the basic concept that species change over time, humans came from apes, and that we weren't all created by some divine being.

A minimalist answer addressing these goals literally, instead of going for something like the 21st century pop-culture interpretation of modern biology:

For species changing over time, this is a normal thing for people to believe. There's selective breeding of crops and livestock, of course, which we can be right about, but we can also achieve this belief by being wrong about things in perfectly ordinary ways. For instance:

  • The common motif that the ancients were ethically or physically much superior.
  • Just-so explanations of traits. Evergreen plants pulling seven-day work binges in order to learn how to keep their green leaves in the winter, animals missing out on getting good tails because they were too lazy to show up early when the tails were getting assigned, etc.
  • Change as a consequence of divine rewards and punishments, like Snake being cursed to crawl on his belly in the dust for deceiving Woman.

So really all we need is humans coming from apes without divine intervention, and a medieval tech level. For this all we need is the right geography, ecology, and luck.

  1. Be the fearsome barbarian raiders at the borders of a medieval society. This way you can have their technology without their ideas.

  2. Be in a place that has nonhuman apes, and have them be important to your life.

  3. Have a perfectly ordinary origins myth placing the first humans as coming spontaneously from a plant or animal that's important to life in your society. See Britannica. Get lucky and pick the right genus by accident.

In short: be the Vikings, but instead of being the children of Ash and Elm, you're the children of the Ape.

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    $\begingroup$ "barbaian ... This way you can have their technology without their ideas" — I'm not sure medieval tech was sufficiently user-friendly for that? E.g. an astrolabe was not a compass; it can help one navigate but requires extensive learning. $\endgroup$ Apr 17 at 8:18
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    $\begingroup$ @BeniCherniavsky-Paskin It's plenty user friendly. First you steal the tech, then you steal the user, then you whip him if he isn't friendly. $\endgroup$
    – g s
    Apr 17 at 9:19
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    $\begingroup$ The beatings will continue until technology improves. $\endgroup$ Apr 17 at 19:21
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Yes, but only for such a generous idea of what would count as evolution, In fact I would argue that it almost existed in our world long before medieval times.

Anaximander of Melitus proposed that animals emerged from other animals, and humans emerged from animals, almost six centuries before the beginning of the Common Era. The only thing missing here is "humans from apes", but that seems like something that could easily have occurred to someone who lived somewhere where these animals lived. The similarities in form between humans and apes are quite obvious.

Obviously his ideas are a long way from the modern conception of Evolution, and completely lacked the explanatory mechanism of Natural Selection which, in my opinion, is the distinctive and import feature that distinguishes Darwin's theory and subsequent work from early (and false) ideas.

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I think you are going to have to define medieval

Evolution is significantly pre renasiance, the minute one has knowledge of evolution, how to create at least some (but not all) vaccines becomes completely obvious, where using a less harmful bug that is related on the evolutionary scale will work. This is just the most obvious example, that will drive you into a much later technology level immediately. Eradication of Smallpox for example.

It's impossible to see how one could get evolution without a much more modern intellectualism than you are describing.

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    $\begingroup$ I think you're right that it's important to consider how the advent of the theory would impact science and technology. Historical quibble though - vaccines in a fairly modern form predate Darwin and Wallace's work but at least several decades $\endgroup$
    – N Brouwer
    Apr 16 at 22:41
  • $\begingroup$ @NBrouwer Vaccines predate Darwin yes, done by rather random experiments. They are well post medievil though, and if you understand Evolution, how to make a vaccine becomes blindingly obvious, so they become immediately available (if not already). $\endgroup$
    – camelccc
    Apr 18 at 21:47
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As a kid I read in a textbook about a place where moths rested on the trunks of birch trees. The dark-colored moths were more visible than the light-colored ones, and as a result were eaten more by birds. So there were more light-colored ones.

Then a factory opened nearby, and the birch trees eventually got coated in soot. Now the situation was reversed: the dark moths were less visible and their population grew. More to the point: people observed this.

Maybe you need a lifeform that reproduces quickly (by human standards) and mutates a lot so that humans all over can see them evolve.

Everyone knows that in the Eastern Forest, the gerbils gain camouflage-pattern fur, while in the Western Desert they've lost their fur altogether. Neither variety ever goes into water, but the gerbils on the banks of the Northern River are renowned swimmers.

Travelers bring these gerbils from one clime to another as pets, but should they get loose and go feral, within a few generations you can see their surviving offspring gradually acquire the traits of the local variety.

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  • $\begingroup$ It's worth noting that "smog caused moths to change color" is a hoax. $\endgroup$ Apr 18 at 16:46
  • $\begingroup$ Okay, but could it happen? If so, my gerbils aren't much less believable. $\endgroup$ Apr 25 at 16:31
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Animal husbandry

History is quirky. There are a great many 'inventions' that could have been done much earlier. People know about some things and simply didn't pursue it further, or didn't put it together.

In animal husbandry we can already see evolution at work. Just as well as with plants. We instinctively grab the best racing horse snd breed it, the biggest corn cob, the cow giving the most milk. Seeing that many areas in the world started with this practice thousands of years BC, together with people seeing many generations in their lifetime, and at a certain point even oral and written accounts of changes, the seeds of an evolution theory are sown.

It is clear that knowing that your livestock or crops get better by this selection isn't enough. You need to connect this to the natural order of things, which took a lot of time. Yet all it takes is for the idea to take root. There's many things that can spark this. Someone counting white and black butterflies, seeing that after a vulcano eruption the black ones suddenly prevail. Draughts and floods and other large changes can show the theory in action, or simply people noticing that the description of certain species have changed over time. Crops that adapt to a more salty ground and not able to go on another mans land. Or a Galapogos experience somewhere.

From there it can grow into a publicly accepted theory, no different from selecting the best of your herd to breed the most. It can be an ideology or religion, making humans the epitome of evolution. A gift from god(s).

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