Harvard University The Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University
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Titus Lucretius Carus (99 BC-55 BC)

Nature dos allthings change, & forces to

Transforme. (De Rerum Natura)

On the Nature of Things (De Rerum Natura), the magnificent Epicurean poem by the Roman philosopher Lucretius, contains a number of passages in book V that speak to an evolved world. Lucretius was an atomist who believed in free will (the random swerves of atoms precluded a strictly mechanical or predestined world) and rejected the notion that there is a designer or creator of the universe. Lucretius was strongly antagonistic to organized religion, and argued that when the body dies, so too does the soul (there is no afterlife).

A few examples of passages that describe a world constantly changing and evolving follow below. There is even what might be viewed as a rudimentary concept of natural selection, in which mutant forms of life, if maladapted, are eliminated (though this passage lacks the generative force of better adapted forms giving rise to new kinds). Although modern English translations abound, I have chosen the earliest English translation – by none other than John Evelyn, the diarist and author of the first book published by the Royal Society of London: Sylva or a Discourse on Forest-Trees, and the Propagation of Timber in His Majesty’s Dominions (1664).  Who better to capture the meaning of trees and their rise to prominence? Also, the concern that translations post-1859 might inadvertently reflect the modern perspective of natural selection is thus obviated by choosing a translation from the 1650s (from Repetzki, M.M.  2000.  John Evelyn’s Translation of Titus Lucretius Carus De rerum natura).

First the Earth cloth’d with herbs the little hills,
Whose pleasant verdure all the surface fills,
And shining with its rich inamel spreads
The florid fields, and the luxurious meads;
Trees without checq did plentifully spring…

For Age at length dos chang the face
And nature of the World, & every thing
Doth from one state unto another bring,
Nor doth ought like it selfe remaine, all goe,
Nature dos allthings change, & forces to
Transforme. For one thing rotts, & with age dyes;
Another growes, & from contempt doth rise.
Thus age doth change the World, & from one state
Unto another dos the Earth translate;
So that what once it could, it cannot now,
And now dos what to doe it knew not how.
The Earth strang Monsters then to make did trye
Of different looks & members ametrie,
Hermophrodite, a kind that is betwixt
And equaly remote from either Sex,
Some without feete, some hand-lesse, Mouthlesse, blind,
Others whose parts were so to th’ body joyn’d
They could not move, no function could performe,
Nor take things for their use, nor flie from harme.

Such Monsters & Portents she made in vaine,
For Nature, to augment them did disdaine
Nor could th’ arrive to age’s perfect state,
Nor find their nourishment, nor Copulate;
For divers things must first concur we see
E’re things by propagation specifie:
First nourishment, & then the genial seede
Which flowing may from laxid parts proceede,
And parts for mutual pleasure them assign’d
So that the femal with the male be joynd.
Else divers sorts of Animals had dyed
E’re this, nor could their race have multipli’d:
For all you see to live & breath the aire
By craft, or force, or nimblenesse, they were
Preserv’d from the beginning: And againe
Many commended to our care remaine
Because of the utilitie…

On the Nature of Things Lucretius title page

Although the first translation of On the Nature of Things from Latin into English was by John Evelyn, he only published the first book of the six books that make up the poem. The remainder of his translation remained in manuscript until published in 2000. The first published full translation, by John Creech, appeared in 1682, with a second edition (pictured here) published a year later.