Ancient myths, religions, and philosophies all reflect an enduring fascination with how the world began and man’s place in the story of life on Earth. In the West, Christianity held that all animals and plants were the result of a perfect creation. On the chain or ladder of being, no species could ever move from one position to another. Species were immutable, an idea called essentialism.

The 18th-century Age of Enlightenment began to challenge orthodox Christian beliefs. French zoologist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck rejected the prevailing Bible-based notion of Earth being only a few thousand years old. He argued that organisms must have changed from simple life forms to more complex ones over millions of years, and that the “transmutation” ...

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