My heroine’s commitment to teaching evolutionary biology prompted me to bone up on the history of evolution. I wondered why it took so long for Lamarck, Wallace and Darwin to come along. The anatomical connection between mankind and the animals is evident—we have the same organ systems as the great apes, for instance. The human oxygen-carrying metaloprotein hemoglobin, containing hundreds of components in a complex heterocyclic ring, is exactly the same in gorillas—atom for atom. Why did it take for long to make the connection?

My search took me back to ancient Miletus in Asia Minor, now part of Turkey. Thales, the first of the Seven Sages of Greece is remarkable because of his use of the scientific method and his urging of his students to write down the results of their studies. His school wanted to free Greece from stultifying and progress-retarding mythology (mythos) by using science to explain natural phenomena.

He believed that everything was composed of basic elements, in particular water. His student, Anaximander, propounded that animals evolved from fish.

That’s it. There were no fresh theories on evolution until the Comte to Buffon in 1753 published Histoire Naturelle affirming that each species has a “moule interieur” (interior mold) that organizes the species into its external form. He also suggested that related species must have a common ancestor. Lamarck then formulated his theory of organic progression stating that species evolve up a scale of organization from spontaneous generation, but on unique unconnected lines.

The reason for the reign of ignorance between the Miletus School around 700 BC and the pre-Darwin theorizers is the advent of Christian thought. Christian scholars reasoned that since existence is good and God’s benevolence is complete, the Great Designer created a static universe in which each species was perfect. There was no evolution and no extinction, since that would countermand God’s work. By the time St. Augustine published his City of God in 410, human curiosity was stifled and destined to endure the Dark Ages for a thousand years.

My research brought me to a story I could scarcely believe. In a little town outside Naples, Lucilio Vanini was born in 1585, just thirty-five years after the advent of Copernicism. He wanted to study the physical laws which were coming into vogue during the Renaissance. From Rome, back to Naples and then to Padua, he continued studying and eventually became a lawyer and priest.

But he couldn’t keep his new ideas to himself and had to flee Italy for his life. After teaching a short time in Lyons, his reputation caught up with him and he scavenged for existence in the Low Countries. He escaped to London but was soon imprisoned. He returned to Italy to teach in Genoa, but was quickly banished to France. To clear his name he wrote a book against atheism, orthodox enough to avoid censure.

It was his second book written in 1615 that did him in. De Admirandis Naturae Reginae Deaeque Mortalium Arcanis was reckless and truth-loving enough to suggest that humankind might have evolved from apes. This was 243 years before The Origin of Species.

When Vatican cronies told Camillio Borghese, aka Pope Paul V, about Vanini’s wild ideas about evolution, the Holy Father hit the ceiling. He ordered a hit. Vanini was to be whacked, cum magma celeritas.

After publishing De Admirandis in Paris in 1616, Vanini left the city to teach in Toulouse. It was here that he was arrested. Following a prolonged trail, he was sentenced to death as an atheist. But it wasn’t enough just to take his life. The pope ordered his tongue be cut out so he couldn’t speak another word about his heretical ideas. In 1619, he was strangled at the stake and burned. His ashes were cast to the wind and another freethinker casually disappeared from the historical record.

Why do no history books carry this extremely important account in the history of human development? The pope got his way, all right. To this day very few people ever heard of Vanini. His murder was a perfect crime—an outragous blow to the evolution of consciousness.

When I read Vanini’s story I could scarcely believe such cruelty, arrogance and ignorance could exist. I vowed to resurrect Vanini and devoted the last chapter of Mirror Reversal to him. How about Pope Benedict XVI apologizing? How about historians admitting that he existed, lest they be part of this holy conspiracy? History mustn’t be manipulated by powerful organizations.

This man deserves to be remembered. If he weren’t treated so brutally, humanity might have emerged from the Dark Ages by now. Don't let the Church get away with murder another day.

It’s time to stop being sheep. Pope Benedict helped sway the 2004 American election and hurled the world into chaos by electing an arrogant incompetent. Google “endmeme” to see how religious fanatics are leading the world into an abyss.

The cause of humanism beckons. Support those who share your worldview. Pick up a copy of Mirror Reversal on

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Comment by Mac Rex on May 1, 2009 at 1:51pm
Very interesting, but it begs the question - How many others like Vanini have there been? This story also shows, once again, what I keep trying to explain to people why religion is suck a non-benign evil, with their suppression of knowledge and oppression of any that seek truth and understanding.
Keep up the good work Rick, and I'll have to send for a copy of Mirror Reversal.
Comment by George on April 30, 2009 at 11:11pm
Thanks for posting this. I agree, this type of thing needs to be recognized.
Comment by HotMess on April 29, 2009 at 11:55pm
I wonder if someone could put together a publication of "martyrs for science" or if one already exists.
I'm horrified by the Inquisiton as well as the witch hunts, and confounded as to how modern Christianity refuses to acknowledge this as the reason that their religion became the dominant theology; to my knowledge, there's not even an attempt at reconciling this barbarism.
Comment by Rich Goss on April 29, 2009 at 4:58pm
One more thing. My compliments, Michael, on your knowledge of history. I wish young people would learn how important and much fun it is.
Comment by Rich Goss on April 29, 2009 at 4:48pm
Thanks for the kind words. This story has been on my mind since high school days in Brooklyn, when I used to argue religion with Rudy Guiliani after religion class. Not Vanini precisely, but the fact that humanity might have been living in Earthly paradise now, if not for the mind-deadening effects of religion. We would have been able to control population growth for one thing—one of the major causes of war.



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