In his famous book Glimpses of World History, Jawaharlal Nehru writes (p. 610, Penguin 2004 Edition, emphasis mine):

As I have been telling you of Darwin's theory of the origin of species, it might interest you what a Chinese philosopher wrote on the subject 2500 years ago. Tson Tse was his name, and he wrote in the sixth century before Christ, about the time of the Buddha:

All organizations are originated from a single species. This single species had undergone many gradual changes and continuous changes, and then gave rise to all organisms of different forms. Such organisms were not differentiated immediately, but, on the contrary, they acquired their differences through gradual change, generation after generation.

If this quotation were accurate, it would be a clear anticipation of common descent and evolutionary gradual change, both of which are key ideas presented in Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species. It would both predate and be more similar to modern thought than other early evolutionary writings such as those by Lucretius.

The problem is: I can't find any source for the quote besides Nehru's book. Additionally, a web search for "Tson Tse" does not turn up even a single mention of a philosopher by that name (does he mean Zhuangzi?). At the same time, I see no reason why Nehru would invent such a minor detail irrelevant to his main political agenda, so I assume there must be at least one source of that claim which predates him.

My question, therefore, is: Did a Chinese philosopher living approximately 2500 years ago, whose name could be transliterated to Tson Tse, write anything that, when translated to modern English, approximately yields the above quotation?

  • 15
    Also, common descent isn't really the key point of Darwin's theory. Others previously had the same idea (including his own grandfather, Erasmus Darwin). Darwin's breakthrough was seeing that natural selection (or "survival of the fittest") provided a mechanism for that gradual change.
    – jamesqf
    Commented May 25, 2015 at 1:11
  • to add some info: @HDE226868 suggested it might be Zhuangzi, or Zhuang Zi, the spelling in China (in Mandarin). In Taiwan, it is also Zhuang Zi or Juang Tz. In Cantonese, it is Jong Ji. If I attempt to write it using English characters, it actually might be Jwaang Jee in Mandarin. So they do sound fairly similar to Tson Tse, depending on whether Jawaharlal Nehru might have heard it from a Mandarin or Cantonese person, or if he used the phonetics symbols as how he would usually pronounce it Commented May 30, 2015 at 21:08

1 Answer 1


In A Source Book on Chinese Philosophy, Wing-Tsit Chan remarks of Chuang Tzu (page 177),

All this is a direct product of his concept of Nature. To him, Nature is not only spontaneity but nature in the state of constant flux and incessant transformation. This is the universal process that binds all things into one, equalizing all things and all opinions.

He later quotes directly from The Chuang Tzu, Chuang Tzu's main work. One selection (page 204) reads

  1. Evolution
    All species have originative or moving power (chi). When they obtain water, they become small organisms like silk. In a place bordering water and land, they become lichens. Thriving on the bank, they become moss. On the fertile soil they become weeds. The roots of these weeds become worms, and their leaves become butterflies. Suddenly the butterfly is transformed into an insect, which is born under the stove (for its heat), and which has the appearance of having its skin shed. Its name is called chü-t'o. After a thousand days, chü-t'o becomes a bird called kan-yü-ku. The spittle of the kan-yü-ku becomes an insect called ssu-mi. The ssu-mi becomes a wine fly, which produces the insect called i-lu. The insect huang-k'uang produces the insect called chiu-yu. Mosquitos come from the rotten insects called huan. The plant yanghsi paired with the bamboo which for a long time has had no shoot, produces the insect called ch'ing-ning. The ch'ing-ning produces the insect called ch'eng, ch'eng produces the horse, and the horse produces men. Man again goes back into the originative process of Nature. All things come from the originative process of Nature and return to the originative process of Nature. (ch. 18, NHCC, 6:36a-b)

Comment. Is this natural evolution? Hu Shih (1891-1962) thinks so. Whether it is or not, it cannot be doubted that Chuang Tzu conceived reality as ever changing and as developing from the simple to the complex.

Whether or not this is evolution is open to interpretation. It sounds a lot like it, and though the processes Chuang Tzu describes aren't the evolutionary mechanisms we theorize about today, they're remarkably similar to Darwinian evolution in the relationship between species; i.e. one insect being directly connected to another insect, but being indirectly connected to, say, a human.

Chuang Tzu is also referred to as Zhuang Zhou, a name you mentioned. Could Zhuang Zhou (aka Zhuangzi) be Tson Tse? Zhuang Zhou lived in the 4th and 3rd centuries B.C., two centuries ahead of the hypothetical Tson Tse. Yet Nehru says that Tson Tse lived at the same time as the Buddha, whose lifetime is not yet entirely established - he may have lived partly in the 4th century B.C. Nehru could have been mistaken about the date, and even the name of the philosopher - as Wikipedia says (emphasis mine):

Written from prison, where he had no recourse to reference books or a library but his personal notes, Glimpses of World History contains the history of humankind from 6000 BC to the time of writing of the book.

It seems possible that Nehru made a mistake somewhere, and that 2500 years is actually 2300 years.

The one thing missing is the actual quote. Again, Nehru could have been mistaken about this, but I can't find anything resembling the quote anywhere else, besides books that reference the quote as being from Nehru's writings.

  • Good answer. Zhuangzi did not observe speciation in a fossil record, but he definitely anticipated the vastness of change in nature, and the minuscule scale of human history with respect to geological time -- quite an accomplishment for a country with no knowledge of the scientific method.
    – Avery
    Commented May 26, 2015 at 12:58

You must log in to answer this question.