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The evolution of the word ‘evolution’

It is curious that, although the modern theory of evolution has its source in Charles Darwin’s great book On the Origin of Species (1859), the word evolution does not appear in the original text at all. In fact, Darwin seems deliberately to have avoided using the word evolution, preferring to refer to the process of biological change as ‘transmutation’. Some of the reasons for this, and for continuing confusion about the word evolution in the succeeding century and a half, can be unpacked from the word’s entry in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED).

Evolution before Darwin

The word evolution first arrived in English (and in several other European languages) from an influential treatise on military tactics and drill, written in Greek by the second-century writer Aelian (Aelianus Tacticus). In translations of his work, the Latin word evolutio and its offspring, the French word évolution, were used to refer to a military manoeuvre or change of formation, and hence the earliest known English example of evolution traced by the OED comes from a translation of Aelian, published in 1616. As well as being applied in this military context to the present day, it is also still used with reference to movements of various kinds, especially in dance or gymnastics, often with a sense of twisting or turning.

In classical Latin, though, evolutio had first denoted the unrolling of a scroll, and by the early 17th century, the English word evolution was often applied to ‘the process of unrolling, opening out, or revealing’. It is this aspect of its application which may have been behind Darwin’s reluctance to use the term. Despite its association with ‘development’, which might have seemed apt enough, he would not have wanted to associate his theory with the notion that the history of life was the simple chronological unrolling of a predetermined creative plan. Nor would he have wanted to promote the similar concept of embryonic development, which saw the growth of an organism as a kind of unfolding or opening out of structures already present in miniature in the earliest embryo (the ‘preformation’ theory of the 18th century). The use of the word evolution in such a way, radically opposed to Darwin’s theory, appears in the writings of his uncle, Erasmus Darwin, in Zoonomia (1801).

The world…might have been gradually produced from very small beginnings…rather than by a sudden evolution of the whole by the Almighty fiat.

Use of ‘evolution’ elsewhere

Charles Darwin’s caution, however, was futile—the word was ahead of him. By the end of the 18th century, evolution had become established as a general term for a process of development, especially when this involved a gradual change (‘evolutionary’ rather than ‘revolutionary’) from a simpler to a more complex state. The notion of the transformation of species had become respectable in academic circles during the early 19th century, and the word evolution was readily in hand when the geologist Charles Lyell was writing Principles of Geology (Second Edition, 1832):

The testacea of the ocean existed first, until some of them by gradual evolution, were improved into those inhabiting the land.

By the 1850s, astronomers were also using the word to denote the process of change in the physical universe, and it would inevitably become central to the reception of Darwin’s work.

‘Evolution’ in Darwin’s theory

Once Darwin’s theory had been published to widespread debate and acclaim, discussion was often made more difficult by the persistent assumption that evolution must necessarily involve some kind of progress or development from the simple to the complex. This notion was present in the account of évolution in human society by the French philosopher Auguste Comte, and it was central to the metaphysical theories of the English speculative philosopher Herbert Spencer. Already in 1858, a year before On the Origin of Species appeared in print, Spencer was enthusiastically endorsing ‘the Theory of Evolution’— by which he meant the transformational theory of Lamarck, which Darwin’s work was set to supersede — and his keen advocacy of Darwin’s theory led to some confusion between Darwin’s ideas and his own. Even now, biologists have frequently had to explain that the theory of evolution concerns a process of change, regardless of whether the change can be regarded in the long run as ‘progress’ or not.

Nevertheless, despite his reluctance to call evolution by that name, Darwin did famously dare to use the corresponding verb for the very last word in his book:

From so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.

A version of this blog post first appeared on the OxfordWords blog.

Image Credit: “Origin of Species” by Paul Williams. CC BY NC 2.0 via Flickr.

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