Charles Darwin will forever be associated with the “Theory of Evolution,” but while Darwin is the father of modern evolutionary theory, he is not the first to use that term to describe the gradual change in living things over time.
The word evolution is from the Latin evolutionem, which meant the unrolling of a scroll (book). It was used metaphorically to describe the orderly playing out of preordained events. From Henry More’s Complete Poems (1647):
Evolution Of outward forms spread in the worlds vast spright.
And from his Divine Dialogues of 1667:
The whole evolution of...ages, from everlasting to everlasting, is...represented to God at once.
The use of evolution to describe biological processes of change dates to at least 1670, when the word appeared in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society:
By the word Change [in Insects] is nothing else to be understood but a gradual and natural Evolution and Growth of the parts.
In 1762, biologist Charles Bonnet used the term evolution to describe the theory of embryological development. Bonnet believed that each embryo grew from a little homunculus contained within the egg, with each homunculus containing eggs, each carrying its own homunculus, and so on like a set of Russian nesting dolls. In this theory, now commonly called the theory of preformation to avoid confusion with Darwin’s idea, genetic development and change was preordained.
But others used the term before Darwin to describe a process more akin to what would later be propounded by Darwin, only without the critical concept of natural selection which was what made Darwin’s theory revolutionary. Charles Lyell, in his 1832 Principles of Geology wrote:
The testacea of the ocean existed first, until some of them by gradual evolution, were improved into those inhabiting the land.
And from Herbert Spencer’s Developement [sic] Hypothesis from 1852 (in a statement that applies equally well today to the hypotheses of Creationism and Intelligent Design):
Those who cavalierly reject the Theory of Evolution, as not adequately supported by facts, seem quite to forget that their own theory is supported by no facts at all.
Finally, Darwin published his Origin of Species in 1859:
At the present day almost all naturalists admit evolution under some form.
While Darwin did use the term evolution in a general sense, he avoided calling his idea evolution, preferring descent with modification:
Passing from these difficulties, the other great leading facts in palæontology agree admirably with the theory of descent with modification through variation and natural selection. We can thus understand how it is that new species come in slowly and successively; how species of different classes do not necessarily change together, or at the same rate, or in the same degree; yet in the long run that all undergo modification to some extent.
Darwin wished to distance himself with the earlier ideas that the development of species was the metaphorical unrolling of some scroll in an orderly progression of preordained events. Darwin’s natural selection is not orderly; it is haphazard and chaotic. Nor did Darwin’s theory have room for a preordained path of development. If species became more complex, it is because complexity benefited survival. Given slightly different circumstances, speciation could just as easily go the other way—from the complex to the simple. There are no guarantees, no “higher” or “lower” organisms. Humans are at the top of the food chain because we are the best adapted, not because of any plan.
But the term was too well established to be avoided and Darwin’s theory was labeled as evolution.
I can think of no better way to finish this article than with the closing words of The Origin of Species:
There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone circling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved.
(Sources: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition; Stephen Jay Gould’s “Darwin’s Dilemma: The Odyssey of Evolution” in Ever Since Darwin)
Copyright 1997-2015, by David Wilton