By contributor Phin Upham
The word evolution has changed its meaning over the past century with the introduction of Darwinian theories. Despite this shift in usage, many of the connotations and shades of meaning of older usages have carried over to today. The word evolution is sometimes used today as a crude amalgamation of two usages of the word and is thus often misused. In The Anthropology Journal Herbert Spenson uses one of the word evolution’s contemporary meaning. He mistake of assuming that Darwinianesk evolution is a forward, upward moving force is typical of the common misuse of the word.
Keywords, by Raymond Williams, analyzes the history of the changes in usage of the word evolution. Evolution, Williams explains, is derived for the French word évolution, which is derived from the Latin evolutionem. This Latin root word means unrolling a book (the Romans used scrolls as books). This rather limited definition was soon broadened to mean the revealing of an unknown but already complete plan. In 1762, the word became popularized by Bonnet in his theory of evolution. Evolution came to mean the development “from [A] rudamentry to mature [state]” (Williams, 120). This transition connoted a move from a lower to a higher level of development. When Darwin formally introduced his theory of evolution in The Origin of Species in 1854, he used the word in a different way. Evolution for Darwin was not progress but adaptation. Thus an animal evolved to better suit its circumstances, its new state was not inherently better. In fact, two animals in different circumstances can evolve in opposite directions without contradiction. The definition of evolution thus had competing meanings.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines Evolution in many different ways. The first definition given is “The prosses of unfolding, opening out, or disengaging from an envelope.” I have never run across the word evolution used in this way, and this is certainly not a dominant meaning. One must go to definition number six before the standard usage is introduced. The dictionary clearly separates the different uses of evolution and delineates their appropriate use. In common language these distinctions are not always respected.
Herbert Spenson wrote an article in The Anthropology Journal which uses evolution in a way which mixes the preDarwinian and Darwinian aspects of the word. “The opposable thumb evolved, through natural selection, as a superior tool for the advancement of the species.” His reference to natural selection gives evolution a distinctly Darwinian flavor, and yet his ideas of ”advancement” and “superior” also brings in the idea of evolution as a progression form a lower state to a higher one. He is thus mixing different definitions.
The word evolution has gone through many changes in definition. The OED seems to incorrectly order its definitions in terms of contemporary importance but includes all the historical usages of the word. The one of the common contemporary usages of the word evolution is a combination of the two latest meanings of the word, that of Bonnet and that of Darwin. Words change meaning gradually, often with each new use overlapping the old uses. Thus, as in the case of the word evolution, words often have more than one meaning at a time.
“Evolution.” Oxford English Dictionary. 1970.
Williams, Raymond. Keywords. (1983). New York: Oxford University Press.
Herbert, Spenson. (1992, Sep). The History of Man. The Anthropology Journal. 23-34.
About the Author
Phin Upham is a New York based author and investor who is a frequent Academic Ledger contributor.