Saturday, April 05, 2008

PoE: 1.1.2. The original meaning of "evolution"

This is subsection 1.1.2. The original meaning of "evolution," of my online book outline, "Problems of Evolution."

[Left: Albrecht von Haller (1708-1777), coiner of the word "evolution" in biology, Wikipedia]

References are supported by the `tagline' quotes below (emphasis italics original, emphasis bold mine).

© Stephen E. Jones, BSc. (Biology).



1.1. What is evolution?

1.1.2. The original meaning of "evolution"

The word "evolution" is based on the Latin verb evolvere from the noun evolutio , "to unroll." (Bowler, 1989, p.9; Gould, 1978, p.34; 2002a, p.243; Jaki, 1988, pp.188-189; Weiner, 1994, pp.8-9). It was coined in 1744 as a biological term by the Swiss biologist Albrecht von Haller (1708-1777), to describe the preformationist theory that embryos grew from homunculi enclosed in the egg or sperm (Gould, 1977, pp.28-29, 1978, p.34). "Evolution" in this sense meant the progressive unfolding of structures that were already present in a prepackaged form (Bowler, 1989, p.9; Jaki, 1988, p.189).

Early evolutionists saw the growth of the embryo as a model of the how living organisms ascend via a fixed program of progressive development towards a predetermined goal (Bowler, 1989, p.9). However, Charles Darwin (1809-1882) rejected the teleological implication of a process that was directed toward a goal, such as man (Bowler, 1989, p.9). Therefore Darwin did not use the word "evolution" in his Origin of Species (1859-1872) , only using "evolved" as its very last word (Gould, 1978, pp.34-36; 2002a, p.243). Despite this, some Darwinist popularisers promote "evolution" in this original sense, so as to be able to claim that "evolution" is occurring "daily and hourly, all around us, and we can watch." (Weiner, 1994, pp.8-9)!


Stephen E. Jones, BSc. (Biology).
My other blogs: TheShroudofTurin & Jesus is Jehovah!

"Bonnet is often credited with the first use of `evolution' as a biological term (Osborn, 1929; Carneiro, 1972). Yet Haller coined it in 1744 as a name for preformationism: `But the theory of evolution proposed by Swammerdam and Malpighi prevails almost everywhere [Sed evolutionem theoria fere ubique obtinet a Szuammerdamio et Malphighio proposita] ... Most of these men teach that there is in fact included in the egg a germ or perfect little human machine ... And not a few of them say that all human bodies were created fully formed and folded up in the ovary of Eve and that these bodies are gradually distended by alimentary humor until they grow to the form and size of animals. (Cole, 1930, p. 86; Adelmann, 1966, pp. 893-894)' Haller had made a sound etymological decision, for the Latin `evolutio' denotes an unrolling of parts already existing in compact form, as in a scroll or the fiddlehead of a fern (Bowler, 1975)." (Gould, S.J. , 1977, "Ontogeny and Phylogeny," Belknap Press: Cambridge MA, pp.28-29).

"Even the word `evolution' is of little use to us here because it has been given many different meanings (Bowler, 1974). The Latin evolutio means `to unroll' and implies no more than unpacking a structure already present in a more compact form. The first biological use of the term `evolution' was to describe the growth of the embryo in the womb, which many people today still imagine to be a kind of small-scale model of the more general process of life's development on earth. Many early embryologists, however, believed that the growth of the embryo was no more than the expansion of a preformed miniature of the complete organism, already present in the fertilized ovum. This would be a process of a character quite unlike the popular image of progressive evolution, although it could quite aptly be described by the original Latin meaning. By 1800, this `preformation theory' had been discredited, and the evolution of the embryo was thought to be a goal-directed process by which a complex structure was built up out of unformed matter. This comes closer to the modern idea of evolution, but it is important to note that by using the growth of the embryo as a model, one is given the impression that living structures ascend a fixed pattern of development toward a predetermined goal. The earliest applications of the word `evolution' to the history of life on earth carry a similar implication because many nineteenth-century naturalists thought that the embryo recapitulates the ascent of life toward the pinnacle of creation: man." (Bowler, P.J., 1989, "Evolution: The History of an Idea," [1983], University of California Press: Berkeley CA, Revised edition, p.9).

"The progressionist implication was retained in a rather different form by the philosopher Herbert Spencer, the person who did most to popularize the term `evolution' in its modern context. Spencer advocated a system of cosmic progress, which included a theory of the inevitable evolution of life toward higher forms. Darwin's theory came to be tagged `evolution,' even though he seldom used the term himself; and most people still imagine that evolution is an essentially progressive process. Both Darwin and Spencer made an important step beyond the embryological concept because they believed the process was open-ended, rather than directed toward a single goal such as man. Spencer still insisted that evolution involved a necessary advance toward higher levels of organization, thus introducing a more sophisticated concept of progress. But Darwin was suspicious even of this, because he felt that the concept of biological progress was very difficult to define. The popular idea of evolution as progress is now seen to be inadequate on two counts. It is ambiguous, because we can define progress either as a movement toward a predetermined goal or in terms of ascending levels of general complexity. It is also misleading, because some interpretations of evolution involve only change, without implying any form of progress." (Bowler, 1989, p.9).

"I shall trace how organic change came to be called evolution. ... To begin with a paradox: Darwin, Lamarck, and Haeckel-the greatest nineteenth-century evolutionists of England, France, and Germany, respectively-did not use the word evolution in the original editions of their great works. Darwin spoke of `descent with modification,' Lamarck of `transformisme.' Haeckel preferred `Transmutations-Theorie' or `Descendenz-Theorie.' Why did they not use `evolution' and how did their story of organic change acquire its present name? Darwin shunned evolution as a description of his theory for two reasons. In his day, first of all, evolution already had a technical meaning in biology. In fact, it described a theory of embryology that could not be reconciled with Darwin's views of organic development. In 1744, the German biologist Albrecht von Haller had coined the term evolution to describe the theory that embryos grew from preformed homunculi enclosed in the egg or sperm (and that, fantastic as it may seem today, all future generations had been created in the ovaries of Eve or testes of Adam, enclosed like Russian dolls, one within the next-a homunculus in each of Eve's ova, a tinier homunculus in each ovum of the homunculus, and so on). ... Haller chose his term carefully, for the Latin evolvere means `to unroll'; indeed, the tiny homunculus unfolded from its originally cramped quarters and simply increased in size during its embryonic development. ." (Gould, S.J., 1978, "Darwin's Dilemma," in "Ever Since Darwin: Reflections in Natural History," Penguin: London, Reprinted, 1991, p.34).

"`Evolution' as a description of Darwin's `descent with modification' was not borrowed from a previous technical meaning; it was, rather, expropriated from the vernacular. Evolution, in Darwin's day, had become a common English word with a meaning quite different from Haller's technical sense. The Oxford English Dictionary traces it to a 1647 poem of H. More: `Evolution of outward forms spread in the world's vast spright [spirit].' But this was `unrolling' in a sense very different from Haller's. It implied `the appearance in orderly succession of a long train of events,' and more important, it embodied a concept of progressive development -an orderly unfolding from simple to complex. The O.E.D. continues, `The process of developing from a rudimentary to a mature or complete state.' Thus evolution, in the vernacular, was firmly tied to a concept of progress. Darwin did use evolve in this vernacular sense-in fact it is the very last word of his book.

There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling 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. [Darwin, C.R., "On the Origin of Species: A Facsimile of the First Edition," Harvard University Press: Cambridge MA, 1975, pp.489-490]

Darwin chose it for this passage because he wanted to contrast the flux of organic development with the fixity of such physical laws as gravitation. But it was a word he used very rarely indeed, for Darwin explicitly rejected the common equation of what we now call evolution with any notion of progress. In a famous epigram, Darwin reminded himself never to say `higher' or `lower' in describing the structure of organisms-for if an amoeba is as well adapted to its environment as we are to ours, who is to say that we are higher creatures? Thus Darwin shunned evolution as a description for his descent with modification, both because its technical meaning contrasted with his beliefs and because he was uncomfortable with the notion of inevitable progress inherent in its vernacular meaning.." (Gould, 1978, pp.35-36).

"`Evolution,' from the Latin evolvere, literally means `to unroll'-and clearly implies an unfolding in time of a predictable or prepackaged sequence in an inherently progressive, or at least directional, manner. (The `fiddlehead' of a fern unrolls arid expands to bring forth the adult plant-a true `evolution' of preformed parts.) The Oxford English Dictionary traces the word to seventeenth-century English poetry, where the key meaning of sequential exposure of prepackaged potential inspired the first recorded usages in our language. For example, Henry More (1614-1687), the British poet and philosopher responsible for most seventeenth-century citations in the OED, stated in 1664: `I have not yet evolved all the intangling superstitions that may be wrapt up.' The few pre-Darwinian English citations of genealogical change as `evolution' all employ the word as a synonym for predictable progress. For example, in describing Lamarck's theory for British readers (in the second volume of his Principles of Geology in 1832), Charles Lyell generally uses the neutral term `transmutation'-except in one passage, when he wishes to highlight a claim for progress: `The testacea [shelled invertebrates] of the ocean existed first, until some of them by gradual evolution were improved into those inhabiting the land.' Although the word evolution does not appear in the first edition of the Origin of Species, Darwin does use the verbal form `evolved'-clearly in the vernacular sense and in an especially prominent spot: as the very last word of the book! " (Gould, S.J., 2002, "What Does the Dreaded `E' Word Mean Anyway?," in "I Have Landed: Splashes and Reflections in Natural History," Vintage: London, Reprinted, 2003, p.243).

"It often happens that when a Greek or Latin word is given a new lease on life in one of the major modern languages, and especially in English, the original meaning of the word may be replaced by a rather different one. This is particularly the case when a word, which was a strongly transitive verb in the classical context, is resuscitated as a generic noun in the modern diction. The word evolution is a case in point. The root of that all-important modern noun is the Latin verb evolvere. Whether used by historians like Tacitus and Livy or by poets like Ovid and Catullus or by philosophers like Lucretius, Seneca, and Cicero, the verb evolvere either meant to eject something with a rolling or coiling motion, or to cause something to flow out or roll out from somewhere, or to unwind something, or to unwrap or uncover something. In all these cases it was clearly assumed that the thing or the object of the action had already been there. Only one and uncertain case is found in classical Latin literature for the noun form evolutio of the verb evolvere according to the testimony of the two-volume Oxford Latin-English dictionary." (Jaki, S.L. , 1988, "Monkeys and Machine-Guns: Evolution, Darwinism, and Christianity", in "The Absolute beneath the Relative and Other Essays", University Press of America: Lanham MD, pp.188-189).

"Today more and more evolutionists are doing what Darwin thought impossible. They are studying the evolutionary process not through fossils but directly, in real time, in the wild: evolution in the flesh. `Evolution' comes from the Latin evolutio, an unrolling, unfolding, opening. Biologists are observing year by year and sometimes even day by day or hour by hour details of life's unrolling and opening, right now. ... Taken together, these new studies suggest that Darwin did not know the strength of his own theory. He vastly underestimated the power of natural selection. Its action is neither rare nor slow. It leads to evolution daily and hourly, all around us, and we can watch." (Weiner, J., 1994, "The Beak of the Finch: A Story of Evolution in Our Time," Alfred A. Knopf: New York NY, pp.8-9).

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