The word evolution has changed its meaning during the past century with the introduction of Darwinian theories. Despite this change in use, many of the connotations and nuances of meaning of older uses have been carried over to the present day. The word evolution is sometimes used today as a crude amalgam of two uses of the word, and is therefore often misused. In The Anthropology Journal, Herbert Spenson uses one of the words for the contemporary meaning of evolution. The mistake of assuming that Darwinianesk’s evolution is a forward, upward force is typical of the common misuse of the word.
Keywords, by Raymond Williams, analyzes the history of changes in the use of the word evolution. Evolution, Williams explains, is derived from the French word evolution, which is derived from the Latin evolutionem. This Latin root word means to unroll a book (the Romans used scrolls as books). This rather limited definition was soon expanded to mean the revelation of an unknown but complete plan. In 1762, the word was popularized by Bonnet in his theory of evolution. Evolution came to mean the development “from [A] rudamencia to maturity [state]” (Williams, 120). This transition communicated a shift from a lower level of development to a higher one. When Darwin basically 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 adapt to its circumstances, its new state was not intrinsically better. In fact, two animals in different circumstances can evolve in opposite directions without contradiction. The definition of evolution that had opposite meanings.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines Evolution in many different ways. The first definition given is “The prose of unfolding, opening, or withdrawing from an envelope.” I never came across the word evolution used this way, and this certainly is not a dominant meaning. One must go to definition number six before standard usage is introduced. The dictionary clearly separates the different uses of evolution and outlines their appropriate use. In common parlance, these distinctions are not always respected.
Herbert Spenson wrote an article in The Anthropology Journal that uses evolution in a way that mixes the Pre-Darwinian 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 “advance” and “superior” also bring the idea of evolution as progress from a lower state to a higher state. He is that mixes different different definitions.
The word evolution has gone through many changes in the definition. The OED seeks to incorrectly order its definitions in terms of contemporary importance, but includes all historical uses of the word. One of the common contemporary uses of the word evolution is a combination of the last two meanings of the word, Bonnet’s and Darwin’s. Words gradually change their meaning, often with each new usage overlapping with earlier usage. Therefore, as in the case of the word evolution, words often have more than one meaning at a time.