Scientists use the word evolution when describing the genetic adaptation of species to the environment as a result of natural selection, breeding and mutation. Nearly everyone attributes the word to the famed naturalist Charles Darwin (1809 -1882). In reality, Darwin preferred the jaw-breaking phrases “transmutation by means of natural selection” or “modification with descent” to describe his theory. Darwin buffs tend to reflexively remind us that Charles did use the word "evolved" in the last sentence of his masterpiece, The Origin of Species. Nevertheless, the scientific term evolution, as we understand it today, did not really establish itself in the public's imagination until after the book’s publication in 1859.
Evolution's Latin root, or evolutio, describes the unrolling or unfolding of a scroll, or ancient book. English usages of the word have varied widely across time, from the military to the mathematical. Its entry into the scientific lexicon, however, can be dated to the early 18th century when embryologists chose to describe the development of an embryo as an evolution—or unfolding and expansion—of pre-existing parts.
In 1832, the geologist Charles Lyell (1797-1875) wrote about "evolution" in the modern scientific sense as he discussed and rejected Jean-Baptiste Lamarck’s (1744-1829) transmutation theory; it appeared in his Principles of Geology, a multi-volume tome that influenced both Darwin and his rival, Alfred Wallace (1823-1913). A number of mid-to-late 19th century scientists studying the fossil record and natural history used evolution to describe a progressive change, from lesser to better and ultimately perfect, because it fit nicely with their religious beliefs that God created each species individually. Darwin, on the other hand, was far more agnostic about doctrines of progressive change, let alone the existence of an ultimate creator.
The august Encyclopedia Britannica cemented the word into the popular culture in 1878 when it commissioned the eloquent T.H. Huxley (1825-1895), often referred to as "Darwin's Bulldog," to write an entry titled "Evolution in Biology." Credit must also go to Herbert Spencer (1820-1902) who espoused a philosophy often called Social Darwinism. His universal theory explained evolution as the positive, progressive development of the physical planet, living organisms, the human mind, and human societies and culture. Most famously, Spencer coined the phrase “survival of the fittest” as a warning against humanitarian impulses for the "down and out" members of society because they interfered with natural law.
A few weeks ago, while muddling the many meanings of evolution, I made a pilgrimage to Darwin’s home in Kent, 15 miles away from the bustle and grime that was -- and is -- London. Charles lived at Down House from 1842 until his death in 1882, during which time he conducted his research, wrote his influential books, took comfort in his family and suffered from a variety of debilitating maladies. Standing before his cluttered desk, a century and a half after The Origin of Species became a scientific best-seller, I was compelled to recite the book's last sentence:
"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."
Once cannot leave Darwin's home without being impressed by his remarkable intellectual influence. But we might also tip our hats to the ancient Romans, for whom evolution meant the unrolling of a scroll telling a complex tale. This, it seems to me, is the perfect descriptor for science's never-ending quest to understand the natural history of life in all its glorious forms.