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From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Evolution is a term with many meanings. For instance, Merriam-Webster lists biological evolution as one meaning out of a total of six.

Evolution is not exclusively a term of biology. There are also evolutionary economics, evolution of languages, evolution of networks, and many other fields of science where systems evolve by quasi-random generation and selection of individuals within a population. The concept of evolution itself has evolved.

In natural languages, economic innovation, chemistry, physics and other fields, the term is often used in a nonbiological way. There is quite a body of theory and thought behind this broader scientific view on evolution where biological evolution would be just another case of this broader view on evolution.

This broader view does not define evolution in the narrow biological sense of mutation, random crossover and natural selection. A broader perspective is necessary, because that is not how languages and economic innovations evolve, for example. In chemistry, the term evolution is often used to refer to the production of a gas in a chemical reaction, but a process like natural selection is not involved. Other examples of the use of the term in fields outside of biology include stellar evolution, cultural evolution, and the evolution of an idea.

Etymology and historical meaning

The word stems from the Latin term evolutio meaning "unfolding" and prior to the late 1800s was confined to referring to goal-directed, pre-programmed processes such as embryological development. A pre-programmed task, as in a military maneuver, using this definition, may be termed an "evolution." By the 20th century, the dominant concept associated with the word "evolution" was biological evolution, which had originally been known as "transmutation."

Confusion in defining biological evolution

One of the main sources of confusion and ambiguity in the creation-evolution debate is the definition of evolution itself. In the context of biology, evolution is simply the genetic change in populations of organisms over successive generations. However, the word has a number of different meanings in different fields, from evolutionary computation to chemical evolution to sociocultural evolution to stellar and galactic evolution. It can even refer to metaphysical evolution, spiritual evolution, or any of a number of evolutionist philosophies. When biological evolution is mistakenly conflated with other evolutionary processes, it can result in errors such as the claim that modern evolutionary theory says anything about abiogenesis or the Big Bang.[1]

In colloquial contexts, evolution can refer to any sort of progressive development, and often bears a connotation of gradual improvement: evolution is understood as a process that results in greater quality or complexity. This common definition, when misapplied to biological evolution, leads to frequent misunderstandings. For example, the idea of devolution ("backwards" evolution) is a result of erroneously assuming that evolution is directional or has a specific goal, or that it necessarily leads to greater complexity. In reality, the evolution of organisms does not entail objective improvement; advancements are only situational. It is not part of the theory of evolution to consider any one species, such as humans, to be more "highly evolved" or "advanced" than another. Likewise, evolution does not require that organisms become more complex. Depending on the situation, organisms' complexity can either increase, decrease, or stay the same, and all three of these trends have been observed in biological evolution.[2]

Creationist sources frequently use evolution in a colloquial, rather than scientific, meaning while attacking the scientific concept. This often leads to the promotion of misunderstandings by creationists.[1][3]


  1. ^ a b Moran, Laurence (1993). What is Evolution?
  2. ^ Scientific American; Biology: Is the human race evolving or devolving?
  3. ^ Doolan, Robert (1996). "Oh! My aching wisdom teeth!" Answers in Genesis.


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