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Darwin-L Message Log 1:32 (September 1993)

Academic Discussion on the History and Theory of the Historical Sciences

This is one message from the Archives of Darwin-L (1993–1997), a professional discussion group on the history and theory of the historical sciences.

Note: Additional publications on evolution and the historical sciences by the Darwin-L list owner are available on SSRN.


<1:32>From DARWIN@iris.uncg.edu  Mon Sep  6 11:02:57 1993

Date: Mon, 06 Sep 1993 12:09:20 -0400 (EDT)
From: DARWIN@iris.uncg.edu
Subject: "Evolution", "change", etc.
To: darwin-l@ukanaix.cc.ukans.edu
Organization: University of NC at Greensboro

A few short notes regarding the terms "evolution", "change", "development",
and their allies: These terms will probably appear frequently here, and it is
worthwhile to reflect on them carefully.  There are many words that refer to
change.  The technical senses of these words are often unfamiliar to people
in different fields, and these technical senses have changed over time also,
of course.  In the mid-19th century and before, the term "evolution" was
primarily an embryological term referring to the individual development of an
organism.  Thus Louis Agassiz, an arch-ememy of Darwin, could say "Of course
evolution occurs", by which he meant the embryological development of
individuals is an important phenomenon in nature.  Darwin himself hardly ever
uses the word "evolution" -- he speaks of "descent with modification" or
"transmutation" most of the time.  The word "evolution" (actually, the word
"evolved") occurs only once in the _Origin of Species_.  "Evolution" as a
term for the historical development of biological species was popularized
primarily by Herbert Spencer (historians of science may correct me here), a
prolific writer and advocate of an almost theological view under which the
whole universe is engaged in a process of universal progress ("evolution").
Spencer's views are extremely far removed from those of evolutionary
biologists today, and he has vanished from the scientific landscape.

"Evolution" today -- that is, the process of biological evolution in the
technical sense -- is distinctive because it is a _populational_ process that
is dependent upon _variation and selection_.  In this technical sense of
biological evolution, individuals are not the things that evolve (though they
do change); it is populations that evolve, and they do so over a period of
generations as the varying individuals that make them up are replaced.  Try
as we might, you and I will never evolve, because you and I are not
populations.  Most evolutionary biologists would probably be comfortable
using the term "evolution" for other processes of change that are
populational and depend upon variation and selection: linguistic "evolution"
is one such process.  Some philosophers of science have also spoken of
intellectual traditions as evolving in the technical sense.  One of the most
thorough expositions of this idea may be found in Stephen Toulmin's book
_Human Understanding_ (1972).  Toulmin's book is a good example of how the
technical notion of evolution can be extended, because it is not a facile
argument about "everything changes and evolves", but is rather a detailed
exposition of the process of diversification in intellectual communities
(populations) written by someone who really understands the biological
process of evolution.  The general topic of populational change in
intellectual communities is sometimes called "evolutionary epistemology".

Bob O'Hara, Darwin-L list owner

Robert J. O'Hara (darwin@iris.uncg.edu)
Center for Critical Inquiry and Department of Biology
100 Foust Building, University of North Carolina at Greensboro
Greensboro, North Carolina 27412 U.S.A.

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