The Evolution of Evolutionary Language: The Imago Dei Project

I’m a word-watcher. I like noticing which words are winning the popularity contest in our general culture, then tracing back how (and why) they achieved this winning position.

Take “development.” Folks who were once “fundraisers” are now “development directors.” Formerly “backward” countries are now “developing countries.” The United Nations promotes “sustainable development.” And so on.

“Development” is so popular because it connotes progress—a steady movement toward a worthy goal. But it didn’t begin life this way. Around 1600, “development” entered English via French, meaning “unfold.” Carrying this idea of inner latency, it was adopted by the early nineteenth century European Romantics to articulate their theories of organic growth.

Around mid-century, development’s “unfolding” picked up the idea of “progress”: of unfolding to a higher condition. And so it became a natural term for the newly emerging concepts of evolution.

Etymologically, develop and evolve are nearly identical. But eighteenth century biologists had taken “evolution” as the name for their static view that all forms of life were pre-formed by God at creation. So as pre-Darwinian concepts of progressive evolution began to emerge, “evolution” had the wrong connotations for them. “Development,” though, with its association of organic growth toward a higher state, was perfect for this vision of a changing, transforming natural universe.

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