The Evolution of Evolutionary Language: The Imago Dei Project

The Evolution of Evolutionary Language: The Imago Dei Project October 25, 2013

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.

The British philosopher Herbert Spencer was actually the one to make “evolution” famous. In his First Principles (1862) and Principles of Biology (1866), he announced his bold, all-encompassing “Law of Evolution”: a theory of universal change always “advancing” and “progressing.” (Preformationism had lost its credibility; hence Spencer could give “evolution” a radical new meaning.) Here is Spencer in First Principles:

This law of organic evolution is the law of all evolution. Whether it be in the development of the Earth, in the development of Life upon its surface, in the development of Society, of Government, of Manufactures, of Commerce, of Language, Literature, Science, Art, this same advance from the simple to the complex, through successive differentiations, holds uniformly.

Where is Darwin in all this, you might be wondering. Astonishingly to us today, Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859) contains not a single use of the word “evolution.” The book’s final word is “evolved,” but used in a non-technical sense. “Development” appears sparingly, and “progress” is nearly absent.

In Darwin’s mind (and language), his theory was one not of “evolution” but of “the descent and modification of species by means of natural selection.” Darwin, who chose his words with exceeding care, wrote that species “struggled” to “compete” for life in a battle of the “survival of the fittest.”

Spencer had no such caution about his language or his theories. He embraced Darwin’s theory of natural selection in the expansive arms of “evolution,” and soon the terms progress, development, and evolution were connected not only with Spencer’s large-scale vision of society’s advancement but with Darwin’s minute and careful observations as well.

Despite Darwin’s reluctance to label his theory in terms of either development or evolution, these were the labels soon affixed to it. During the 1870s, as both Spencer’s and Darwin’s writings rapidly gained popularity, Spencer’s evolution began to become the popular name for what Darwin had discovered. By the end of the century, Darwin’s theory of natural selection — its scientific validity now generally recognized — had become “the theory of evolution.”

So wildly positive did the word “evolution” become that people grabbed it up for nearly everything. By 1900, books were being titled The Evolution of the Thermometer, The Evolution of the Massachusetts Public School System, The Evolution of Morality, and even The Evolution of the Idea of God.

Yes, God was now an evolving “idea,” not the Creator of heaven and earth. This demotion was not the doing of Darwin (who, as a scientist, refused to speculate on theological matters) but of popular culture. Throughout the twentieth century, the replacement of God and “transcendent purpose” by “evolutionary development” continued. So, for instance, the celebrated evolutionary biologist Julian Huxley wrote in 1953: “Medieval theology urged men to think of human life in the light of eternity — sub specie aeternitatis: I am attempting to rethink it sub specie evolutionis.

Today’s Secular Humanism is a direct descendent of Spencer and Huxley. It affirms (as on the Council for Secular Humanism’s website) that “supernatural entities like God do not exist,” that “reliable knowledge is best obtained… using the scientific method,” and that “ethical principles should be evaluated by their consequences for people, not by how well they conform to preconceived ideas of right and wrong.” Secular humanists see themselves “as undesigned, unintended beings who arose through evolution, possessing unique attributes of self-awareness and moral agency.”

Reading this as a Christian believer, I’m not scornful or dismissive, but saddened. Positing human life without God seems to me to truncate our lives, to deny our souls’ innate longings and fulfillments. I agree that “reliable knowledge is best obtained through the scientific method,” but “knowledge” is not how we reach God. God touches our hearts; God is our ultimate caregiver, our deepest love, the ground of our being.

So I don’t try to argue with secular humanism. But I’m troubled by problematic language and behavior encouraged by popularizations of humanistic evolution. I recall pop psychology in the 1980s prescribing stages of individual human “development” that were treated as scientific laws. As “laws,” they became imperatives: “you must continually change in order to “grow.” “Self-actualization” was the goal, aggrandizing the self above all else and producing a generation of navel gazers.

“Developmental psychology” has moved beyond these imperatives. But “development” still connotes progress. (That’s why companies who tear out forests to build housing tracts call themselves “developers.”) And “evolution” is still with us, still carrying — amazingly — Spencer’s conviction of a natural law of inexorable advance. This pseudo-science grounds recent books I’ve browsed, with titles like The Evolution of Cooperation, The Evolution of Desire and (yes, again) The Evolution of God.

From his heavenly home, Darwin must be viewing these books with a scowl.

Peggy Rosenthal is director of Poetry Retreats and writes widely on poetry as a spiritual resource. Her books include Praying through Poetry: Hope for Violent Times (Franciscan Media), and The Poets’ Jesus (Oxford). See Amazon for full list. She also teaches an online course, “Poetry as a Spiritual Practice,” through Image’s Glen Online program.

This post was made possible through the support of a grant from The BioLogos Foundation’s Evolution and Christian Faith program. The opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of BioLogos.


Art Used: Peter Foucault Evolution Series #1, mixed media collage on paper, 32″x40″, 2009.

"I an confused by the use of "aural" here: "In The Gutenberg Galaxy, he explained ..."

The Gutenberg Imagination
"My friend is looking for a Pepper Smith he served in the army with, was ..."

The Love Song of Pepper Smith
"Jesus love you dear sneha abraham dear not he will with you forever amen"

Take, Eat

Browse Our Archives

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Anne

    Hi Peggy–
    Natural Selection is a random process in which mutations may or may not make an organism better able to adapt to its environment. Utilitarianism (the best for the most) promotes engineered consequences–a better mouse trap. It’s based on the model of mechanics not evolution. In fact, Jeremy Bentham was articulating the principles of Utilitarianism at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution and about a hundred years before the publication Darwin’s Origin of the Species.

    I agree with you that the Man as Machine philosophy (tune up and self-actualize; trade a gene and gain a few points on the IQ score; etc., etc.) blinds us to the divine and alienates us from our souls.

    • Peggy Rosenthal

      Anne, thanks for this background on Utilitarianism. It confirms my sense that the history of these concepts (all popular concepts) is much more complex than we usually realize.

    • Aimee Holbrook

      Evolution and genetics, which looks at the driving force of evolution, are, as sciences, neutral regarding the notion of progress. One cannot dictate popular word usage, but scientists themselves generally try to be careful about implying judgments when they use scientific terms. As such, when words like ‘development’ and ‘evolution’ are used scientifically, they do not inherently assert that later forms are ‘better’ or ‘more advanced,’ though implicitly, they do usually signify ‘better adaptation to conditions.’

      Religious belief and science obviously offer radically different interpretations of existence. But they are not necessarily mutually exclusive. To understand ‘god’ as an idea that has developed/evolved/unfolded over time and space is not sad at all, but an augmentation of how we understand our existence and within it, our human preoccupations. It does not negate the possibility of a god or gods at all. Not to acknowledge that or to be ‘saddened’ by that frame of reference is simply the result of narrow thinking.

      • Peggy Rosenthal

        Yes, Aimee, scientists (like Darwin!) do choose their words carefully. My interest is not in scientific language per se, but in what happens to it when it becomes popularized.

        I completely agree with you that the interpretive views of science and religion are not mutually exclusive. I agree also that human ideas of God have changed over the centuries and across cultures. But these nuances are not in the books that I name, nor in the Secular Humanist credo that I quote. What “saddens” me in that credo is the blunt statement that “supernatural entities like God do not exist.” No room there for the helpfully nuanced view that you offer.

    • Peggy Rosenthal

      Anne, thanks for this background on Utilitarianism. It confirms my sense that the history of these concepts (all popular concepts) is much more complex than we usually realize.

  • Maureen

    Word origin and usage are fascinating subjects. One of the first books to interest me in the subject was James Lipton’s “An Exaltation of Larks” (I have a 1968 edition). In his introduction, Lipton quotes Elizabeth Drew: “Language is like soil. However rich, it is subject to erosion, and its fertility is constantly threatened by uses that exhaust its vitality….”

    As always, a thoughtful, insightful, and interesting read, Peggy.

    • Peggy Rosenthal

      Maureen, I love your quote from Drew. It recalls for me Emerson’s “language is fossil poetry.”

  • Greenfxd

    Maybe a small quibble but the term “survival of the fittest” should most likely be attributed to Spencer and not Darwin. Spencer used it to describe Darwin’s natural selection and only later did Darwin use it when agreeing with Spencer’s characterization. I believe Spencer first used it in 1864 and it did not appear in Darwin’s writings until 1869.

    • Peggy Rosenthal

      Thanks for adding these details that I didn’t have space for in my post. Yes, Darwin took the phrase “survival of the fittest” from Spencer, first using it in the 1868 edition of The Origin of Species — though the concept of “struggle” among species is there from Darwin’s first (1859) edition.

  • ortcutt

    Developmental Psychology is the branch of psychology that describes human cognitive development throughout the lifespan. It doesn’t make normative claims about “self-actualization”. a term used by Abraham Maslow, who was not a developmental psychologist.

    • Peggy Rosenthal

      Thanks for this clarification. Maslow’s “stages of development” toward “self-actualization” did have a huge impact on popular psychology in the 1970s, though. I’m thinking of Gail Sheehy’s book “Passages,” for instance.

  • Y. A. Warren

    And in the “evolution” of humanity, Jesus said that we share The Sacred Spirit that many call “God” through human involvement with other humans.

    • Peggy Rosenthal

      Yes, that’s a lovely way to put it. Thanks for bringing in this dimension of human evolution.

      • Y. A. Warren

        You’re welcome. I’m hoping we can eventually stop fighting about how “God” looks and whether or not all humanity is fully “evolved” and work for our own evolution into the fullness of The Sacred Spirit in our own humanity. You are welcome to visit my blog

  • shareman