In this article, the author says:

Evolution isn’t “leading up” to anything, it just drunkenly limps along using the same set of tricks in slightly different orders.

On other occasions, however, the term "evolution" is often deployed as a process that develops gradually, typically from a simple to a more complex form, or from not adapted to more specialized and "fit".

These contrasting interpretations of evolution make me wonder how I should interpret "to evolve" and "evolution" in the context of processes involved in speciation?


closed as off-topic by terdon, Bez, James, rg255, Chris Jan 16 '15 at 15:08

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    $\begingroup$ Do you mean that the word is misused in biology, in the dictionary defintion, or in public/general use? To me, this is unclear from the question. 'Evolve' is certainly used in different ways with different meanings. $\endgroup$ – fileunderwater Jan 16 '15 at 13:08
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    $\begingroup$ @Ooker that is one particular modern definition, which doesn't take etymology or historical use into account. Look at merriam-webster.com/dictionary/evolve, oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/evolve and collinsdictionary.com/dictionary/english/… for other definitions, more in line with the biological use of the term. $\endgroup$ – fileunderwater Jan 16 '15 at 13:41
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    $\begingroup$ I think this may be off-topic because it is about semantics, not biology. $\endgroup$ – terdon Jan 16 '15 at 14:25
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    $\begingroup$ In any case, as has already been pointed out to you, you cite just one definition and even that one only states that it is "especially from a simple to a more complex form." That does not mean exclusively. Other definitions include the specific meaning used in biology. Also, dictionaries do not define words. Usage defines words and those definitions are then included in dictionaries. Finally, there are many examples of evolution leading from a simple to a more complex organism, just like your definition suggests. I don't see an issue here. $\endgroup$ – terdon Jan 16 '15 at 14:41
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    $\begingroup$ @Ooker The premise of your question is based on a misunderstanding. Biology uses the word "evolution" to mean something. Dictionaries that fail to record that definition are deficient. It's not the biologists who are deficient. You can trace the etymology of the word and muse about whether or not the initial usage in biological contexts was appropriate, but for a word that's as established as this one is now, there's really little point in disputing it. $\endgroup$ – Mr. Shiny and New 安宇 Jan 16 '15 at 15:49

A couple of comments, but maybe not an answer; I think misuse is the wrong word - alternative meaning is better. 'Evolve' as a word is much older than the theory of evolution, and has its origin in the Latin evolvere:

evolve (v.) 1640s, "to unfold, open out, expand," from Latin evolvere "to unroll, roll out, roll forth, unfold," especially of books; figuratively "to make clear, disclose; to produce, develop,"
from assimilated form of ex- "out" (see ex-) + volvere "to roll" (see volvox). Meaning "to develop by natural processes to a higher state" is from 1832. Related: Evolved; evolving.

from Online Etymology Dictionary. Implicit in that definition is the laying out of something predetermined, which can relate to going from simpler to more complex.

Also note that Darwin only used the word 'evolve' once in On the Origin of Species (1859), in the final 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.

The implication of progress was one reason why Darwin disliked the word 'evolve' and preferred "descent with modification".

The same root was then used as a name to the theory of Evolution, but then in a much more specific sense than the older, general meaning.

If you look back at the etymology above, it is quite clear that biological evolution (The Modern synthesis version) emphazise the connotations 'expand', 'produce' and 'develop', but not the 'unroll' and 'unfold' parts (which both to some extent imply something predetermined).

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    $\begingroup$ As far as I remember, Darwin also wanted to avoid the hard confrontation with the church by not using evolving. $\endgroup$ – Chris Jan 16 '15 at 12:54
  • $\begingroup$ @Chris Quite possible, but I don't know if this was a stated motivation. Do you know of an account from Darwin that express this concern? $\endgroup$ – fileunderwater Jan 16 '15 at 13:10
  • $\begingroup$ @fileunderwater - it was most definitely the reason for his vagueness, and perhaps the only reason. As far as I know, people were hanged for questioning the 7-day Creation back in the days. $\endgroup$ – AliceD Jan 16 '15 at 13:17
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    $\begingroup$ @ChrisStronks Sure, but his book was just as inflammatory by stating "descent with modification". Did the church use the word 'evolve' themselves in any way, or is there any account that they reacted particularly strongly to this word? I'm not saying that this wasn't the reason, I'm only wondering if there is any proof/account that this was the reason. The older implication of progress is a good enought reason for Darwin to dislike the term. $\endgroup$ – fileunderwater Jan 16 '15 at 13:50
  • $\begingroup$ As far as I know he was concealing the true meanings by talking around it. Just as Sir Wallace did before him (Darwin stood on the shoulders of giants himself). If you are interested I can look up references? $\endgroup$ – AliceD Jan 16 '15 at 13:55

Great question

I think evolution and its derivatives are among the most misconceived and abused terms in Biology. Evolution is often seen as the driving force that pushes life to perfection. For example, what I often encounter are things along the line: "Organism A has trait X, A has been evolving for Y years, thus X is evolved into a useful and optimal token for survival, so we have been exploring X... bladibla". No - the trait X is there because it may be useful at present, or it has been useful in the past, or perhaps it is simply there because it occurred by chance and hasn't proved detrimental in Y years. Evolution is not only survival of the fittest (X is optimized), it is, and probably even more so, the extermination of the unfit (X is not detrimental). The "termination of the unfit" may, in fact, be more apt than "survival of the fittest", as survival depends on out-competing (and hence terminating) others. The interpretation of evolution as "survival of the fittest" is, however, the most encountered interpretation, perhaps unfortunately.

  • $\begingroup$ do all biologists aware of this when they use the word evolve? $\endgroup$ – Ooker Jan 16 '15 at 14:11
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    $\begingroup$ @Ooker - no, otherwise they would be more careful using the term :) $\endgroup$ – AliceD Jan 16 '15 at 14:25
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    $\begingroup$ @Ooker actually, biologists are quite careful when using the term. It is just horribly abused by the popular press. Things like "more evolved" for example will not be used by people working in the field. $\endgroup$ – terdon Jan 16 '15 at 14:28
  • $\begingroup$ @terdon I have seen in many biological contexts, evolve means "optimizing", as Christ Stronks says. $\endgroup$ – Ooker Jan 16 '15 at 15:16
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    $\begingroup$ I don't agree with your interpretation. Survival of the fittest implies death of the non-fittest by modus tollens. $\endgroup$ – March Ho Jan 19 '15 at 13:08

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