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Good Letters

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.

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 progressiveevolution 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 orevolution, 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 mustcontinually 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.


Join in the conversation about evolution and Christian faith by visiting the BioLogos symposium at Patheos. Click here for more on Image’s BioLogos colloquy.

The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Written by: Peggy Rosenthal

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.


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

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