I was talking about evolution with my friends and one of them said:

The word "evolution" joined the English vocabulary after Darwin used it. The word itself is pretty new, therefore.

Is that true or did the word have a very long origin before Darwin?

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    I thought Darwin called it "descent with modification"?
    – user3065
    Commented Nov 6, 2011 at 12:59
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    As pointed out in the top answer to this question, Darwin was by no means the first to conceive of the concept of evolution, let alone the word. His own grandfather, for example, was pretty hot on the subject. Commented Nov 6, 2011 at 15:30
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    @barrycarter: Darwin actually uses the word evolution (and indeed, evolutionists) many times in On the origin of species Commented Nov 6, 2011 at 15:35
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    @FumbleFingers: Darwin use of evolution/evolutionists/evolved may depend on the edition of The Origin of Species. In the 1859 edition, I can only spot the last word. That had changed by 1872, presumably because Darwin was responding to public debate and its use by others.
    – Henry
    Commented Nov 6, 2011 at 15:49
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    @Henry: I only skimmed thru the guttenburg copy, but it did rather look as if Darwin was responding to criticism, so 'you're probably right. And it is the "sixth edition", apparently - but it does say in the prologue 6th Edition is often considered the definitive edition. Commented Nov 6, 2011 at 20:42

3 Answers 3


Use etymonline.com to look up evolution and you'll find that yes, "the word had a very long origin way before Darwin":

1620s, "an opening of what was rolled up," from L. evolutionem (nom. evolutio) "unrolling (of a book)," noun of action from evolvere (see evolve). Used in various senses in medicine, mathematics, and general use, including "growth to maturity and development of an individual living thing" (1660s). Modern use in biology, of species, first attested 1832 by Scottish geologist Charles Lyell. Charles Darwin used the word only once, in the closing paragraph of "The Origin of Species" (1859), and preferred descent with modification, in part because evolution already had been used in the 18c. homunculus theory of embryological development (first proposed under this name by Bonnet, 1762), in part because it carried a sense of "progress" not found in Darwin's idea. But Victorian belief in progress prevailed (along with brevity), and Herbert Spencer and other biologists popularized evolution.


Darwin did not use the word 'evolution' in any of his books or essays. He referred to his theory as 'modification with descent'. He used the phrase 'natural selection'. He may have used the phrase 'survival of the fittest' once or twice instead of 'evolution', though I am not sure.

Note: If you can find any verbatim quote from Darwin where he explicitly uses the word 'evolution', then please let us know !-)

'Evolution' was used before Darwin for more judicious reasons. The word has a sort of value judgement embedded in its meaning. Darwin purposely avoided value judgements when developing his theory. He was developing a general theory. He presented a lot of hypotheses when presenting his theory. However, the process that he describes is ethically neutral. 'Origin of the Species' has about as much moral purpose as 'Newtons Principia'.

Haekel was probably the person most responsible for the misuse of the word 'evolution'. Haeckel was an atheist but with mystical beliefs that he imposed on 'descent with modification'. He used the word evolution to denote 'modification with descent' maybe because there is a value judgement implicit in the word 'evolution'. Anyway, he had this theory that 'ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny' which he supported with great fervor.

Haekel used the word evolution to describe both 'modification with descent (i.e., phylogeny) with developmental change of the individual (i.e., ontogeny). In his view, there was a mystical force that guided both ontogeny and phylogeny.

Haekel was a great popularized of Darwin's theory. He was the one who combined Tildmann's recapitulation theory with Darwin's theory of 'modification with descent'. Darwin later accepted recapitulation theory but presented many qualifications. Darwin explicitly said that ontogeny

Haekel had a lot of racist and nationalist ideas that he folded into his theory. Sometimes, he presented his ideas in an exaggerated way that is sometimes referred to as fraud. However, he there may not have had conscious intent in doing so. In any case, he often tried to sweep facts under the rug when challenged.

Darwin accepted parts of his theory with reservations. Darwin claimed many times that recapitulation theory was only true sometimes. He specifically said that it could not apply when the juvenile state of the organism was under intense selection pressure. For instance, 'ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny' could not be true for insects in the larval stage because the larva are under different selection pressures than the adult. So Darwin could not be blamed for all the excesses perpetuated by Haekel.

I do not know exactly where Haekel got the word 'evolution', but he used it a lot. He could have gotten the word from scientists working on embryology, which started before Darwin. One scientist who preceded both Darwin and Haekel were Tildeman.

If it wasn't Haekel who coined the word evolution, it could be an earlier biologist. The German biologist, Tildmann, really did the pioneering work on embryos in development. He also wrote a monograph showing that Negroes could not be intellectually inferior to Caucasians. Lots of the experimental work on development really started with Tildeman. I suggest that he could have coined a German version of the word 'evolution'.

Other words that have been greatly misused have been falsely attributed to Darwin. The word 'mutation' is also attributed to Darwin very often. Darwin never used the word 'mutation'. He used the phrase 'spontaneous variation' for 'de nova mutations'. He used the phrase 'inherited variation' to include variations caused by recombination. He did not use the words 'gene' or 'allele'.

The word evolution is used in physics, although not in the same sense as biology. For instance, the mathematics of quantum mechanics has a concept referred to as an 'evolution operator'. Evolution operators are sometimes used in thermodynamics. On occasion, it is even used in classical mechanics. There is a model in quantum mechanics recently developed referred to as 'quantum Darwinism'. There is no value system inherent in the physicist's definition of the word 'evolution'.

If you can blame Darwin for using the word 'evolution', then surely you should blame Newton for using the word 'evolution'. Newton is not at fault for using the word 'evolution', although his theory has been described using the words. Darwin's Theory of 'modification with descent', like Newtonian mechanics, is a very general theory. Words used to describe both theories were added later as new discoveries were made. In fact, the word evolution has been used to describe orbital mechanics. I am sure that Newton never used the word evolution to describe the motion of a system of particles. However, mechanical systems evolve according to certain rules, too.

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    Hi. Please take my comment as a constructive criticism. I would suggest you to pay attention to the formatting. I tried to edit this time. I also see some unfinished sentences, you can finish them. (for example, at the end of the 6th paragraph). You are right that Darwin did not use the word ‘evolution’ to describe his theory; in fact he only used the word ‘evolved’ once in his book.
    – ermanen
    Commented May 19, 2015 at 23:48
  • While Darwin may not have used "evolution", he did use the verb evolve: "from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved." - Origin of Species. Commented Jan 7, 2016 at 16:01
  • TL;DR - 1) Yes, 'evolution' was a word before Darwin 2) the modern use (for the theory Darwin proposed) is similar but not the same as how it was used by Darwin or others in 1859 and before.
    – Mitch
    Commented Jul 31, 2019 at 12:57


This is the link for the eBook On the origin of species - 6th Edition. In this book I tried to find whether Darwin has mentioned the term Evolution. In this attempt I found few places where he used the term. But those incidents were to refer about the naturalists who spoke on Evolution as a theory before him. Further he has used the term evolutionist. These days I am writing a paper on "Notion of Evolution". In this paper I will be discussing on early usage of the term and Ancient Philosophers describing the same idea in different words. In my opinion whole world is lost in understanding of evolution because of their narrow idea of Darwin and his theory of Natural Selection.

I need a great support to finish the work without errors and as a complete work. Therefore I humbly request from you, if you are interested in the subject to help me.

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    Sorry but that's now what the 'answer' parts here are for.
    – M.A.R.
    Commented Jan 7, 2016 at 11:20
  • You seem to have misunderstood the nature of this site. It answers questions on specific points of the English Language. (Your answer here actually contains an answer to the question as asked, at the top of the page -- Darwin uses the term, so it's likely to pre-date him.)
    – Andrew Leach
    Commented Jan 7, 2016 at 11:20

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