Using the term "evolution" in the Darwinian sense before its first appearance in print

Darwin, Charles, English naturalist (1809-1882). Autograph letter signed.

Down, Beckenham, Kent, 11 Nov. [1870].

8vo. 3 pp on bifolium. On Darwin's embossed letterhead (Down, Bromley, Kent, S.E.) with "Bromley" crossed out and changed to "Beckenham" in Darwin's hand.


To Philip Lutley Sclater, who has been reading the proofs of Darwin's "Descent of Man", describing the ornithologist William Henry Hudson (1841-1922) as "a hater of evolution": "I will most gladly accept your kindness. I look at the delay caused as nothing comparatively to the great benefit. I never expected or hoped for many criticisms, but I still hope you will point out any serious error, whatever trouble this may cause to my Printers. I suppose I shall soon receive Revises, but Messrs Clowes [the printers of The Descent of Man] sometimes delay the 2d proofs till 23 of a whole vol. is corrected in first proof.

Mr Hudson's paper is very interesting & it pleases me to see so staunch a hater of evolution a little staggered at the end of his paper [...] I will not now waste quite so much time in trying to find every name quoted in some book; so you will doubly help me".

One of the earliest known examples of the use of the term "evolution" in the Darwinian sense, pre-dating its first appearance in print in "The Descent of Man". Although the term had long been in use in embryology, having been introduced with a specific meaning in 1762 by Charles Bonnet in his "Considerations sur les corps organisées", its use had been avoided by Jean-Baptiste Lamarck in his 1809 work, "Philosophie Zoologique"; likewise, Darwin long resisted its use in the field of ontogenesis (biological development), preferring instead the phrase "descent with modification". In the last sentence of the first edition of "Origin" (1859), Darwin did use the verb "evolved" ("From so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved"), but he had still not yet settled on the term "evolution" to articulate his most important theory. In 1862, three years after the publication of "Origin", Herbert Spencer provided his own ontogenetic definition of the term in "First Principles": "Evolution is a change from an indefinite, incoherent homogeneity, to a definite, coherent heterogeneity; through continuous differentiations and integrations." This definition failed to grasp a principle that Darwin had already recognised - that of adaptive complexity, or the idea that natural selection will tend to favour the evolution of new, specialised varieties. It was this feature that distinguished Darwin's theory from that of Lamarck, as well as from those of Spencer and other contemporaries, and which would become the central organizing principle that biologists use to understand the world.

The word "evolution" occurs for the first time in any of Darwin's printed works in "The Descent of Man" (vol. 1, p. 2), first published on 24 February 1871; Darwin then uses it - as a noun - in the revised 6th edition of "Origin" (published on 19 February 1872).

Original folds, a few toning spots, otherwise fine. Provenance: collection of Sir Edward Ford (1902-86), distinguished physician and philanthropist, Sydney; believed to have been acquired by Ford in London in the 1960s, from either Maggs Bros. or Winifred Myers. Accompanying this Darwin letter is a photocopy of a handwritten letter addressed to Sir Edward Ford from Dr. David Kohn, associate editor of The Collected Letters of Charles Darwin (later the Darwin Correspondence Project), dated 30 January 1978 and asking for copies of the Darwin letters in his collection and his permission for them to be published.

Darwin Correspondence Project, no. 7366.

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