The Meaning of “E V O L U T I O N”
by Alexander Mebane
Is it really true that "all life on Earth has developed by
evolution"? Yes, no, and maybe. It depends on what meaning you assign
to the protean word “evolution”; so we had better begin by exhibiting
its possible ambiguities.
I) The original meaning was the unfolding, or working-out, of
something potentially present at the outset, like the unrolling of a
written scroll, or the development of an embryo into a baby. (In 1866,
Ernst Haeckel made the famous pseudoscientific claim that that
development illustrates the evolution of life on Earth ("ontogeny
recapitulates phylogeny")—a notion that is no longer taken seriously by
anyone.) "Evolution" in this sense would apply to the very implausible
hypothesis that all subsequent evolutionary changes were somehow
compressed or "pre-programmed" into the very first living cell, so that
its later development into the vast "Tree of Life" was no more than the
natural unfolding of a future already predetermined in that first
ancestral organism, without need of any further causative agents. This
looks so much like a reductio ad absurdum that theorists such as
Denton (Nature's Destiny) and Ruffié (Traité du Vivant)
would undoubtedly deny advocating any such absurdity--though we ought to
recall how obviously "impossible" it looks that a barely-visible
fertilized egg, or zygote, could contain within itself, without need for
any external direction, all of the agencies needed to transform itself,
in nine months, into a human baby!
If life's development is thought to have been directed over time
not solely by its origin, yet by some supposedly single and
self-consistent external agent (called "God"), we have the picture known
as "theistic evolution"—which, since it is interpreted as the unfolding
over time of a single consistent intention, might still be called an
"evolution" in the original sense of the word.
II) However, the term "evolution" as now usually understood has
come (rather improperly) to designate something quite different:
Lamarck/Darwin’s hypothesis that all life-forms have "evolved". by
unbroken genealogy, from earlier ones by a process of gradual
transformation, thus producing a continuous, though branching, "Tree
of Life"—envisioned by Darwin, and also by late Lamarck, as having
sprouted from a single primordial “root" organism. Lamarck, closer to
the original definition, had invoked as transforming agent a
metaphysical élan vital prompted by an organism's
life-experience; but Darwin replaced that by the very important
scientific postulate that all transfomations have been affected
naturally, by merely accidental gene-altering agencies--of which
life-experience is not one.
Does the fossil record prove this continuous metamorphosis to be
true, as you have undoubtedly seen asserted? No. As paleontologists
have always known, but only for the past generation have dared to say,
it proves it to be false: species do not "gradually
evolve” out of earlier ones, but are seen to be suddenly-appearing,
discrete, and permanently-stable entities. This really-observed
non-Darwinian process has been given (by Gould and Eldredge, 1972) the
somewhat opaque name of "punctuated equilibria”.
III) You will sometimes see the word "evolution"
employed in a quite different (and really improper and tendentious)
third way, as designating merely "the real history of the life-forms
that have inhabited Earth, as we can decipher it from the fossils they
have left in the rocks". When evolutionists declare that "evolution is
a fact", it is this (illegitimate) sense of the word that they tacitly
have in mind; but they hope you will take it in Sense II.
IV) We might retain the name "evolution" (as paleontologists still
though now designating the really-observed process of sudden new-species
advents in one discontinuous step, rather than by Darwin/Lamarck's
supposed continuous meta-morphosis. Is this only a modification of
Darwin' s Sense-II evolution—or something essentially different? That
depends on whether the speciation process is really (as they claim) a
wholly-natural one, each new species having been brought into being
solely by Darwin's accidental causes, and thus derived by strict
genealogy from a single "parent" species.
That Darwinian explanation, however, is in reality a decidedly
questionable one, as will be made evident in what follows. If the
origin of species is in truth an event brought about not by natural
causes but by artifice (as would seem likely to be the case), we
would then have to speak either of "artificial evolution" or of
continual creations"--an idea long known to theologians under the name
of "successive (or "progressive") creation".
Yet, if (as Christians, Jews, and Muslims are required to believe)
all the billions of species have been produced by the intentions of a
single divine Designer, that perpetual artificial process might not
unreasonably be described as a stepwise sort of "theistic
evolution"--and, thus, an "evolution" not in Sense II but in the
original sense of the word!
However, the real evidence makes it far easier to believe that a
great multitude of DNA-sculptors, generally working at cross-purposes,
must really have been responsible for the "creations". If that is the
case, such a non-consistent species-originating process conforms to
neither Sense I nor Sense II, and could still be called evolution only
in the inappropriate purely-historical sense noted above under III.
 See Jeffrey Schwartz's Sudden Origins (1999).
 As it is used by EIdredge in his Triumph of Evolution (2000).