Specious reasoning and clever crafting of definitions can make about anything appear to come true. As John Mackay (1852) observed, “When men wish to construct or support a theory, how they torture facts into their service!” Mackay, J. (1852). Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds.
Some words are innocently created to straight forwardly describe a particular thing but can insidiously take on a life all their own. Our language is filled with words that have departed from their original definitions and are now widely misconstrued and abused. Examples include truth, religion, supernatural, morality, liberal, capitalism, freedom, love…basically all the hot button words and subjects people consider to be their little sacred domains of private belief and interpretation.
Evolution is another example of such a word. In the dictionary, evolution’s first definition is: the process by which something develops into a different form. The word and this meaning predated Darwin’s concept of biological evolution. Here’s how that fact has proven useful in helping to make his case.
Most certainly, things do evolve in the dictionary's pre-Darwinian sense of the word. We evolve as individuals, society evolves, technology evolves, education evolves, the automobile evolves and agriculture evolves. To the uncritical eye, evolution, taken as being synonymous with change, seems to fit well with what all of us experience every day: Homes get built beginning with simple blocks and 2 X 4s, our bank account balance grows slowly, our bodies begin small and get bigger, babies begin with one cell that multiplies into a whole body and anthills grow one grain of dirt at a time. Since everything changes, everything can be said to evolve. How convenient for Darwin’s “evolution.”
He could not have chosen a better word. The case was closed before he ever got into court. Since everything evolves it is not too much of a leap to accept that life evolved. The word itself is tendentious, creating in and of itself reason to believe the theory.
If he had chosen the word transmutation instead of evolution, things might be entirely different. Although transmutation would be a better description of the theory, the unfamiliarity of the word would force people to determine meaning and evaluate that against their own experience. In the larger sense, Darwin’s evolution requires that species transform into one another (transmutate) all the way up from a single-celled organism. Since nobody has ever seen one type of organism transmutate into another, he would have had a much harder sell. On the other hand, saying that “change” is the same thing as biological evolution makes anyone who does not accept Darwin’s evolution, someone who rejects change. In other words, stupid.
Please note that evolution normally implies progressive change. But nothing evolves in that sense without intelligent manipulation. Corn kernels get bigger, evolve, because of intelligent horticulture, home architecture evolves because of intelligent engineering, and mathematics evolves because of mathematicians. That little fact -- that intelligence is needed for things to progressively evolve -- just happened to be left out when Darwin’s evolution was attached to dictionary evolution.
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