Two Definitions of “Evolutionist” and a Way Forward

Lately, I’ve become interested in evolutionary studies in fields other than the natural sciences — evolutionary linguistics, evolutionary cultural studies, evolutionary religious studies — and, as I’ve been reading the literature, I’ve noticed a definition of “evolutionist” that I was previously unfamiliar with, one that is purely descriptive, in contrast to the polemical sense I had known previously.

I had previously only heard the term used in the sense of “someone who believes in evolution, rather than divine creation of the earth,” often with the connotation of “someone who is non- or anti-Christian, and who holds a religious, or near-religious, belief in science.” In this sense, it is mostly a polemical term: evolutionist in contrast with creationist. Here’s an example of evolutionist used in this sense:

In the secular media, for instance, the debate is often described as “creationism vs. evolution,” as if the “ism” should not apply to “evolution.” This is not accurate, because believing in evolution, like believing in creation, requires acceptance of a certain presuppositional dogma and requires placing one’s faith in a story about the unrepeatable past. …

Also, the term “religion” must be defined clearly. While beliefs and worship practices, procedures, and conduct are involved in religion, any belief system that purports to be a total explanation of reality is more-or-less religion. Thus, insofar as it is an attempt to explain why the world is the way it is, held to with ardor and faith, Darwinian evolution can thus be considered religion. …

Authors should be more precise when they—using a qualification—inform the reader of any assumed vertical change (when one kind of living thing is changed into another kind, as Darwinian evolutionists believe has happened regularly throughout life’s history, yet has not been shown).

Creationism vs. Evolutionism: And Attention to Word Meaning,” Answers in Genesis.

However, I’ve recently come across the term in a completely different context: evolutionist as “someone who studies the process of evolution from a scientific standpoint” or “someone who studies a phenomenon using the evolutionary process.” In this sense, the term carries no connotation of belief or disbelief in any faith. It is also a descriptive term; the -ist ending merely describes the person’s object of study, like in chemist, geologistlinguist, etc. For instance:

Early evolutionists could not resist proposing terms such as “savagery,” “barbarism,” and “civilization” for stages of sociocultural development — terms that would not survive the advent of professional anthropology. A second wave of evolutionists . . . could base their controlled comparisons on richer and more systematically collected ethnographic data. …

In its latest incarnation, evolution is seen as multilinear and can even be divided into topics such as cultural evolution, social evolution, and ethnogenesis. …

When general evolutionists need to ensure that their controlled comparisons and contrasts are being carried out on societies of the same level of complexity or sociopolitical integration, they have tended to create shorthand terms for different social forms or types.

Joyce Marcus, “The Archaeological Evidence for Social Evolution,” Annual Review of Anthropology 37 (2008): 251-266. Quote from 252.


On doing a bit more research, it turns out that both senses of evolutionist are very old. The OED cites the Methodist 1866 Ladies’ repository, and gatherings of the West as an example of the term in its polemical sense. It also cites the 6th edition of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species as an example of the descriptive sense. It is worth noting, though somewhat unsurprising, that the polemical sense has mostly shown up in Christian literature, while the descriptive sense is more or less contained to scientific literature.

One wonders whether the difference in definitions is a contributing factor to strife between non-evolutionist Christians and non-Christian evolutionists. On the surface, they seem to be using the same terminology, but they have loaded the words with two completely different connotations. Maybe a first step to mutual understanding and acceptance would be for the two groups (or representatives thereof) to sit down, unpack the terms from each side’s viewpoints, and hammer out a single definition that both can agree on.

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