Evolution: The Original Meaning

The Origin of Evolution

The word “evolution” came from the Latin word evolutio, meaning unrolling or unfolding, as in unrolling a scroll.

Before the codex was developed, the scroll had been the major form of written text in the ancient world. The scrolls were typically rolled up for storage and transportation. The text within the scroll is thus hidden and cannot be read, so one must first unroll the scroll to peruse the text.

When it comes to sacred texts revered by adherents of religions or collectible texts cherished by people of some means, their storage devices are oftentimes elaborately designed works of art. It is always a solemn occasion when such a scroll is opened.

Unrolling of History

The Scroll of History in 2008 Beijing Olympics

From evolutio, one derives the meaning of evolution as the unrolling of human history, as if a script has been opened for all, both to read and to write in it. The ancient Greeks and Romans were familiar with this metaphor, as I’ve written previously On the World as a Stage; The Chinese beautifully and awesomely showcased their history in the Opening Ceremony of Beijing Olympics, in which a giant scroll is unrolled to symbolize one of the oldest civilizations in the world.

The unfolding of history is revealed in the Bible as well. There is “a scroll with writing on both sides and sealed with seven seals”, which only the Lamb is worthy to open (Rev. 5). I think it signifies that God is the Supreme Playwright, the Author of History. In his magnum opus City of God, St. Augustine posits the dual nature of human history: one is the open history of the old creation in Adam, and the other is the hidden history of the new creation in Christ. They run in parallel from the beginning of time to the end of time, just like the writings on both sides of the scroll.

Evolution as Unfolding

Another meaning of evolutio is unfolding, as in the unfolding of a seed. It has fascinated and perplexed philosophers and scientists alike, because it suggests an actualization of a potentiality, the cause of which is difficult, if not impossible, to discern.

There was a consensus among ancient Greek philosophers that being cannot come from non-being. According to Plato, the souls of men are immortal, for otherwise they cannot comprehend abstract Forms such as Goodness, Truth and Beauty which are eternal and substantial; according to Aristotle, for every effect, there is at least one pre-existing cause; for every thing that comes to be in actuality, there is a pre-existing potentiality. In other words, nothing comes from nothing.

The difficult question is: what causes something to change from an abstract form to a concrete entity, or, from potential existence to actual existence?

Abstract mathematical models can accurately describe the physical universe, but they don’t cause the universe to come into existence; they can describe motion or change, but they don’t cause motion or change. We may think of the history of the universe as the unfolding of time and space from an initial state of extreme density, as per the Big Bang theory. But we don’t know what has caused this unfolding.

One thing may precede another in time, but it doesn’t necessarily mean the former is the cause of the latter. For example, a person comes from the unfolding of an embryo, which in turn comes from a single cell called zygote. In one sense, the genome in the zygote is the cause of the person, because the human form is determined by its genomic blueprint, however, the genome is not a sufficient cause of the person, because it has neither the matter (the building blocks), nor the agent of change (the builder).

Evolution and the Creator

Plato attributes the cause of generation and motion to the demiurge, Aristotle to the Unmoved Mover, both notions are similar to the Christian theistic notion of Creator in some respect.

Darwin also seems to suggest that evolution of life forms need the Creator. Incidentally, he did not use the word evolution in the first edition of On the Origin of Species. The word “evolved” appeared only once at the very end of the book:

There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.

The phrase “by The Creator”, though absent in the first edition, is present in the definitive 6th edition. A parallel can be drawn between the verbs in passive tense, “been breathed” and “been evolved”, for they both imply an agent, the Creator.

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4 thoughts on “Evolution: The Original Meaning

  1. Nice post, Nemo. Defining terms is important in starting any discussion, as Plato has taught us. 🙂 It seems to me that evolution, as an unfolding of physical science history, does not undermine a Creator.

    Do you think Darwin invoked a creator at the end of his book in order to appease the religious community or do you think it was genuine?

    1. I can’t presume to know Darwin’s motives. He seems to acknowledge the need of an active agent in evolution, by the use of passive voice in the last paragraph. It was implied at first, but later made explicit.

      Twenty years after the publication of Origin, he wrote in a letter, “It seems to me absurd to doubt that a man might be an ardent theist and an evolutionist.” Apparently Darwin was among the first to believe in theistic evolution.

      1. In re-reading this post, I am wondering if Theistic Evolution isn’t just a variation of deism.

        This also stuck out to me in re-reading:

        “There is “a scroll with writing on both sides and sealed with seven seals”, which only the Lamb is worthy to open (Rev. 5). I think it signifies that God is the Supreme Playwright, the Author of History.”

        I cannot count how many times I have read the Revelation, but I have never associated the scroll with the unrolling of history. Nice.

      2. In re-reading this post, I am wondering if Theistic Evolution isn’t just a variation of deism.
        I think it depends on whether the person believes in the Divinity of Jesus.

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