Evolution (term)

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The English noun evolution (from Latin ēvolūtiō "unfolding, unrolling") refers to any kind of gradual change.

It is used in biology, of biological evolution, in economics, historical linguistics, and many other technical fields where systems develop or change gradually over time, e.g. stellar evolution, cultural evolution, the evolution of an idea, metaphysical evolution, spiritual evolution, etc.

The English term prior to the late 19th century was confined to referring to goal-directed, pre-programmed processes such as embryological development. A pre-programmed task, as in a military maneuver, using this definition, may be termed an "evolution."

The term evolution (from its literal meaning of "unfolding" of something into its true or explicit form) carries a connotation of gradual improvement or directionality from a beginning to an end point. This contrasts with the more general development, which can indicate change in any direction, or revolution, which implies recurring, periodic change.

By the 20th century, the dominant concept associated with the word "evolution" was biological evolution as proposed by Charles Darwin and others from the mid-19th century, which had originally been known as "transmutation." As a consequence, the adjective "evolutionary" came to refer to processes that imitate or parallel the mechanism of biological evolution, as in e.g. evolutionary computation. The use of "evolution" rather than "transmutation" for the evolutionary history of life is motivated by the observation of generally increasing complexity over geologic time scales. This may be misleading, as biological evolution is not strictly a "goal-directed, pre-programmed process" and in the short term consists merely of situational adjustments, which may also result in a decrease of complexity. The term devolution (or "backwards" evolution) is coined as an antonym to evolution, indicating such degeneration or decrease in quality or complexity.

In the context of the US American "creation-evolution debate", where "Creationism" and "Evolutionism" are contrasted as ideological worldviews, the term evolution (sometimes capitalized as Evolution) strictly refers to biological evolution, the process of random mutation coupled with natural selection, not the general meaning of the term. By the 21st century, evolution has the meaning of the result of self-organization of patterns in complex systems. It applies from matter formation to, eventually, life.

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