On 24 November 1859 Charles Darwin published his monumental work On The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, changing the face of biology. Although he only used the words once at the very end of the book, the words evolve and evolution is synonymous with Darwin. The word evolution had been used in a scientific sense specifically in biology for over a hundred years before Darwin wrote Origin of Species-which is one reason why he avoided it. By the mid 1850s, the word had connotations of perfectability-something Darwin wanted to avoid. It was the last sentence of his book:
There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed 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 word evolution arrived in English in 1620 and comes from the Middle Latin word evolutionem (nomnitive form evolutio) meaning the unrolling of a book or revealing that which was rolled up. The Latin evolvere meaning to unroll could also pertain to other ‘hidden’ things (see also for example the etymology of vulva), but mostly meant books, when a ‘volume’ was a rolled up manuscript made from vellum.
Image of the first edition cover in the public domain.