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On the Useful Instability of the Word “Evolution”

Joshua Youngkin

David Klinghoffer recently lamented that, for Darwinists, “evolution is a word that can mean anything.” He pointed out that, in using the term “evolution,” paleoanthropologist Richard Leakey was in one context seemingly trying to convey merely the idea that “life has changed.” In another context, using the same term, law professor Jonathan H. Adler was trying to convey the idea of evolution as a marker of “tribal” identity. Klinghoffer observed the different usage, and wondered at it.
Yes, in light of these two examples, and many others one could offer, it is clear that Darwinists (and non-Darwinists, for that matter) can mean anything by “evolution,” and often do. But that in itself is no big deal. It happens all the time, all over, that different people use the same word to convey different ideas to different audiences in order to serve different purposes. That this is so, and that this is no big deal, has been well understood by linguists and philosophers of language since Ludwig Wittgenstein and J.L. Austin, if not before. You probably understand this, too.
For example, you may already know that lawyers among themselves use the term “agreement” to transmit a set of ideas and serve a set of purposes foreign to most non-lawyers. That’s not obscurantism, not deliberately at least. It’s just how the trade works, how it conducts its business. There’s no obligation in the abstract to bring outsiders in, no requirement to “define terms” in an inclusive way. If you want in, you have to buy training in the language of the law, which might as well be French though it looks outwardly like English.
Unsurprisingly, then, when talking to his peers a paleoanthropologist may mean one thing by “evolution,” whereas a lawyer talking to his peers may mean another. Again, that’s no big deal. Let them talk to their people how they want. Who are we to demand otherwise?
David’s concern, I think, is that Darwinists use the term “evolution” in various and even conflicting ways in order to occasionally serve less-than-noble purposes. It’s almost as if Darwinist usage of the term “evolution” is sometimes meant to keep skeptics and even the public guessing, as if to avoid a fair fight on the evidence about a stable, commonly understood set of propositions. Why would anyone want to do that?

Joshua Youngkin

An attorney, and previously, Discovery Institute Program Officer in Public Policy and Legal Affairs.