No, E.O. Wilson didn’t invent the term “evolutionary biology”

Screenshot of the OED entry for "evolutionary biology."

Screenshot of the OED entry for “evolutionary biology.”

This View of Life, the evolution-centric online magazine, has a long “conversation” with myrmecologist E.O. Wilson, one of the most prominent evolutionary biologists of the era following the “Modern Synthesis” in the second half of the Twentieth Century, and still one of the leading popularizers of evolution. It’s a long ramble, but worth your reading time, I dare say. Though, to be honest, I only found out about it because of this aside that TVOL highlighted in a tweet:

I can’t say Jim [Watson] and I were friends because I was the only younger professor in what came to be known as evolutionary biology—a term I invented, incidentally—as I started here in Harvard, and it was Jim Watson’s wish that I and other old fashioned biologists not leave the university but find a place elsewhere than the biological laboratories. So we were not on friendly terms. [Emphasis added.]

Wow! No one was using the term evolutionary biology before E.O. Wilson? That would be pretty nifty, but it’s also easy to fact-check. I did it by looking up the phrase in the online Oxford English Dictionary over breakfast. And I found a citation to this, on page 140 of St. George Mivart’s book Contemporary Evolution, an Essay on Some Recent Social Changes, published in 1876:

The second instance is that of the apparent conflict between evolutionary biology and Christian dogma, and indeed, no better test question as to the effect of scientific progress on Christianity could well be devised. [Emphasis added.]

The OED also has a citation from 1920, nine years before Wilson was born, which refers to work by T.H. Huxley, one of the contributors to the Modern Synthesis. [Correction: Whoops, nope, Thomas Henry Huxley isn’t the Modern Synthesis guy; that’s his grandson Julian. I SHOULD HAVE KNOWN THIS.] So, I’d go so far as to say that it looks like evolutionary biology pre-dates Wilson considerably, and was probably even in common use by the time he joined the faculty at Harvard.

Update: Following from Dave Harris’s response on Twitter, I see that evolutionary biology, as a fraction of all mentions of biology in Google’s Ngrams text database, does start climbing upward in the mid-1960s, coincident with Wilson’s early career. Wilson’s work surely contributed to that increase in the use of the term, though I think it’s quite unlikely he’s solely responsible.

Share