Monday’s New York Times praised Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid for his “evolution from a proponent of gun rights to the shepherd of legislation that would expand background checks, among other gun control measures.” Using “evolution” in that way was not an April Fool’s Day joke: It’s become part of our common language.
The Washington Post has also used “evolution” to describe switches by politicians it likes. For example, it ran a timeline of Obama’s “evolving views on gay marriage.” Before politics escalated in nastiness last year, the Post in 2011 reported that even Mitt Romney had evolved— “from tone-deaf enforcer of doctrine to a more mature and tolerant pastor of the feminists in his flock.”
Last week Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., announced, “Like many Virginians and Americans, my views on gay marriage have evolved, and this is the inevitable extension of my efforts to promote equality and opportunity for everyone.” Pundits tell us that some conservative Christians have also evolved into giving up the same-sex marriage battle.
Headline writers can’t resist tying “evolving” wordplay to the battle over evolution: One recent headline read, “Conservative Leader’s Views Have Evolved: Says ‘Creationism Should Not Be Taught in Schools.’” But headline writers go too far when using the term almost anytime a conservative flip-flops—excuse me, evolves—as in, “It’s OK for Conservative Christians to Evolve on LGBT Equality.”
The problem with overusing “evolves” is two-fold. First, Darwinian evolution is by definition a mindless process: If it’s not, we’re talking about “intelligent design,” not evolution, and that’s praise few politicians deserve. Second, many evolutionary theorists today see mutations as playing an important role in biological change, and “mutation” is a better term than “evolution” to describe a radical change, such as going from biblical to liberal on same-sex marriage.
Most mutations, of course, are harmful, since random change is likely to be destructive rather than positive. Evolution sounds much nicer.