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Gradualism is the belief in or the policy of change by gradual, often slow stages.

Geology and biology[edit]

In science, gradualism is a theory which holds that profound change is the cumulative product of slow but continuous processes, often contrasted with catastrophism. The theory was proposed by James Hutton and was later incorporated into Charles Lyell's theory of uniformitarianism. Tenets from both theories were applied to biology and formed the basis of early evolutionary theory.

Charles Darwin was influenced by Lyell's uniformitarianism and theorized that the evolutionary process must occur gradually, and not in saltations. The gradualist view of evolution has been very critical of saltationism.

Phyletic gradualism[edit]

Phyletic gradualism is a model of evolution which theorizes that most speciation is slow, uniform and gradual. It is often associated with the neo-Darwinian synthetic theory of evolution. The term was coined by Stephen Jay Gould and Niles Eldredge to contrast with their model of punctuated equilibrium.


In politics, gradualism is ideal of gradual reform rather than change through revolt or other sudden means. In American history, it often refers specifically to proposals for a slow phasing-out of slavery, or later of racial segregation.


  • Bowler, Peter J. (2003). Evolution: The History of an Idea. University of California Press
  • Mayr, Ernst; Provine, W. B., eds. (1998). The Evolutionary Synthesis: Perspectives on the Unification of Biology. Harvard University Press.