In the natural sciences, gradualism is the theory which holds that profound change is the cumulative product of slow but continuous processes, often contrasted with catastrophism. The theory was proposed in 1795 by James Hutton, a Scottish geologist, 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 Principles of Geology, which explained both uniformitarian methodology and theory. Using uniformitarianism, which states that one cannot make an appeal to any force or phenomenon which cannot presently be observed (see catastrophism), Darwin theorized that the evolutionary process must occur gradually, not in saltations, since saltations are not presently observed, and extreme deviations from the usual phenotypic variation would be more likely to be selected against.
Gradualism is often confused with the concept of phyletic gradualism. It is a term coined by Stephen Jay Gould and Niles Eldredge to contrast with their model of punctuated equilibrium, which is gradualist itself, but argues that most evolution is marked by long periods of evolutionary stability (called stasis), which is punctuated by rare instances of branching evolution.
Phyletic gradualism is a model of evolution which theorizes that most speciation is slow, uniform and gradual. When evolution occurs in this mode, it is usually by the steady transformation of a whole species into a new one (through a process called anagenesis). In this view no clear line of demarcation exists between an ancestral species and a descendant species, unless splitting occurs.
Punctuated gradualism is a microevolutionary hypothesis that refers to a species that has "relative stasis over a considerable part of its total duration [and] underwent periodic, relatively rapid, morphologic change that did not lead to lineage branching". It is one of the three common models of evolution. While the traditional model of palaeontology, the phylogenetic model, states that features evolved slowly without any direct association with speciation, the relatively newer and more controversial idea of punctuated equilibrium claims that major evolutionary changes don't happen over a gradual period but in localized, rare, rapid events of branching speciation. Punctuated gradualism is considered to be a variation of these models, lying somewhere in between the phyletic gradualism model and the punctuated equilibrium model. It states that speciation is not needed for a lineage to rapidly evolve from one equilibrium to another but may show rapid transitions between long-stable states.
In politics, gradualism is the hypothesis that social change can be achieved in small, discrete increments rather than in abrupt strokes such as revolutions or uprisings. Gradualism is one of the defining features of political liberalism and reformism. In Machiavellian politics, congressmen are pushed to espouse gradualism.
In socialist politics and within the socialist movement, the concept of gradualism is frequently distinguished from reformism, with the former insisting that short-term goals need to be formulated and implemented in such a way that they inevitably lead into long-term goals. It is most commonly associated with the libertarian socialist concept of dual power and is seen as a middle way between reformism and revolutionism.
Martin Luther King, Jr. was opposed to the idea of gradualism as a method of eliminating segregation. The government wanted to try to integrate African-Americans and European-Americans slowly into the same society, but many believed it was a way for the government to put off actually doing anything about racial segregation:
This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy.
–Martin Luther King Jr.'s I Have a Dream speech, delivered August 28, 1963 at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC
In linguistics, language change is seen as gradual, the product of chain reactions and subject to cyclic drift. The view that creole languages are the product of catastrophism is heavily disputed.
Gradualism has also been used in a religious sense, especially in the Catholic Church (specifically, in ethics and moral theology), to describe the view that certain individuals and families that make up a parish or community may be living at various points along a line extending from being in a state of mortal sin, to being at least minimally in the "state of grace" and able to receive the Eucharist, and to a level of greater holiness. This view teaches that the lives and relationships of people with morally unacceptable lifestyles may have some elements of good, even of great good, such as sacrificial love and consistent respect. It holds that virtues are not all-or-nothing propositions, and that elements of good may be found even in the context of morally unacceptable situations. Catholic clergy who espouse this view include the Bishop of San Diego, California, Robert W. McElroy, who in 2016 wrote:
The principle of gradualness reaches far beyond the question of marriage to embrace all elements of the Christian moral life, for it really is an embodiment of the pastoral method of the Lord himself. Pope Francis repeatedly cites the example of Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well as a prism through which to construct the Church’s outreach to young couples, a prism which embraces them in their humanity and their love, rather than categorizing them as living in sin.
Gradualism is the approach of certain schools of Buddhism and other Eastern philosophies (e.g. Theravada or Yoga), that enlightenment can be achieved step by step, through an arduous practice. The opposite approach, that insight is attained all at once, is called subitism. The debate on the issue was very important to the history of the development of Zen, which rejected gradualism, and to the establishment of the opposite approach within the Tibetan Buddhism, after the Debate of Samye. It was continued in other schools of Indian and Chinese philosophy.
Contradictorial gradualism is the paraconsistent treatment of fuzziness developed by Lorenzo Peña which regards true contradictions as situations wherein a state of affairs enjoys only partial existence.
Gradualism in social change implemented through reformist means is a moral principle to which the Fabian Society is committed. In a more general way, reformism is the assumption that gradual changes through and within existing institutions can ultimately change a society's fundamental economic system and political structures; and that an accumulation of reforms can lead to the emergence of an entirely different economic system and form of society than present-day capitalism. This hypothesis of social change grew out of opposition to revolutionary socialism, which contends that revolution is necessary for fundamental structural changes to occur.
In the terminology of NWO-related speculations, gradualism refers to the gradual implementation of a totalitarian world government.