In politics, gradualism is the belief that change ought to be brought about 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
Geology and biology
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 physician and gentleman farmer, 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.
Linguistics and language change