[graj-oo-uh-liz-uh m]


the principle or policy of achieving some goal by gradual steps rather than by drastic change.
Philosophy. a theory maintaining that two seemingly conflicting notions are not radically opposed, but are related by others partaking in varying degrees of the character of both.
Biology. a tenet in evolutionary theory maintaining that species evolve slowly and continuously over long periods of geological time.

Origin of gradualism

An Americanism dating back to 1825–35; gradual + -ism
Related formsgrad·u·al·ist, noun, adjectivegrad·u·al·is·tic, adjective Unabridged Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2019

Examples from the Web for gradualism

Contemporary Examples of gradualism

Historical Examples of gradualism

  • Had they relied upon the experience of the liberal nations, they might have resigned themselves to a policy of gradualism.

    Government in Republican China

    Paul Myron Anthony Linebarger

  • True conservatism is gradualism—the movement onward by slow, cautious, and firm steps—but still movement, and that onward.

  • But neither the civil rights leaders nor the White House could be put off with gradualism.

  • A statement of its results will, therefore, afford no small data for deciding upon the general principle of gradualism!

    The Anti-Slavery Examiner, Omnibus

    American Anti-Slavery Society

  • He was on the Fourth of July a firm and earnest believer in the equity and efficacy of gradualism.

    William Lloyd Garrison

    Archibald H. Grimke

British Dictionary definitions for gradualism



the policy of seeking to change something or achieve a goal gradually rather than quickly or violently, esp in politics
the theory that explains major changes in rock strata, fossils, etc in terms of gradual evolutionary processes rather than sudden violent catastrophesCompare catastrophism
Derived Formsgradualist, noun, adjectivegradualistic, adjective
Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 2012 Digital Edition © William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd. 1979, 1986 © HarperCollins Publishers 1998, 2000, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2012

Word Origin and History for gradualism

1832, in abolitionist literature, as a disparaging term (opposed to immediatism), from gradual + -ism. Related: Gradualist.

Online Etymology Dictionary, © 2010 Douglas Harper

gradualism in Science



The theory that new species evolve from existing species through gradual, often imperceptible changes rather than through abrupt, major changes. The small changes are believed to result in perceptible changes over long periods of time. Compare punctuated equilibrium.
The American Heritage® Science Dictionary Copyright © 2011. Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.

gradualism in Culture


The belief that changes in the Earth, such as the development of species, have taken place slowly, without sudden and violent transitions. (Compare punctuated equilibrium and catastrophism.)

The New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, Third Edition Copyright © 2005 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.