"If 'evolution' today were not merely a theory for men," Barfield avows in "Thinking and Thought," "but an actual experience, it would be impossible for them when speaking of it, to omit all reference to its meaning--which is the evolution of consciousness" (RCA 60).1 Our knowledge of the reality of evolution (in the Darwinian sense), Barfield argues, must be subsumed in our understanding of the evolution of consciousness. The need to do so--the need to 'revise very substantially indeed the evolutionary background, now largely subconscious, which shapes all our decisions not only about biology, and not only in the pursuit of knowledge, but also in such practical spheres as politics, sociology and ethics" --is, Barfield insists apocalyptically, urgent, for on this reversal may depend not just the "dignity and even the survival of the human species" but "the survival of life on this planet" (EC 16).

"According to its etymology," Barfield writes in "The Evolution Complex," the word "evolution" "signifies, and for a long time it continued to signify,

an unfolding, gradual and uninterrupted process of change from one form into another, toward which it has been tending from the start--from one form into another through a whole series of intermediate forms, the one imperceptibly merging into the other. A process of transformation, or metamorphosis; and more particularly a change from potential form into actual and spatial form, the typical instance being a seed or an embryo evolving by growth into an independent plant or animal. In other words, the term had a purely ontogenetic reference before it acquired a phylogenetic one. (EC 8)
Barfield seeks to reconstruct the evolution of evolution. "At the beginning of the eighteenth century," he shows in Saving the Appearances, "the variety of natural species was normally attributed by the botany and zoology of the day to supernatural and instantaneous creation." But the next two centuries "witnessed the almost total disappearance of this tradition, reflected as it was in the elaborately classifying botany of Linnaeus, in favor of a gradual 'evolution.'" Darwinian evolution had been made possible:
In the record of the rocks and the dovetailed panorama of organic nature, history and science together gradually divined the vestiges of a different, a "natural" kind of creation, and one that was the reverse of instantaneous. Nature herself came to be seen as a process in time and the individual phenomena at any moment, instead of being fixed and parallel shapes repeated and repeated since creation's day, were cross-sections of their own development and metamorphosis. They could be truly grasped only by looking before and after. (60-61)
The rediscovery of evolution, reductionistic though it might be, is explicable in terms of the evolution of consciousness. For "by the end of the eighteenth century, the power to think in a living way may be considered as having died right out. The man of the eighteenth century lived in a clockwork cosmos.2 And because this static, clockwork cosmos which he had spun out of his abstract, scientific fantasy was remote from the truth, and because he was honestly seeking the truth, he had at last to dislodge it from its repose within the idea of evolution--an attempt to get back again, in a new form, to the old notion of 'gradually coming into being'" (RCA 60).
See in particular "The Evolution Complex," "Think and Thought" (RCA 47-66), Saving the Appearances. Chaps. V, VII, VIII, IX, X, XIV.
1In the same essay Barfield observes, caustically, "The spellbound teachers and parents, who must go on inculcating this lifeless, repressive dogma [of evolution], do not introduce Shakespeare to their children by repeating what psychologists have said about the causes of the impulse to clap hands. This is because the genius of Shakespeare is, not somebody else's theory, invented to explain the repeated phenomenon of hand-clapping, but a concrete experience of the individual soul. There is no such experience of evolution" (RCA 60-61).
2"The biological picture of evolution was imprinted, no less deeply than on other men's, on the minds of those scholars--etymologists, mythologists, anthropologists--who made it their business to study the human past, and it was accepted by them, not as speculation or hypothesis, but as established fact. It was the given framework into which they had to fit any theory they chose to form. It was treated as part of the appearances they were setting out to save" (SA 66).