Monday, October 03, 2005

The Idea of Progress

Paul Myers of Pharyngula was interviewed about science and evolution on evolveTV this weekend. He has a quite interesting discussion of the problems with creationism and various misconceptions about evolution.

One that particularly interested me was the mistaken notion that evolution is progress. You might call it the Star Trek Fallacy. In innumerable episodes in that series and other sci-fi shows, the future development of the human race is seen as a kind of evolution into some kind of higher energy being. While this is just sci-fi, not to be taken too seriously, still I think it captures a quite common, particularly American type of magical thinking. Americans (outside the disturbingly populous Rapture camp) by and large believe in progress. This is based to some extent on a conflation of technological and scientific progress with social and cultural progress, associations which have been undermined but far from eradicated since the second World War. There also remains I think a fairly widespread background notion of biological progress, evidenced in the misunderstandings of social darwinism and eugenics in the 19th and early 20th centuries and still extant today and not only in crackpot right wing "scholarship" like The Bell Curve or William Bennett's recent thought experiment.

The deeper roots of these misunderstandings lie in the Enlightenment's valorization of the idea of progress, in Hegel's concept of intellectual history as progress and in Marx's materialistic continuation of that concept of history. On the other hand, at a less intellectual level, I think there has been a kind of fusion of the concept of evolution with the medieval idea of the great chain of being, a rank ordering of life forms that was an important element of the Christian world view for centuries.

While technological and scientific progress is real enough, albeit not always with the consequences one might wish for, the analogy to cultural progress depends on assimilating culture with western culture, and ignoring many ways in which the past was better than the present. In fact, cultural progress is largely a matter of perspective, and the idea of universal cultural progress devalues cultural diversity. The idea of universal cultural progress in turn is partly related to the Christian idea that there is only one valid way of life, one model for how to live and what to do, a poisonous missionary idea that has led to the eradication of countless peoples and cultures. There has of course been some genuine social progress of this sort, the elimination of slavery and the emancipation of women for example. But today even these signposts of progress seem less fixed and irreversible than they once were. Not long ago, it might have been reasonable to include the civilized consensus rejecting torture on this list. And while the old form of slavery has been mostly eradicated, the erosion of working conditions worldwide and the shrinking of personal freedom in the emerging surveillance state are hardly encouraging. And what is there left to say any more about the promise of democracy? The future just isn't what it used to be.


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