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Towards a Better Future: The Myth of Progress
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“The attempt to validate human superiority by the doctrine of progress identifies the heaviest burden imposed by Western culture upon evolutionary views of all stripes.”


— Stephen Jay Gould, The Structure of Evolutionary Theory (2002)

Evolutionary theory is extremely powerful and pervasively misunderstood. Stripped to its core, it describes an interplay between replication, variation, and selection which can generate complexity, diversity, and novelty. Its elegance lies in its simplicity and power, a combination which unfortunately also makes it readily misunderstood.

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The idea of evolutionary progress is the most common – and probably the most damaging – misunderstanding of evolution. It lingers behind the phrase “higher animals” and the claim that humans evolved from apes (we are apes). It lurches into full view in the famous March of Progress illustration which has, unfortunately, become iconic of evolution.

The facts of evolutionary biology and the formulation of evolutionary theory have nothing to do with these depictions. Evolution does not have a direction, nor does it aim towards a goal. Organisms are not more or less evolved than one another, and no hierarchy ranks life from bacteria to mammals. A proper understanding of evolution is key to understanding the world around us – how it came to be, how it works, and how it will respond to the changes we’re wreaking.

The problem isn’t just a general misunderstanding of the details of a scientific theory. Darwin’s theory of natural selection has been a source of public controversy since its inception because it touches on our conception of ourselves and our place in the world. Evolution dethrones humanity and links together the wide range of life on Earth throughout its history. The myth of progress is no more than a reformulation of the tired belief that humans are somehow special or exceptional, a scientific take on the idea that we stand dominant astride the hierarchy of Creation. It preserves humanity’s precarious placement on a pinnacle. It is hubris.

As we struggle to manage the social and ecological consequences of seven billion members of a species with delusions of grandeur squabbling over finite resources, a better understanding of evolution may offer a measure of hope. The realization that there is no apex position for humanity to occupy, that change is constant and that diversity is essential may help us discover a world view that isn’t founded on exploitation and control. Some of the first steps have been taken by the environmental and animal rights movements of the 20th century, but I believe a more fundamental shift is needed in the 21st century if our species – and many others – are to survive.

I’m very pleased to be part of the Social Evolution Forum, where I hope we’ll have some of the discussions needed to expand our understanding of evolution and figure out how it can help us navigate the troubled waters ahead. Formulated in general terms, evolutionary theory offers a uniform framework combining biology with domains such as culture and language in which the same dynamics play out. At the moment, new scientific discoveries offer challenges to orthodox evolutionary theory, and careful thought is called for to understand their implications. For example, it’s become increasingly clear that epigenetics can lead to the inheritance of acquired traits. Geneticists and molecular biologists still have to uncover the scope, limitations, and precise mechanism of the process, but evolutionary theory needs to be updated in light of these findings. Broadening evolutionary theory beyond the confines of the neo-Darwinian perspective will be invaluable in trying to understand the evolution of culture, where variation is not necessarily isotropic and the mechanisms of inheritance may be quite complex. A revitalized evolutionary theory which incorporates these alternatives might help us discover how to correct misconceptions about our place in the world and may indeed point the way towards a better future.

Header image by M. Garde based on original work by José-Manuel Benitos, via Wikimedia Commons.

References:

Gregory, T.R. and Ellis, C.A. (2009) Conceptions of Evolution among Science Graduate Students. BioScience 59:792-799. doi:10.1025/bio2009.59.9.11
Gregory, T.R. (2009) Understanding Natural Selection: Essential Concepts and Common Misconceptions. Evolution: Education and Outreach 2:156-175.

12 Comments

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12 Comments

  1. David Sloan Wilson says:

    Thanks to Sedeer for his inaugural post and I’m delighted that he has become one of the voices of SEF. The relationship between evolutionary theory and notions of progress is indeed widely misunderstood and in need of clarification. It would make a great topic for a multi-article theme on This View of Life or a target essay with commentaries on SEF. I agree with most of what Sedeer says and recommend Jablonka and Lamb’s “Evolution in Four Dimensions” as a canonical text for a theory of evolution centered on heredity and not genes per se. Still, I would like to make three observations that complicate matters and provide some legitimacy for the concept of progress in evolutionary thought.

    1) Adaptation to a given environment is a local hill climbing process that can be accepted as a form of progress.
    2) While most claims about long-term evolutionary trends are problematic (e.g., that evolution leads to increases in complexity), major transitions of evolution, whereby groups become superorganisms, does seem to be a long term evolutionary trend that is likely to occur wherever life exists.
    3) Human cultural evolution has a strong intentional and normative component. In other words, phenotypic variation among groups is based in on norms, which in turn are often based on notions of progress. Put another way, notions of progress are so important in human life that they will need to be understood from a cultural evolutionary perspective.

    These points do not detract from the excellent points made by Sedeer, especially regarding notions of humans being more “advanced” than other species, morally superior, etc. I hope that he and others will continue to expand upon the theme of progress.

    • Thanks, I’m excited to be part of SEF! I agree with your second observation, though I think I would phrase it in terms of levels of selection (or organization) rather than groups & superorganisms. In response to your other points:

      1) Local hill climbing has a direction (up the hill), but I don’t think “movement towards” is the same thing as progress. I would argue that the problematic notion of “progress” involves movement towards a fixed goal. In adaptation to a given environment, the direction isn’t fixed, since the local maximum can (and will) change. To me, local hill climbing can be a Red Queen scenario, which certainly doesn’t seem like progress.

      3) I agree, but I would say that cultural evolution might also be better understood by taking into account notions like progress. As far as I know, evolutionary theory assumes random variation, so we need to think about how non-random variation would influence the process. This is also where I see a link with epigenetic inheritance, which may also raise issues related to non-random variation.

      Thanks for your thoughtful comment and the discussion!

  2. Joe Brewer says:

    Thanks for this excellent article, Sedeer!

    This may well be the most “strategic” misunderstanding about evolution out there — feeding into a number of related mythologies about Western superiority, the pinnacle position of capitalism in the “long march” of economic development, and techno-utopian fantasies about widgets saving humanity from the harms we cause to ecosystems we depend on for our survival as a species.

    Building on the extensions of your argument made by David Sloan Wilson, I do see how evolution can be directional and progressive (so long as we include the vital nuances that constrain what this means). It is this potential for cultural evolution to be guided by intentionality and whole system design that keeps me hopeful for the future. That said, a major obstacle to real progress is misconceptions about how change actually works. Thus the need for this discussion you have initiated here.

    • Thanks, Joe. I’m really looking forward to the discussion, and I’m keen to learn more about the work that’s been done on cultural evolution — it’s not something I know much about. I’d love to get reading suggestions from you or any other SEFers.

  3. Tim Tyler says:

    This is what I call ‘progress denialism’. Living systems get better at dissipating negentropy, starting out with bacteria and eventually culminating in stellar farming. It’s ironic now that this progress is more obvious than ever before, that some still deny its existence. That they do so in the name of science is appalling. Denial of progress isn’t a finding of science, it is just a misreading of history.

    • Thanks for your comment. Can you clarify what you mean by “better at dissipating negentropy”? I’m familiar with the idea of living things taking in “negative entropy” and acting as dissipative systems. What’s your metric for being “better” at it, and how, precisely, do you come to the conclusion that, for example, rodents are better at it than bacteria?

      • Tim Tyler says:

        Competitive exclusion is nature’s metric. Obviously, you have to compare like with like – so two different sets of flora and fauna could compete for the same ecological niche – whereas a rodent and a bacterium occupy rather different niches are not clearly comparable.
        Ediacaran fauna would be promptly obliterated by Pleistocene fauna, for example. The latter has better natural technology, through a longer period of accumulating adaptations.

        • Your description of “competitive exclusion” sounds like it roughly corresponds to selection. The fact that one group can out-reproduce another in a given context isn’t immediately (or necessarily) related to ‘dissipating negentropy’. That link needs to be made, and I’m not convinced you’ve made it. I’d be happy to have a discussion about this, but I don’t think we can without a clear definition of ‘dissipating negentropy’, as well as a way of evaluating how well an organism does that (if we want to talk about better/worse). Otherwise, we’ll just be talking past each other.

          Also, I’m not convinced that Pleistocene fauna would outcompete Ediacaran. That might be the case If they competed in a Pleistocene ecosystem/environment, but not in an Ediacaran ecosystem/environment.

          • Tim Tyler says:

            You seem to want me to specify a metric for entropy dissipation and defend the hypothesis that winners are better dissipators. I don’t see why I need to do either of these things.

            That nature tends to favour better users of negentropy seems like maximum entropy production principle 101 to me. Nature tends to favour those that get to the negentropy first. It tends to favour those who do a better job of turning negentropy into copies of their genomes. And it tends to favour those who don’t leave negentropy lying around for their competitors. If you aren’t familiar with the links between maximum entropy production and evolutionary theory, I’m not sure that educating you in these comments is appropriate. Perhaps start with John Whitfield’s online article “Survival of the Likeliest” and then track down its references or go on to the book “Into the Cool”. The topic started with Lotka in 1922 and now has a large associated literature.

            It does sounds as though you are a real progress denialist. How far are you prepared to take this doctrine? Do you not think that DNA-based life is generally better than RNA-based life? Don’t the discoveries of photysynthesis, vision, sexual recombination, wheels, fission power and nuclear fusion count as progress? If not, then why on earth not?

            To me, progress denialism looks simply ridiculous. My hypothesis about its prevalance involves egalitarian political correctness. It’s most vocal moden proponent – S. J. Gould – was a Marxist. It is a politically-driven doctrine – rather than a scientific finding. Scientists – real scientists – should reject the whole idea as being transparently politically-motivated nonsense.

  4. Andy Ornberg says:

    Your post makes some very important points. It provides much needed clarification for people who, unwittingly or intentionally, talk about evolution like it is a purposeful force, and I found how you sum it up so succinctly in stating evolution does not have a direction or a goal useful and powerful.

    I wonder if there is any way though to think about the evolution of human beings, random as it may be, of achieving something noteworthy. I understand this is tricky business, because, as you point out, moral judgments and valuations which are contained in concepts like ‘progress’, ‘hierarchy’, my term ‘noteworthy’ above (and ‘hubris’ for that matter) are of course anthropomorphisms.

    Just to be provocative though, let me say that at the beginning of the semester in the intro psych classes I teach, as a way to try and get students inspired about human psychology and understanding who they are vis-a-vis the rest of the universe, I point out to them, I’ll admit in somewhat poetic language, that one way to look at human beings place in evolution is that we are a manifestation of the universe coming to consciousness after 14 billion years. i don’t tell them this was some kind of destiny or expression of evolution’s purpose. But I do want them to appreciate the amazing situation humans find themselves in. Am I wrong and guilty of fostering more humancentric ego inflation?

    • Thanks for your comment, and I’m glad you found something valuable in my article.

      I think your question straddles an important intersection. I know of no scientific basis for the claim that humans are a manifestation of the universe’s consciousness. Scientifically, I think the only noteworthy thing about human evolution may not be consciousness but the emergence of cultural evolution as a significant dynamic. Other evolutionary courses have experienced similar noteworthy events; for example, the emergence of advanced social organization in a branch of insects.

      That said….we are humans, so, of course, we have a human-centered perspective. We value other humans (and their creations) differently than we do other other organisms, and we relate to them differently — just as many species do with conspecifics. I think the important dividing line is embedded in the last three words of your comment. A human-centered world-view is hard (impossible?) to escape. We may wish to embrace it, but we should also recognize its inherent bias and not let it inflate our ego.

  5. Mike says:

    Great article. I would take issue with one point however. 99.99999% of the 7bn of us have no control over the mode of existence we are currently trapped in. The rise of nation states and a tiny minority of “chiefs” running them with the twin yokes of debt-based currency and brute force is driving us towards extinction. Ergo, a TINY minority of the most dysfunctional members of our species are responsible for the current mess we are in. It’s too easy to blame our species as a whole, when we are caught in a web of control that most of us don’t even realise is there.