What is Progress?

Why evolutionary progress is a tautology.

Eva Aldea, who specialises in the intersection of literature, philosophy and contemporary fiction, is Lecturer at Goldsmiths College in London. Here, she answers our questions about progress, evolution and why human culture may not be that unique after all.

What is progress?

We perceive certain things as progress depending on the aims and goals that we set. As such, all progress is always contingent and local – if our aim is to live longer as individuals, there has been some progress in the last hundred years, say. If our aim is to preserve as much wildlife as possible, there hasn't been. The notion of progress is imbued with the hopes and dreams of the human race – a yearning for or belief in making things “better” – which in itself is a characteristic of how our species evolved to better chances of survival. 

Humans often mistake complexity for progress. Human beings may be some of the most complex beings that evolution has come up with, and so far that complexity seems to have been quite successful if our goal is one of survival. However, if we succeed in destroying our habitat and ourselves, that complexity will not be much of a progress at all.

What, if anything, would count as evolutionary progress? 

Progress is an idea that is actually quite unhelpful when it comes to thinking about evolution, because it confuses some central characteristics of evolution itself.

It may be tempting to suggest that we could talk of progress in evolution from the perspective of increased chances of survival. This is simply a tautology, however, since that is what evolution is, life continually changing and selecting for increased chances of survival. There is, by such a definition, no evolutionary regression, so the qualifier “progress” is redundant to evolution.

Equally, as I argued in my answer above, using the idea of complexity as a measure of progress in evolution is also not tenable, as it could be end up being a quality that leads to the end of an evolutionary line – making it a contradiction in terms.

Is there nothing new under the evolutionary sun?

Everything is new under the evolutionary sun. Every new being, from each divided cell (with that tiny mutation) to every human baby, is an evolutionary experiment – a brand new and unique combination of genetic material that will either survive and pass on its genes, or die. Evolution is constantly experimenting, constantly offering up never before seen things to the scrutiny of nature. That’s how it works.

What can metaphysical ideas tell us about big evolutionary questions? Is this not inappropriate philosophical trespassing on biological ground?

Metaphysical ideas can tell us lots about evolutionary questions, more than I could possibly begin to discuss here.

The notion of trespassing, however, is a bit of a red herring – I have never understood why clever people are so uptight about the exclusivity of their disciplines. Saying that, there is a lot of bad science trotted out to support philosophical ideas, and, I’m sure, some half-baked philosophy thrown about in scientific circles. If we learned to respect and listen to each other’s ideas better we could all benefit.

In what ways do you think metaphysical ideas are useful? What might evolutionary reasoning in turn contribute to metaphysics?

Looking at this question, I take metaphysical to mean abstract or conceptual as opposed to material or empirical, implying “evolutionary reasoning” is the latter and the two ways of thinking are distinct.

I am not sure this distinction is a correct one. It implies that evolution is deduced simply from observable facts, and that, on the other hand, philosophical notions are not, whereas in reality each is dependent on the other. The scientist and the philosopher may deny this dependence, or try to overcome it, but neither can ever live or think in their own bubble.

The main utility of parsing these two ways of thinking is to understand how we come up with new ideas, and to stimulate new ways of reasoning. In this case, for example, we can ask to what extent evolutionary theory still bears the hallmarks of a metaphysics of teleology and theology (clue: it really does), but also how the empirical data of all the beings on earth may inspire us to think anew the concept of being itself. Philosophy that does not take the real material world into account almost certainly ends up redundant.

Why is it reasonable to suggest that our essence of being is similar to everything else in the natural world? Surely, humans seem to pursue lots of activities that have little to do with survival and reproduction? 

As I’ve already mentioned, human beings may be some of the most complex beings that evolution has come up with (so far), but there is no evidence that they are in any way more different that all other creatures are from each other. 

Evolution continually comes up with weird and wonderful beings, and some do amazing things that allow them to survive, procreate and evolve. Others not so much, and these tend to die, even go extinct. Same goes for humans. The fact that we are still here indicates that, in fact, our activities on the whole do have much to do with survival and reproduction. However, as we are evolving with each new human being, those activities may change. At the point where they are no longer mainly concerned with survival and reproduction (and some may argue that point has been reached, although I don’t think so) we won’t last as a species in the long run.

Why would human culture not make us fundamentally stand out in the animal kingdom?

Human culture may be unique in the animal kingdom, but is not any more unique that any other unusual characteristic that any given species has evolved. It may seem very special indeed to us, with nothing else like on our planet, but that is mainly, I believe, because we understand it better than any other feature of the animal kingdom.

Human cognition and culture may represent a radical step in evolution, but so did the evolutionary step from plant-cell to animal cell, from unicellular to multicellular organisms, from invertebrates to vertebrates and so on. Each of these represented an immense change in the direction and pace of life on the planet, but in the long evolutionary run, none of these proved to be something entirely unique or irreproducible. 

Image credit: Barabeke

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