November 11, 2012

The Inevitability of Progress

There are many ways the human mind can stray from objectivity. One of the most pervasive, and all the more dangerous for being so common as to go unrecognized, is a habitual belief in the inevitability of progress.

A belief in progress is a form of optimism, although not all forms of optimism require a belief in progress. For example, people who believe that the universe is the product of a benevolent deity are optimists – they believe that everything that happens is according to plan and ultimately for the best, but they do not necessarily believe in progress – the idea that conditions naturally improve over time. Since a belief in progress is a form of optimism we may, however, critique it on that more general basis.

Believing that things will generally turn out well, or, conversely, believing that things will generally turn out badly, is nothing more than an excise in magical thinking. Both optimism and pessimism ascribe directions to nature that nature is not obligated to adhere to. We may, for reasons of culture or individual psychology, view the world through one or the other magical lens, but we do not change nature by doing so. Rather, we create a kind of prejudice regarding what sort of empirical facts we tend to emphasize and take an interest in.

If I think it’s a rotten world I will carefully catalog rotten events as they occur. I may even actively seek them out. If, on the other hand, something good happens I will tend to view it as an aberration, a momentary up-tick on a graph that is predestined to go down. If I am an optimist, on the other hand, I will wait expectantly for the next rosy sunrise to bloom, expecting the graph to go up sooner or later simply because I am predisposed to believe it must. Either view not only ascribes a direction to nature, but strongly implies that nature is a kind or narrative in which either our individual fates or the fate of humanity as a whole is a central theme. To be either an optimist or a pessimist in a universe that is acknowledged to be indifferent to our desires would be incoherent.

Naturally, we would like the universe to care about us. We would like to think that the universe has purpose and that our well being or salvation, all modesty aside, is precisely what that purpose is. This is obviously so of the religious. Even when we hypothesize deities of infinite power and capacity, we never fail to imagine their attentions fixed steadily on us. Although they may be greater than us in every respect, our worship is, inexplicably, of pivotal value to them. Only H.P. Lovecraft invented gods that didn’t give us any more thought than we would give an insect – and though his writing has a certain literary following, it is hard to imagine anyone who would bother to pray to a deity like Cthulhu. Even the most capricious of Greek deities could be placated, offering advantages to the worshipper, but prayers to indifferent deities – or indifferent nature – must of necessity go unanswered.

Modern secular thought may have given up religious thinking in detail, but the core belief that we have a central role and purpose in nature, and that we have special dispensations with regard to natural law, remain pervasive. You can be an atheist and still believe in magic, if, perhaps, subconsciously.

To understand this mystical belief in progress better, one need look no further than a common misunderstanding about the nature of Darwinian evolution. I think it is fair to say that most secular-minded people believe that biological evolution represents a general movement upward.1 They believe that evolution makes species better over time. Better both in the sense that animals become more adaptable through an increase in their physical complexity, and better in some vague and general sense. This is progress in biology in the popular conception. In fact, natural selection does not make organisms better or even necessarily more complex. Rather, it eliminates from the gene pool those organisms that are the least well adapted to current conditions. There is no reason to believe, for example, that a contemporary apex predator like a grizzly bear would have prospered in the late Cretaceous period, out-competing the dinosaurs of that time. To begin with, bears are not well adapted to hot climates. Physically, a modern grizzly would not have been more than a nuisance to a Tyrannosaur. Bears are not better than Tyrannosaurs in some general or absolute sense – they are merely better adapted to current conditions. For sheer adaptability to a variety of harsh conditions, few organisms have ever done much better than some very primitive bacteria.

What is true of biology is also true of many other things. The concept of natural selection is applicable to any field in which the concepts of survival and competition are applicable. It is applicable to human cultures and political states, notwithstanding the errors of (and the revulsion to) the 19th century social Darwinists who first put forward the connection. One is justified in a neutral belief that social and political charges occur because certain ideas and groups achieve a temporary condition of dominance. One is not justified in the belief that history is an inevitable march from the worse to the better, or better to worse.

Many people, at various times and for various reasons, have made arguments for the inevitability of progress. These take a predictable form. To make a case for the inevitably of progress, one simply points out unpleasant and unhappy conditions in the past that the march of history has overcome. No reasonable person can argue that such changes have never occurred. The elimination of slavery as a legal and acceptable public institution is an obvious example of social progress. We will set aside the problem that slavery may still exist, and even be on the rise, in other forms – it is still the case that the legally recognized, public institution has been largely, if not completely, eradicated. We could continue with a litany of all sorts of other wonderful and positive things that have happened, and, as it’s a big world in which many things do happen, we could fill many pages or even volumes with this sort of evidence for the inevitable march of progress. This, of course, would prove very little. It is cherry-picking the data. If I were a bigot and wanted to persuade people that a particular minority was evil and dangerous, I would proceed in essentially the same way. I would list the crimes and atrocities committed by members of that group, and, over the course of several hundred pages of such evidence, I would probably persuade most readers to accept my case. This is simply an exploitation of the human tendency to generalize. It isn’t difficult to persuade people of anything by this means, and it is all the easier if the case being made is a happy and comforting one like the inevitability of progress.

To understand history in the sense required, however, could only mean to understand it in its totality. Cherry-picking the data for examples that support our case is obviously not a good route to the truth. Unfortunately, creating any sort of comprehensive balance sheet for all of history is an impossibility. Even setting aside the fact that historians are human beings with their own peculiar biases, we are faced with an insurmountable problem of quantifying the unquantifiable. Assuming the worst case scenario of global warming, for example, how much is that offset by the elimination of slavery? Were people worse off treating illnesses with prayers and herbs than they are being bankrupted to pay for the treatment of cancers that rarely occurred in pre-industrial times? Are people, on average, happier now than they were in 12th century? How would we know? Even an historian arrogant enough to bluff the case forward on the sheer weight of academic authority would be hard pressed to justify the dark ages or the hundred years war as minor aberrations in an inexorable trend. If viewed on normal evolutionary timescales, all of human civilization has been a single, almost instantaneous population event. It is far from obvious that it is going to produce any sort of truly permanent improvement. Can we say with any confidence that human beings will be better off a million years from now? A thousand? Even ten? One momentous decision on the part of any of the world’s major nuclear nations might end the whole enterprise in an afternoon, or at least render the idea of inevitable progress tragically laughable.

In the absence of a method of quantifying the problem, and the suffering from the lack of an unbiased perspective, we can only turn to a causal explanation to save the idea of inevitable progress. This is to say, if we cannot prove that progress is the statistical norm, we have to prove the existence of a mechanism that makes it inevitable. Of course, if we knew of such a mechanism adherents of the belief wouldn’t be leaning on statistical proof in the first place – but let’s entertain the notion nevertheless. What we would need to prove the inevitably of progress mechanically would be something like the process of evolution through natural selection. Again, I am not saying that biological evolution is an instance of progress, but that evolution through natural selection is the kind of process we would need. Evolution is mechanical. You can test it in a laboratory with microbes. It really happens, and it is fully understandable. To the best of my knowledge, no such mechanism has even been proposed regarding progress.

There is nothing innate in either human beings or the environment that makes progress inevitable, not if by “progress” we mean a general advancement of the public good.2 It is plainly not true that we are all wise, compassionate, forward-looking or even alert enough to always replace flawed behaviors, policies, and institutions with more agreeable ones. It happens, of course, but it does not happen mechanically or inevitably. Rather, like any other animal, we respond the environment with such capacities as our genetic legacies and personal experiences have given us. Genetics and experience both tend to bend our behaviors to our own immediate advantage, not toward some nebulous long term benefit for the species. While our actions may include an element of social accommodation, even that accommodation itself is predicated on some perceived individual gain, no matter how subtle. Even the philanthropist who gives anonymously is buying something – either an imaginary reward in heaven or an equally imaginary advance in self esteem. People never act in any way that doesn’t maximize their perceived self interest, though their perceptions of what constitutes self interest may vary to some degree.3 While some expressions of self interest do benefit others, it is obviously not the case that all of them do, or even that most of them do. We produce behaviors, policies, and institutions according to our own predispositions – but the mechanisms of evolution will determine what persists, and what persists is in no way guaranteed to please us.

Setting all of my arguments above aside for the moment, it is understandable how a casual survey of the last two hundred years would leave one with the impression that humanity is moving forward. There has been a great advance in material comfort for most people in industrialized nations. Attributing this to an invisible hand that guides human destiny, be it God or something else, is simply incorrect however. Our present level of material comfort is directly attributable to our consumption of a finite supply of fossil fuels and other resources. Our social advances are also largely the result of our temporary frenzy of material consumption and abundance. In a society awash in powered machinery, the labor benefits of human slavery would be inconsequential. The total amount of wealth in a society sets an upper limit on its capacity to be generous. Let’s see how this sort of progress holds up as we become more numerous and the pool of resources we must compete over continues to shrink.

Quite apart from the question of whether or not a belief in the march of progress is valid or not is the question of whether or not the belief is harmful. Optimism, no doubt, makes the optimist feel better about the world. The irony is that a belief in the inevitability of progress is an impediment to making rational efforts toward progress.

When a person believes that good things are predestined, he or she will either sit idly by and wait for time and more industrious people to produce nirvana, or seize uncritically on whatever movement seems to be headed in the right direction. A classic example of how this mentality can lead to disaster is the rise of Stalin. Communist theory held that communism was not a deliberate undertaking – an experimental new form of social and economic organization worth trying – but rather it was an inevitable consequence of history. The belief of the communist intelligentsia was that their movement was just bound by nature to succeed. There was, therefore, no need to take measures to avoid the rise of a dictator who might subvert the process. Unjust authority would disappear and that was that. The theory said so. Other forms of optimism produce similar adaptive failures. A belief in God’s love may well be very comforting, but it you are starving it is usually more productive to hunt or forage than to pray and trust.

Optimism is an epistemic flaw. It is leads one to conclusions for which one has either no evidence, or has only insufficient evidence. It suppresses healthy skepticism for the sake of emotional comfort.

1   Most religious people, in my experience, have a completely different misunderstanding of Darwinian evolution. They believe than Darwin’s theory is that evolutionary changes occur by random chance.

2   I use the term “public good” tentatively, merely because I don’t want to get bogged down in a precise definition of what kind of developments would even constitute “progress”. The average person who believes in the idea bends it toward his or her particular values, but most still leave the concept fairly nebulous – an “I know it when I see it” sort of notion. I am content to argue with the muddy na├»ve concept of “things just getting better and better.” While such a belief is, in some ways, harder to refute than a more specific assertion like “people get happier” or “people’s lives become more materially secure,” the nebulous assertion really shows the essential character of the belief – that it is a faith rather than an empirical conclusion.

3   Even an act of compassion may be seen as a form of self interest. It simply requires that one collapses the distinction between one’s own identity and that of the object of one’s compassion. This is not merely a trick of redefining terms, but a serious point about the nature of compassion.


  1. A lot of ground in this essay, and of course I agree with almost all of it.

    Except that when you write "There is nothing innate in either human beings or the environment that makes progress inevitable," you overlook one contrary fact: knowledge is accumulative.

    It is true that social progress has slipped and slid; some earlier eras were better than later, the fruits of technology have not always been equally shared, and so on. But it is also obvious that the sum total of human knowledge has steadily increased, and that increase occurs at a self-inflating rate.

    The reason I am optimistic about the future is because a) I believe knowledge will continue to accumulate, and b) I believe that all the "progress" we enjoy is a direct result of the accumulation of knowledge. Government is a form of technology, no less than accounting or bridge-building; it has profited from the accumulation of knowledge just as medicine and farming have.

    I do agree that the last two centuries enjoyed a remarkably easy period of wealth, thanks to fossil fuels, and that it is clearly unsustainable; but I also think the fossil fuel era is a product of knowledge and thus there is reason to think that more knowledge will reveal other arenas of profit.

    It is not really machinery that freed the slaves, although that helped; it was an expanding pool of knowledge about human nature and the economics of good governance. Those parts of the world where slavery persists are also characterized by lack of knowledge, and they are doomed, irrespective of machinery, as long as knowledge continues to grow and spread.

    Our era has more knowledge than any previous era; and that knowledge enables the wealth and freedom we enjoy. It does not guarantee it, but the absence of knowledge does guarantee misery, poverty, and oppression. Thus each age finds its low points unchanged from the previous, but its high points potentially greater.

    1. Your point about the accumulative nature of knowledge is, it is true, one that I had not addressed or even really considered. It’s not a bad argument, but it does have certain weaknesses.

      A good deal of what you consider “knowledge” I would consider more a gradual evolution of cultural preferences. The Romans thought they had a good, well-ordered society, and I don’t think it is obvious that an average Roman dropped into the middle of a contemporary industrial society would immediately recognize that all of our values are superior to his (or hers). On the other hand, a Roman would probably be impressed with our technology because there is clearly a sense in which one technology trumps another – something that is never that clear of human institutions. Everyone thinks their own values are the best ones a person could have. You can think “I could have better stuff” but you can never actually think “I could have better beliefs”.

      Even in the realm of specifically material knowledge, the picture isn’t that straightforward. Chemistry is a good example of science that is well worked out. We really do understand chemical relationships in a practical, usable way. Little of what we know seems likely to be overturned. The unsolved problems in chemistry are really on its margins – more problems of the underlying physics than of chemistry itself. Score one for science. Physics, on the other hand, is in a terrible state of flux. I am not sure what an untestable theory like string theory gets you. I don’t see that proliferation of mathematically spawned speculations as an obvious step forward. Will we be better off, in a hundred years, with a thousand untestable variations of multiple universe theories? That is the direction we are currently pursuing.

      When we stray into the social sciences the picture gets even worse. Psychologists and economists have uncovered certain tendencies, but the greater part of what they “know” is either only applicable to circumstances they are comfortable with, or based on cultural of ideological prejudices.

      In any case, knowledge is, at best, only as good as its distribution. There are plenty of reasons to believe that our educational standards are in decline, and there is plenty of room for the illiterate, narrow-minded barbarian in contemporary society. A quick perusal of any comment column on any popular web site will reveal a populous that itself refutes your view.