Interrogating Progress (Part 1)

“Men and societies frequently treat the institutions and assumptions by which they live as absolute, self-evident, and given. They may treat them as such without question, or they may endeavour to fortify them by some kind of proof. In fact, human ideas and social forms are neither static nor given.” — Ernest Gellner, Plough, Sword and Book: The Structure of Human History (1987)

What constitutes “progress” and how can we measure or assess it? As regular readers know, this is a question that has been much on my mind over the past few years. During these years, I have often argued that biological evolution is not progressive and that cultural evolutionary models are inherently progressive because they normatively assume that complexity is adaptive advance. I have argued against “progress” in both these contexts, and in the process have observed that non-progressive evolution (whether biological, cultural, or both) entails the idea that religions, however they evolved or developed over time, are not progressive. In other words, “modern” religions are no more advanced, complex, or progressive than “primitive” religions.

This has been a big, and in some cases bitter, pill to swallow. There is a great deal of secular and religious resistance to the idea that evolution (and, by human-specific extension, history) is not progressive. I have encountered this resistance in the classroom, among friends, and my posts on these subjects have engendered a great deal of push-back. In light of all this, let’s take a closer critical look at the concept of progress. Let me start by saying this is not a definitive statement but is simply a sketch or initial consideration of the issues.

Because the concept of progress is so deeply bound up with our most cherished assumptions, wishes, and desires, our first and hardest task will be to avoid subjective and normative arguments about whether some allegedly progressive thing, development, or process is “good/bad” or “better/worse.” These kinds of arguments will not take us very far, are usually tautological, and will almost always devolve into context and culture specific disputes that evade principled resolution. With this in mind, let’s look first at some potentially neutral measures of progress. In the next post, we will evaluate anthropocentric measures of progress, and in a final post we will apply these to specific fields such as science, technology, politics, economy, philosophy, and of course religion.

Time: This measure is perhaps the biggest conceptual culprit when it comes to the idea, taken for granted by most, that progress is “natural” and “universal.” In western cultures, time is conceived in linear fashion, as having a beginning and end. This conception can be either scientific (starting with the Big Bang and concluding with the eventual collapse of the Universe) or religious (beginning with Creation and concluding with eternal Paradise). In both conceptions, the passage of time from beginning towards an eventual end is assumed to be progressive. While this may seem a natural way of thinking, there is nothing inherently progressive about the elapse, or apparent flow, of time. Time can occur, or be experienced, without the attendant value of progress. There is no reason, at least in principle, why an embodied observer of time could not conceive it dually: as progressive for the growth portion of a lifespan and as regressive for the decay portion of a lifespan.

While I am not aware of any such cultural conceptions, I do know that not all cultures conceive of time in linear fashion. Many aboriginal or indigenous societies are famous for conceiving time as non-linear and non-progressive. While it may be tempting to dismiss these cyclic conceptions of time as “primitive” flights of fancy, and to assert that we “moderns” know better, this would be a mistake. The notion of Eternal Return is a venerable one that can be found in many traditions, including modern philosophy and physics. Metaphysics and cosmology aside, it is also worth noting that cyclical conceptions of time may pragmatically reflect, or refract, millenia long experiences with exhaustible resources and fragile environments. They are, in this sense, inherently conservative rather than progressive.

Movement: This potential measure might also be called change. Movement can be forward, backward, sideways, angular, or circular. Neither movement nor change has an inherent direction. Putting it normatively, change can be for better or worse. There is nothing about this potential measure which suggests or requires progress.

Growth: Along with time, growth is a major conceptual culprit when it comes to the assumption of progress. If something is growing, we chart or measure the growth as “progress.” This is true, ironically, even of things like cancer. When the economy grows, we count it good. When crops grow, we count it good. But does growth necessarily imply progress? Surely not. For organisms, there is a period of growth, followed by decay and death. This only partly progressive. Volcanoes grow, but we don’t characterize this as progress. Societies grow, and while economists and other enthusiasts may applaud this, there are serious normative questions about whether rapidly increasing world population (watch this counter for five minutes and marvel) constitutes progress. We will leave these questions for later. Suffice it to say that growth is not an inherently progressive measure, though it certainly can be an ideological measure.

Size: This metric has much in common with growth, though there are some differences. Humans are impressed by size, perhaps because we are large mammals and only see things from the perspective of large organisms. This of course ignores the fact that we live in a world made and dominated by microbes. When paleontologists discuss the Big Five extinction events and say things like “the end Permian event resulted in extinction of 96% of all species,” they are referring to multicellular organisms. Microbes survived all those events quite well and microbes will survive all future extinction events. As Carl Woese likes to remind us, all multicellular organisms could become extinct tomorrow, and microbes would continue living on earth as they have for billions of years. But if all microbes became extinct tomorrow, all multicellular organisms would follow them in short order. Size, in other words, isn’t everything and it is surely not progressive. This aside and normatively speaking, we can all acknowledge that big tumors and large wars are in no way better than little ones.

Accretion: Although this potential measure is closely related to growth and size, I have chosen to treat it separately because there are some (such as the sociologist Robert Bellah) who claim that culture is cumulative and that “nothing is ever lost.” On a purely physical level, we know this cannot be correct: energy and matter are finite, and neither can accumulate beyond finite bounds. Such a conception also ignores entropy, which beyond its thermodynamic aspects surely plays an analogical role in human history and culture. Bellah, a Christian with a linear and teleological view of evolutionary history, seems to have been overawed and blinded by the cumulative impact of writing and expansion of symbolic storage facilities. This caused him to claim that culture, writ large on a world scale, was cumulative and that “nothing is ever lost.”

This is an incredibly naive claim, for cultural creation always involves some level of cultural destruction and social forgetting. Setting aside for the moment issues of globalization, industrialization, and homogeneity, it does not take much to realize that entire ways of life, being, experiencing, conceiving, and speaking have all been lost. We have only the faintest idea what human lives and societies were like during the Pleistocene. We have a better sense for what has been lost, and what we are rapidly continuing to lose, over the past few hundred years. In When Languages Die: The Extinction of the World’s Languages and the Erosion of Human Knowledge (2007), K. David Harrison gives us this sense and it’s all about loss.

Energy: This potential measure is non-directional and contains no inherent value as either progressive or regressive. It’s certainly not static. Humans are of course much impressed by energy and our attempts to create and harness it take us deep into anthropocentric considerations of progress. Let’s leave those aside for this post and simply consider energy in its cosmological and terrestrial forms. There is lots of energy out there in space, but I’m not sure anyone would claim that the ongoing process of galaxy, star, and planet formation and destruction is progressive. It is a process to be sure, but normatively characterizing it as progressive is an anthropic principle, something that exists only in the eyes of human beholders. Here on earth, energy manifests in its most raw and powerful forms as solar radiation (which creates weather) and vulcanism. A sometimes placid but often turbulent planet is neither progressive nor non-progressive. It just is.

Complexity: I have saved this metric for last because it’s a big one when it comes to progress. Like size and related to it, humans are suckers for complexity. On an organismic level, we see the world through the eyes of large mammals. In doing so, we tend to ignore the fact that our world is not just microbial to its core, but is also dominated (in terms of diversity and biomass) by less complex organisms such as plants and insects. On a societal level, we normatively assume that bigger, and hence more complex, is better. In doing so, we ignore the possibility that the specialization (and stratification) which is the engine of complex societies often results in a phenomenological and existential narrowing of human life at the level of individuals who constitute the masses. We also tend to forget that with 7.5 billion people on earth, the majority are masses. Of all the measures I have considered thus far, complexity is the most normatively fraught, stemming as it does from anthropocentric views and biases about the world. For this reason, I will consider it in more detail in the next post. Suffice it to say that there is nothing about complexity, per se or in and of itself, which suggests progress. Complexity must be evaluated on a case by case and contextual basis, with the context being something more than a single organism or type of society.

Stay tuned for Interrogating Progress Parts 2 and 3.

Research and Reading Note — As I began working on this post yesterday, I wrote the following: “We are sorely in a need of a book on the concept of progress, one that considers the ways in which the idea has developed and been deployed historically, philosophically, and cross-culturally. The standard narrative — i.e., that ‘progress’ is a child of Judeo-Christianity which was secularized by the Enlightenment and turned into a modern faith — is hardly sufficient. Deep-seated assumptions and taken for granted ideas about progress have a history and I’m sure that history will be revealing. If anyone is aware of such a book, please let us know.”

After writing this, I did some digging and found that there are in fact such books, all of which I have just ordered. Because I have not read these, my musings above may turn out to be naive or off the mark. We’ll see. But in the meantime, here are the books:

March of Progress

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8 thoughts on “Interrogating Progress (Part 1)

  1. Vanitas

    Hm. I would have thought that “progress” makes sense only relative to some goal. If people really think that evolution produces progress *as such*, then they are clearly mistaken. But it must also be wrong to say that it never produces progress with respect to any goal. If developments in cultural history increase, say, social cohesion, then there is progress relative to the goal of social cohesion. This is by no means a necessary development (nothing is in evolution), nor is it necessarily some overriding goal that we all have reason to value. But surely you’re not denying that there can be progress in this sense?

  2. Stewart Guthrie

    Hey Cris, great topic.

    I’d add only the industrial revolution and its beneficiaries as culprits in making the assumption of progress virtually hegemonic in modern culture. An example of that condition is the archaeology of the transition from H & G to cultivation, which, until the 70s, asked only “how” rather than “why”–until Mark Nathan Cohen argued (The Food Crisis in Prehistory: Population Pressure and the Origin of Agriculture) that cultivation was a necessity, not a choice–nor an invention–and, in terms of human health & happiness, brought decline not ascent.

    Thanks for the essay & books; looking forward to more.

  3. Chris Kavanagh

    Interesting post Cris and I look forward to parts 2 & 3 and your reviews of the books mentioned but, like Vanitas above, I (perhaps naïvely) have always considered ‘progress’ as being relative to a given measurement or goal. Vanitas mentions social cohesion and you could also use technological complexity or even more readily quantifiable things like life expectancy and meaningfully discuss different levels of ‘progress’. It seems that if you try to deconstruct all possible points of comparison in regards to progress as being irrevocably ethnocentric you end up in the well explored anthropological black hole of extreme cultural relativism: all human societies everywhere are unique and relate to specific environments and so it is essentially meaningless to compare cultures. From my perspective, it seems like you are trying so hard to redress the negative connotations attached to inaccurately labelled ‘primitive’ societies that you are in danger of dismissing concepts, which while admittedly problematic, are also actually useful.

  4. Cris Post author

    While I agree with both of you that progress is often considered as being relative to a given measurement or goal, this is a rationalist view of progress which has a specific kind of history and instrumentalist application over fairly short periods of time (like several decades or a century, at best). I’ll get to that particular cultural history, but right now (or in this first post) I’m concerned with uncovering hidden assumptions — or allegedly neutral metrics — that are embedded in progressivist accounts of evolution and history. These accounts are typically given for much larger or longer periods of times, as in millenia. In the final post, I’ll discuss some fields in which progress is certain and measurable without controversy.

  5. Chris Kavanagh

    Agreed that there are definitely unacknowledged assumptions in progressive narratives. If you haven’t seen it already you might find this recent article by D.S. Wilson problematic for such reasons:, although check out the responding articles for some more interesting and nuanced follow up arguments. Based on your response I’m looking forward to the next instalments even more now, deconstruction is certainly worthwhile but it often fails to impress when it is performed without any acknowledgment of the positive or useful aspects of the concepts being criticised.

  6. franscouwenbergh

    >>>What constitutes progress…?<<<
    Our earliest ancestors split from the ape-men line by developing gestured names (symbols, words) for things. It enabled them to communicate ideas of things, places, events, to one another.
    A name for a thing is sort of handgrip on the idea (image of the thing) in your mind, with which you can grasp the idea and transfer it to another, and the other can grasp it from you – this is the essence of communicating. Only our species has this trick. It made our species unique in the animal world. It put us on the path of comprehending things. A path of no return, a path of comprehending things ever more and better. This constitutes human progress.
    'Modern' religions such as Judaism, Christianism and Islam pretend providing 'the truth' and put a stop of human progress on the path of ever more and better comprehending things.
    Sorry, Cris, I know you don't want to hear this view on human essentiality …

  7. Cris Post author

    Frans — I don’t think anyone would dispute that the evolution of language was, at least for one lineage of hominins, a progressive development. It would be churlish, if not downright foolish, to assert otherwise (especially as I write these words which you will visually process into an interior voice). But my intial assessment of progress is not concerned with the singular standpoint of one species; the dataset for evolution is all of life, not just one form of it. In the next post, I will address progress from purely anthropocentric perspectives. In the meantime, I might recommend that you read Terrence Deacon on the evolution of language (“The Symbolic Species”), and perhaps also read Charles Peirce’s work on semeiotics. The evolution of language, or more specifically symbolic abilities, is considerably more complicated than you make it sound.

  8. Joe Miller

    Cris, you really need to read The Legitimacy of the Modern World by Hans Blumenberg if you want to understand “the ways in which the idea has developed and been deployed historically, philosophically, and cross-culturally”. It gets my highest recommendation.

    Here’s David Auerbach’s summation of Blumenberg’s project:

    “One of the primal mechanisms of myth is to anthropomorphize aspects of the world so that we can understand it and address it. Thus myth easily begets religion, which prescribes seeming ways of negotiating reality by positing deities that we can use to explain reality to ourselves. It grants us a greater sense of self-determination autonomy by positing some communication with these anthropomorphic spokespeople of reality: some way to negotiate with reality. If we behave in certain ways, the gods (that is, reality) will react in comprehensible ways.

    Here there is some similarity with Nietzsche’s genealogical analysis of morality and culture, which is a crucial influence for Blumenberg. Like Nietzsche, Blumenberg is focused on how we tell stories and invent “truths” to make our existence bearable and comprehensible. Like Nietzsche, Blumenberg sees much of the history of humanity as the inevitable failure of one or another “myth” to measure up to the absolutism of reality.

    Yet unlike Nietzsche, Blumenberg does not envision some point at which we can be free of those stories. Even total historical awareness will not produce the emancipation from reality and culture that Nietzsche seeks. Nietzsche’s dream of a tiny elite of autonomous, emancipated “higher men” is fundamentally solipsistic, no matter how sophisticated Nietzsche’s treatment of it is, which is why Nietzsche frequently seems simultaneously acute and naïve. In the words of Angus Nicholls:

    For Blumenberg, a naïve unity between humanity and nature was never possible; rather, collective reflection and deliberation must suffice for a species that has at least partially separated itself from the instinctive and natural.

    This is not a solution so much as a challenge. Blumenberg is not teleological: the construction of an end for humanity contradicts the contingent nature of our relation to reality. The very absence of such an end is what makes human dignity possible, or else we become only a means to that end:

    If there were an immanent final goal of history, then those who believe they know it and claim to promote its attainment would be legitimized in using all the others who do not know it and cannot promote it as mere means. Infinite progress does make each present relative to its future, but at the same time it renders every absolute claim untenable. The idea of progress corresponds more than anything else to the only regulative principle that can make history humanly bearable, which is that all dealings must be so constituted that through them people do not become mere means.”

    And so Blumenberg embraces figures like Socrates, Nicholas of Cusa, Giordano Bruno, and above all Copernicus, who all attempted to expand the reach of humanity’s intellect and capacities without prescribing a conclusive direction and end for these capacities. He is less patient with the Stoics and the Gnostics, whom he portrays as running away from the ever-pressing issue of dealing with reality.

    n the modern day, he is greatly sympathetic to the phenomenologist Edmund Husserl’s unyielding inquiry into the problems of the human and natural sciences; in contrast, he criticizes Heidegger for positing an illusionary refuge of “authenticity” held up as a favorable contrast to the present day. Blumenberg, steeped in the past, was uncommonly sensitive to the lure of false nostalgia, a grass-is-greener sentiment for imagining the good times of past without bothering to examine the prejudices and historical conditioning that underlie such nostalgia.

    Heidegger promises the world with his dream of authenticity, but such promises are bound to be unfulfilled. The Greeks were not the untroubled creatures of authenticity any more than Marx’s imaginary proletariat are. The myth of the untroubled person perfectly integrated with the world is … a myth. We chase such rainbows because we seek better accommodation with the unaccommodating world, but as we are thinkers and are not omnipotent, perfect accommodation is not realizable. Humans are, in Blumenberg’s words, “creatures of deficiency.”

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