05 July 2007

Is the Story of History the Story of Progress?

The philosopher John Gray is out with a new book, tantalizingly named Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia. This is not a review (I've not read the book, due out today in Britain), but a comment about what he says is one of his central points.

Progress is chimerical, he says. It is delusional to think that history has a direction. This is reminiscent of the late Stephen Jay Gould's argument that complexity is not the direction of evolution.

It seems to me that both ignore a central point of evolution. Species adapt (or, in the case of social evolution, institutions and peoples adapt) to their environment. It may be true that the adaptation that will prove advantageous is random rather than teleological, but the environment to which the species is adapting is continually more complex. What this means, practically speaking, is that there is a direction in evolution - towards greater complexity.

John Gray may argue that such a direction does not constitute progress, but it would be hard to imagine a scenario in which species (or institutions and processes and cultural norms) didn't become more intricate, more complex, and more able. To my simple mind, that's close enough to progress.

8 comments:

Anonymous said...

Define progress.

Ron Davison said...

Anon,
and that may be the crux of the question. For me, progress is defined by an increase in autonomy for the average individual. For Russell Ackoff, progress is development - an increase in one's capacity to please one's self and / or others. For John Gray? I don't know, but I assume it has to do with creating "a better life."

Anonymous said...

You point at the pinnacle in subjectivity. Is there a _universal_ subjectivity? Is it attainable? Do people know what to do with their autonomy in order to achieve independence? I think many of us have a degree of autonomy. Perhaps, then, progress would be about enabling their perception of it the autonomy they already possess. Would you agree?

LSD said...

Once again, Happy Weekend RP! Hope your 4th was great.

Is the environment continualy more complex? If I am making progress, then I get to write history and therefore progress was made! Hence, girl likes me, we have family, my child resembles me...

...They sparkle, they bubble, they're gonna get you in a whole lot of trouble..

Anonymous said...

Billie Holiday! :)

ThomasLB said...

Stephen Jay Gould is one of my favorite authors. I think I've read all of his books.

I think if you go all the way back to the cavemen, history is just groups of people getting together to get more stuff. Sometimes they produce it, sometimes they take it, usually it's a combination of the two. The rationalization changes, the tools change, but the core concept doesn't.

That's what is going to make things so interesting for the next few decades. For the first time in history, we have way more stuff than we need, and now the quest for more stuff is starting to kill us. Can we change, or is Get More Stuff permenantly hardwired into our brains?

Anonymous said...

I seem to recall someone purchasing a brand new printer just to make labels for some cd's he sent me…

Personally, I scrawl on mine with a black permanent marker. ;)

Ron Davison said...

LSD,
Woman do seem to represent both progress and increase in complexity.

thomas,
Stephen Jay Gould is an enjoyable read - one of those rare great minds that made his thoughts accessible. I does seem doubtful that we'll continue to accrue more goods in this next century at the same rate as the last.

Anon,
the pinnacle of subjectivity indeed - I think that progress, finally, is an individual experience.