Things that evolve – (1) Evolution

Gregory, who often posts here, is a sociologist interested in showing how the concept of evolution is misleading when applied to human sciences. Watch out for his forthcoming book on “Human Extension”. Nevertheless, the fact that evolution ought to be restricted to the field of biology doesn’t mean that it hasn’t, in reality, been applied to everything under the sun, and over it, as a global philosophy of existence. I want to look today at the interesting way in which that generalising principle has shifted since Darwin.

As I’ve pointed out before, there is no doubt that Darwin’s original idea was a theory of Progress, as even a cursory reading of the Origin of Species shows. As just one intance, see this sentence from the final paragraph of the Origin:

Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows.

It is no accident that this tied neatly in with the key ideas of the Enlightenment; the inevitability of struggle and the equal inevitability of progress to higher things. Somewhere in there is implied the struggle against the ignorance of tradition (especially religious tradition, of course) to bring true scientific knowledge.

The stereotype of the scientist-hero battling prejudice and personal difficulty to deliver that Progress was almost Universal, from Pasteur and Marie Curie as our childhood role models (not Mengele or Oppenheimer, though) to the young Dr Findley writing his casebook amongst Scotland’s poor

It also fits strangely well with the developing eugenic movement, in its both its soft form in Darwin’s own reluctant acceptance that inferior races would lose out in the struggle towards civilisation (aka white European culture) and in the more developed forms of Galton, Haeckl – and Hitler. The painful and distasteful task of purging the human race of impurity was necessary because progress was an historical necessity.

Politically, evolutionary struggle and progess underlie the mirror-image ideologies of the last century – fascism and communism. Yet even in the democratic world millions died between 1914 and 1918 not because of European politicians’ obsession with power but in “the Great War for Civilisation” as the inscription on the medals said.

It’s hard for younger people to appreciate the ubiquitous obsession with progress during most of the twentieth century. I have an early memory of a TV screening of Alexander Korda’s film of H G Wells’ Things to Come. Decades of war, in which civilisation disappears, is ended by an elite of scientists with a technological solution – the gas of peace, which is a kind of spray-lobotomy . Their oligarchy soon leads to Progess – meaning lots of streamlined vehicles flying around. In the final scene a giant (and presumably publically funded) space gun is about to launch a lucky crew to outer space, the ultimate goal of Progress. A mob of Luddites, led by an artist as I remember but representing everybody except the scientists, tries to destroy the gun and is, unfortunately, killed by its firing. We are led to believe by a white-kilted Raymond Massey that this is all a necessary result of choosing between progress and chaos. Nowadays one would ask why the population had to pay for the prestige projects of an unaccountable elite, but in 1936 it meshed not only with Wells’ own Eugenicist sympathies, but presumably with the spirit of the times.

Even the Second War didn’t dim that concept of evolution – my childhood was filled with the latest cars, the latest planes, the latest space shots – even the latest bomb tests mixed a certain admiration with the pervading fear of death. You cannot, after all, get in the way of progress. Science fiction was the hottest thing to read – and involved more people in white robes, but with bigger heads – the assumed outcome of future biological evolution. I remember a Russian documentary demonstrating to the West the greatness of Eastern Science in its ambition to melt the ice caps in order to… well, in order to make Progress. We might have doubted their ability to do it – but only because we would do it first.

All that optimism has evaporated now, of course. It finds faint echoes in the rather quaint claim of Stephen Hawking that because we are threatened with nuclear oblivion we must colonise the stars – a plot lifted directly from second line sci-fi comics of the fifties. NASA and SETI keep the flag flying, but they have no Raymond Massey to get them funding. The future now means “climate change”, and although science tries to keep the moral high-ground by telling us about it (and berating the obscurantism of climate change deniers) it’s hard to cover up the fact that only science made anthropogenic climate change possible. Just as it enabled nuclear winter a generation ago and actualised the high-explosives, poison gas and machine guns that decimated the previous generation.

Medical progess now seems more the result of benefactors like Bill Gates spending money on getting simple vaccines into peoples’ bodies than of pushing the boundaries of knowledge. Indeed, scientific advance in medicine has served to make it almost unaffordable. Scientists can chart the rise of antibiotic resistance, having caused it in the first place. The mortality rates overall are rising, not falling.

Politics has fallen into disrepute, and none more so than that based on scientific ideology. Ideology now is the province of mediaeval religious groups – though their actual methods, it must be said, were inherited from the revolutionary Marxists and their weapons a product of scientific, not religious, Progress.

In other words, whilst “evolution” is still seen as a universal in the sense of “change over time”, the original content of “inevitable Progress” has faded into the background somehow. Even the science fiction, in the form of Avatar, is Iraq with pointed ears; the heroes are the backward traditionalists, and the villains the purveyors of Progress. Things to Come is turned on its head – yet they’re both considered to represent evolution in action.

Meanwhile, back in biology, look what’s happened to the “real” evolution. Natural selection, remember, was to Darwin the wise overseer of the inexorable movement towards ever greater perfection. Now compare Kimura’s neutral theory – or better still, Eugene Koonin’s overview in which complexity is explained prosaically by the inefficiency of purifying selection in small populations. Indeed there is now believed to be no trend in evolution towards greater complexity, partly because of the mechanisms involved and partly because there’s similar complexity all the way down to LUCA and beyond. This very non-Raymond Massey view is not untypical:

…the human species is by no means the pinnacle of evolution….The black-smoker bacterium, living in a sulphurous vent on the floor of the Atlantic ocean and descended from a stock of bacteria that parted company with our ancestors soon after Luca’s day, is arguably more highly evolved than a bank clerk, at least at the genetic level. Matt Ridley, Genome: The Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chapters, Fourth Estate, 2000

My final question, then, is this: is there any link between the loss of belief in progress in the general sphere and that in biology? Did the increasing negativity about the future start with politics or technology and spread to biology, or vice versa? Or are they both simply as much manifestions of the present spirit of the age as Darwin’s optimistic view of evolution was of the Enlightenment mindset?

Or to put is starkly, is it actually possible to have a science that isn’t, in the end, just a by-product of what happen to be society’s dominant prejudices at the time?

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About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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