Sunday, July 28, 2013

evolution, progress and change

Since Darwin’s day the word evolution has become perhaps the most consistently overused and misused word in the language. It’s a word that has been applied to just about every subject under the sun, in most cases misleadingly.

Evolution has also frequently been confused with the concept of progress, or used in a woolly-minded fashion in conjunction with that word.

It is doubtful if the concept of progress can be applied even to biological evolution. When referring to the early stages of life on this planet it does have some applicability. Life evolved from very simple organisms to very complex organisms and that process can be seen as progress. Once complex life forms appeared the concept becomes more and more dubious. And yet we will still on occasions have certain species described as primitive and others as modern. In fact of course the life forms of a hundred million years ago were just as well adapted to their environment as present-day species are to theirs. Animals don’t become extinct because a new improved model comes along. They become extinct when conditions change, usually as a result of changes in climate. A brontosaurus was as well adapted to its environment as a zebra is to its. Change is a constant in nature, but change is not progress. Change is just change.

Both evolution and progress are often applied to a very wide range of human activities. In fact these concepts really only apply to a very small number of human activities. Progress certainly can be applied to science (and to medicine which is just a sub-branch of science) and technology because science consists to a large extent of the accumulation of data. The more data you  have the better in science so it is fair to talk of scientific progress.

It’s difficult to think of any other human activity that can be viewed accurately in terms of evolution and/or progress. And yet many people still do so.

Art and literature do change over time and the process by which the achievements of various artists of the past are combined and recombined can be very vaguely seen as a kind of evolution. Sort of. But there is certainly no such thing as progress in art and literature. Tastes change, but change is not progress.

There are some works of art that may not be appreciated as much in some eras as in others. Many modern readers will find it easier to relate to the latest Booker Prize-winner than to Milton’s Paradise Lost. Many people will find Andy Warhol easier to appreciate than Michelango’s The Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel. That is due to changes in taste and in society, not to progress.

Legal systems undergo continuous change, sometimes gradual and sometimes dramatic. It is however difficult to think of any legal system that provides more effective protection to individual rights than the many centuries-old English common law. The common law has been extensively modified by stature law but it is very debatable indeed whether this can be viewed as progress. Can anybody remember the last time a government passed a law to increase or strengthen individual rights? Governments pass prodigious numbers of laws but the number of laws that do harm is most likely equal to, and may well exceed, the number of laws that do good.

Political systems change, but again it is dubious to regard this as progress. Some changes made in some countries at particular times may be regarded as improvements but for every such case it is easy to find another case in which the changes have been very much for the worse. The First Amendment to the US Constitution dates to 1791 but nobody since has come up with a better way of protecting individual freedom.

The terms evolution and progress are often used in relation to social change. There is no question that social change is a never-ending process but it mostly represents changes in fashion. Seeing social change as a process of continuous progress is about as valid as seeing changes in fashion as progress. Hemlines have gone up and they have come down again but that can hardly be regarded as progress.

Every age has its own fashions and tastes in music, clothes, food, morality and social attitudes. Every age thinks that its own tastes in these areas are superior to those of every other age. Every age is wrong about this. The tastes of one era are different from the tastes of other eras. That is all one can say.

Leftists tend to assume that social change is always good. Conservatives understand that social change is merely change. Society can change in positive or negative ways. If a social institution works as it is then change is most likely to be change for the worse.

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