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.

Friday, July 12, 2013

the Republicans' lack of an effective opposition

It strikes me that the biggest single weakness of the US political system, as compared with the situation in Australia, is that there is no US equivalent to the Leader of Opposition.

In Australia the leader of the party that loses the election automatically becomes the Leader of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition. He is in effect an alternative prime minister-in-waiting. The Opposition Leader serves as the focus for those who did not vote for the government. It is a recognised and important position and the Opposition Leader gets almost as much attention from the media as the prime minister.

The Opposition Leader appoints a “shadow cabinet” with each member having a responsibility to act as spokesman in that area of government. If the Attorney-General does something outrageous the Shadow Attorney-General will call him out for it. If the Minister for Trade has proved to be a failure the Shadow Minister for Trade will put him under pressure.

The Opposition does not wait until election year to decide on its policies. Any Opposition that did this would be doomed to defeat. The Opposition has its own policies which are constantly being presented to the people as an alternative to the current government’s policies. After an election loss they have three years to present themselves as an alternative government.

In the US by contrast there is no single figure from the losing side to serve as a focus of opposition to the governing Administration. This proves to be a dangerous weakness when you have a bad president like Obama. A president like Obama can ride roughshod over the Constitution and the people and there is no organised political resistance. No-one has any idea who will be the losing party’s candidate next time around until shortly before the election. Then the candidate has a very brief period in which to try to convince the voters of his credentials as an alternative president. And until shortly before the election the voters have no idea of the actual policies that candidate will be presenting to them at the election.

All this is a gift to an unscrupulous political schemer like Obama.

It also strikes me when reading conservative blogs from the US that the almost exclusive focus of those blogs is on the failings of Obama. This indicates the extent to which the incumbent president controls the political agenda. In Australia conservatives are able to focus on presenting a coherent alternative political strategy rather than merely criticising the present government. It allows opposition to the government to be much more positive.

We know that Tony Abbott will become prime minister if the government loses the election this year. We’ve known this for the past three years, and for the past three years we’ve known exactly what he stands for and exactly what his policies will be if elected. He’s had three years to prove himself as a competent and viable alternative prime minister. As a result there’s a good chance that the disastrous socialist Labor Party government will be thrown out on its ear later this year. Whereas in the US the Republicans seem destined to drift helplessly without leadership or direction until 2016 when they will most likely face yet another presidential election defeat.

Monday, July 8, 2013

modernism and diseased minds

I just can’t project myself into the minds of modernist architects who design universities that look like prisons, churches that look like fast-food outlets and hospitals that look like mortuaries. I can’t get into the minds of modernist artists who produce paintings that look like they should be found on the walls of a public lavatory. I can’t imagine the minds of writers who think they’re producing literature when in fact they’re writing the sorts of books that dirty-minded schoolboys would have hidden under their mattresses.

There is of course horror and ugliness in the real world but I don’t understand artists who want to celebrate such things. Oscar Wilde said that we are all in the gutter but some of us are looking at the stars. I don’t understand artists who would prefer to paint the gutter rather than the stars. I don’t understand a world in which artists who paint the gutter are celebrated while artists who paint the stars are ignored.

It’s difficult not to think that such artists must have minds that are filled with hate and anger. If a child made the sorts of paintings that you’ll find hanging in places like the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney that child would be rushed off to a child psychologist.

If you focus too much on the gutter it will do bad things to your head. If you focus on misery and ugliness the danger is that you’ll end up with a brain that cannot recognise the existence of anything else. And that’s what is happening to our society. People focus too much on the negative to the extent that they no longer see the positive. A society that suffers from this kind of cultural sickness cannot survive. It will lose the will to survive.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

not dead yet

I know it's been quiet here but this blog is not dead. I've been busy and I've been ill so I haven't been posting regularly but normal service will be resumed as soon as possible.