Progress (Encyclopedia of Science and Religion)
The idea of progress is an invention of the eighteenth century, fueled by discoveries in science and technology. Although it took different forms in different countries, the underlying theme was that, through human effort, it is possible to improve human understanding of the nature of reality. This in turn leads to improvement in the standard of living and of education and health and general wellbeing. More a metaphysical aspiration than a matter of empirical fact, progress was seen as (and intended to be) a secular alternative to traditional religious views, especially inasmuch as it challenged the notion of a providential God, one who controls completely the future fate of humans according to God's desires and unmerited grace.
Many early progressionists were deists rather than theists, believing in an unmoved mover, who lets the universe run according to unbroken law, rather than subjecting it to God's extra-natural intervention. It was almost to be expected, therefore, that many progressionists were favorable to some form of biological developmentalism, or evolution. Notable were Erasmus Darwin (1731802, the grandfather of Charles) and Jean Baptiste de Lamarck (1744829). They took the idea of progress in the social and cultural world, read it into the biological world, seeing life's history as an upward movement from the simple (the monad) to the complex (the human being), and then in circular fashion read evolution back into the cultural world as confirmation of their social beliefs about the possibility of intellectual and cultural improvement. It is not surprising that many of the early critics of evolution, notably the French comparative anatomist Georges Cuvier (1769832), were as critical of the philosophy of progress as they were of the lack of evidential support for transmutation. Although Cuvier was a Protestant, he was more disturbed by the denial of providence than he was by the challenge to literal interpretation of Genesis.
Charles Darwin (1809882), the author of On the Origin of Species (1859), in which he put forward his theory of evolution by natural selection, had a somewhat complex relationship with the idea of progress. Socially and intellectually he believed in it absolutely. It is also to be found in his biology, for he clearly regarded humans as the outcome and triumph of evolution. But he realized that his mechanism for change was relativistic. Natural selection means that some will survive and reproduce and others will not, and those that are successful in one situation will not necessarily be successful in other circumstances. Darwin had to invoke the idea of what today's evolutionists call an arms race, where there is competition between lines and eventual change and progresshe predator gets faster, and then the prey gets faster. Overall, Darwin thought that this would lead to intelligence and ultimately to humans.
After Darwin, socially and biologically, progress reigned supreme. It was the philosophy of the industrialist and educator alike. In biology, the leading spokesman for evolution was Herbert Spencer (1820903), who argued that it is a general law of nature that homogeneity tends towards heterogeneity, and this means that humans are superior to animals, and the English to all other peoples. Many Christian thinkers also started to suggest that perhaps progress and religion are not as opposed as traditionally supposed. If God creates through developmental law, who is to say that God is against the worth and success of human effort? Such particularly were the themes of liberal American protestant preachers like Henry Ward Beecher (1813887), as well as of the future Archbishop of Canterbury, Frederick Temple (1821902).
The twentieth century saw a major decline in support for cultural and social notions of progress. How could one think in terms of improvement in the face of two world wars, the horrors of Stalinist Russia, Auschwitz, the atomic bomb, global warming, and more? Religious thinkers again increasingly invoked the distinction between progress and providence, arguing that the latter is incompatible with the former. In the between-war years, the Anglican poet T. S. Eliot (1888965) explored this theme in depth, and the Jewish philosopher Emil Fackenheim (1916 made this point repeatedly after World War II. To believe in progress was not simply wrong but immoral.
In biology also the notion of progress became much less prominent. After the coming of Mendelian genetics (which emphasizes the randomness of variation), and the development of what was known as neo-Darwinism or the synthetic theory of evolution, there were far fewer scenarios painting a general sweep upward from the blob to humankind. But one might query whether this decline in visible claims of progress was more a function of a general lack of enthusiasm for the overall idea, or more a realization that the intrusion of social ideas into supposedly straight science is not acceptable. Certainly, the most prominent Christian believer who was also a practicing evolutionist, the French Jesuit paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881955), was an ardent progressionist, following the philosopher Henri Bergson (1859941). Among those adopting and endorsing Teilhard's progressivist ideas were such prominent neo-Darwinians as the Englishman Julian Huxley (1887975) and the Russian-born American Theodosius Dobzhansky (1900975).
The Harvard entomologist and sociobiologist Edward O Wilson (1929 also endorses biological progressionism. Standing in a tradition that goes back to Spencer, Wilson argues that the evolutionary process gives human beings a backbone on which to build a fully secular substitute for traditional religions like Christianity. For Wilson, progress tells humans where they came from, what status they have in the overall scheme of things (namely the place at the top), and what moral injunctions are laid upon themo strive to prevent decline and to preserve the human species and, if possible, to send it on to still higher regions of evolution. There have been many critics of this kind of thinkingotably, in biology, Julian Huxley's grandfather Thomas Henry Huxley (1825895) and, in philosophy, the early twentieth-century philosopher G. E. Moore (1873958)ut in biological circles, if not in general society, belief in progress seems set for the time being. And this probably means that even though such practices may not be in general favor among theologians and Christian believers, there will continue to be those with religious sympathies who attempt to blend progress into their overall world picture.
See also COMPLEXITY; EVOLUTION
Richards, Robert J. The Meaning of Evolution: The Morphological Construction and Ideological Reconstruction of Darwin's Theory. Chicago, Ill.: University of Chicago Press, 1992.
Ruse, Michael. "Evolution and Progress." Trends in Ecology and Evolution 8, no. 2 (1993): 55-59.
Ruse, Michael. Monad to Man: The Concept of Progress in Evolutionary Biology. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1996.
Wagar, W. Warren. Good Tidings: The Belief in Progress from Darwin to Marcuse. Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press, 1972.
Wilson, Edward O. The Diversity of Life, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1992.