BLOG: Evolution and Progress

John Dietrich

In launching this series in 2016, in what feels like a churning time for progressive society, we open with an excerpt of Dietrich’s talk on “Evolution and Progress,” from the compilation The Fathers of Evolution (Pioneer Press, 1927).


A Parallel Universe?

“In the beginning of the 20th century, men began to look back over the last century and feel as Alfred Russell Wallace expressed it in his last book, Social Environment and Moral Progress – the gist of which is that there is no question about the immense advance made in the arts and sciences, especially in the realm of technical knowledge; there is no question about the advance made in the field of inventions or in the contributions to the comforts of life;

but in the existence of misery, of injustice, of human exploitation, of deadening competition, of preparation for war, Mr. Wallace tells us we have not progressed.

“And yet the general optimism of the first decade of this century was quite universal. Of course, the chief emphasis was laid upon the mechanical improvements, but the majority of people really believed in an actual intellectual and moral progress in the life of men and of nations. And people were looking forward at least in a theoretical way to the unity of mankind and believed that the world was almost ready to join hands in the realization of human brotherhood, and that the future of mankind would be happy and peaceful and bright.

“Then came the war with all its tragic events and men seemed to be thrust back into barbarism. The whole world spent nearly five years in a stupendous attempt to destroy almost everything that had been gained in centuries.”


What Is Progress?

“Perhaps the most significant thing about all this discussion of progress in the past is the fact that no one has ever really defined what the word is supposed to mean…”

“Some believe that all the life-saving and life-protecting devices and methods, in addition to those things that make life easy and comfortable, are a sure sign of progress; while others tell us that these things are merely pampering and enfeebling us physically and mentally and morally….

“The socialist sees no signs of progress so long as capitalism holds sway, and thinks of it in terms of a gradual approach toward a socialistic state, while the capitalist looks upon the rise of socialism as a sign of impending doom.

“The militarist sees racial disaster in the growth of pacifism; and the pacifist sees it in the lingering of militarism.

“The critic of birth control swears that our empty cradles mean calamity; and the eugenist sees the calamity in the overcrowded cradles of the poor.

“The Puritan looks upon the statistics of the divorce court as a sure sign of moral degradation; while others see in this the transition toward a higher and better basis of sex relationship.”


I have always liked the definition of progress which I once found in a book by Sigurd Ibsen… He said, “Progress is the realization of the possibilities and demands of our nature.”…

“I do not believe with Herbert Spencer that evolution means eternal progress toward some perfect end… As I look back over the past and survey the progress that has been made, I do not see either an omnipotent power or a cosmic principle at work; I see only the determined effort of human beings…

“Our trust in some outside power that will achieve the progress of humanity is shattered forever. That perfect order of things which for centuries men believed God was to produce for us in another world, we ourselves must produce in this world…

And I believe in progress because of my faith in the powers of human nature, in its ability to do almost anything once it wakes up to a consciousness of that ability.”


Question:  How do you define progress?

 

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