Mythology fills a necessary place in the history of human ideas. It arises when man first demands some explanation of the strange surroundings in which he finds himself, some comprehensible guidance in the frightening chaos. The human mind has not at this stage been able to penetrate beyond the surface of things, to discover the deeper relations of events, or to illuminate the dark confusion with the light of science. Myth is thus a rationalization; it is an ad hoc support framed by our intellect to sustain our existence, and the formation of myths is bound to continue in any domain so long as our desire to know and to understand is confronted and overtopped by our ignorance.
In later stages, however, mythology is inevitably modified by new knowledge and experience, and in the long run becomes supplanted by science. Science may not be able to give ultimate explanations, but at least it can, as time passes and knowledge accumulates, provide rational understanding. The myth is thus eventually replaced by the scientific description, the comprehensible account of the facts of nature. The making of myths has thus not been confined to early stages in the development of mans ideas. Some myths, like that of progress, are quite recent
Yet even if myths can be stretched to include new scientific knowledge [and] even if they retain a value long after their original crude rationalization has ceased to have a meaning, there yet comes a time when it is desirable to reject and demolish them, to start building a wholly new scaffolding for the human mind, on the frank basis of naturalistic description and scientific method.
This time of rejection is approaching for the mythology of mans destiny By myths of human destiny, I mean all those fabulations which purport to give man, both as individual and as race or species, an explanatory picture of his life in relation to its setting, to rationalize the process of change we see everywhere both in and around us, and to indicate the relation between human desire and purpose on the one hand and cosmic chaos and indifference on the other
One of the myths of human destiny is that of progress. Professor Bury in an interesting book has shown how recent has been the growth of this idea. [Ed: see The idea of progress] Apart from temporary flickers, it dates back no earlier than the Reformation. Its rise was undoubtedly connected with that of modern science, which, following on the great explorations, revealed not only new realms of possible knowledge, but new possibilities of control over culture.
The myth of progress has taken two main forms, which have sometimes remained separate, sometimes been intertwined. One is the myth [that] asserts that if only man gets rid of some old obstacle or creates some well-defined and realizable new social mechanism, humanity will leap forward to a utopian state of general well-being and happiness. The eighteenth-century apostles of revolution believed that what was needed was the abolition either of kings or of priests (or preferably of both). Some of the more zealous apostles of the nineteenth-century industrial revolution believed that what was needed was to make the applications of nineteenth-century science available to everybody, and to teach everybody the three Rs: if these conditions could be fulfilled, then everythingto put it rather crudelywould be All Right .
In our Western world the myth of progress has now fallen on evil days. It was attacked in general terms by Bury in his previously cited book, and by many writers since then on the more specific grounds that the idea of progress cannot be reconciled with the retrogressions of Fascism and Nazism and the horrors of the recent wars
However, the patient labours of the students of evolution, whether stellar evolution, biological evolution, or social evolution, have revealed that progress is not myth but science, not an erroneous wish-fulfillment, but a fact. On the other hand, progress as a scientific doctrine reveals itself as very different from progress as a mythical dogma.
The scientific doctrine of progress is destined to replace not only the myth of progress, but all other myths of human earthly destiny. It will inevitably become one of the cornerstones of mans theology, or whatever may be the future substitute for theology, and the most important external support for human ethics
Evolution in the broad sense denotes all the historical processes of change and development at work in the universe: in fact, it is the universe, historically regarded. It is divisible into three very different sectorsthe inorganic or lifeless, the organic or biological, and the psychosocial or human. The inorganic sector is by far the greatest in extent. On the other hand, the methods by which it changes are almost entirely those of mere physical interaction, and the highest rate of evolution so slow as to be almost beyond our comprehension. [Ed: i.e. the lifetimes of stars and galaxies]
The biological sector is very much more limited in extent; however, with the emergence of the two basic properties of living matterself-reproduction and variation (mutation) a new and much more potent method of change became available to life, in the shape of natural selection. As a result the possible rate of evolution was enormously speeded up...
Finally there is the human sector. This is still further restricted in extent, being confined to the single species, Homo Sapiens. But once more a new and more efficient method of change is available. It becomes available through man s distinctively human properties of speech and conceptual thought. Objectively speaking, the new method consists of cumuon. Through these new agencies, the possible rate of evolution was again enormously speeded up
Evolution in the human sector consists mainly of changes in the form of society, in tools and machines, in ideas, in new ways of utilizing the old innate potentialities
These three sectors [the inorganic, the biological, the cultural] have succeeded each other in time. Perhaps the next fact that strikes one concerning the process as a whole is that the physical basis and the organization of what evolves becomes more complex with time, not only in the passage from one sector to the next, but also within each sector. Most of the inorganic sector is composed of atoms or of the still simpler subatomic units, though here and there it attains the next higher level, of molecules. Further, in a few rare situations it must have reached the further stage of organic macromolecules, which can comprise a much larger number and a much more complex arrangement of atoms. It was from among such giant organic molecules that the living or self-reproducing molecules of the biological sector were later evolved.
These are more elaborate still, consisting of many hundreds or perhaps thousands of atoms. In turn, their vast but still sub-microscopic complexity provided the basis for an even greater visible elaboration. The complexity of the bodily organization of a bird or a mammal is almost inconceivable to anyone who has not systematically studied it. And this visible complexity has increased with time during biological evolution. A bird or a mammal is more complex than a fish, a fish more complex than a worm, a worm than a polyp, a polyp than an amoeba, an amoeba than a virus.
Finally, in the human sector, a new complexity is superimposed on the old, in the shape of mans tools and machines, idea-systems, and social organizations. And this, too, increases with time. The elaboration of a modern state, or of a machine-tool factory in it, is almost infinitely greater than that of a primitive tribe or the wooden and stone implements available to its inhabitants.
But it is not only complexity of organization which increases with time. In the biological sector, evolution has led to greater control over the environment, to greater independence of its changes and chances, and to a higher degree of individuation. It has also led to an increase of mental powersgreater capacities for acquiring and organizing knowledge, for experiencing emotion, and for exerting purpose. This trend towards fuller knowledge, richer emotion, and more embracing purpose is continued in the human sector, though by different methods and at a much increased rate. But to it is superadded another trendan increase in the capacity to appreciate values, to appreciate experiences that are of value in their own right and for their own sake, to build on knowledge, to work through purpose, and to inject ethical values into the process of social evolution itself
Thus, whatever may have been the origin of the universe and whatever its final fate, it has in fact shown a certain trend which may properly be called progress. This is discernible within the few hundred million years of its history about which we can draw reasonable conclusions, and can be extrapolated with a high degree of probability into the few thousand million years of the future about which we can make reasonable prophecies.
This trend is measurable most clearly by the upper level attained by certain attributes of the existing world-stuff, rather than by their average level. These attributes vary according to the sector of existence which is being considered. In the inorganic sector the only criterion is complexity of organization. In the organic phase of evolution complexity continues to increase, but other criteria become more importantnotably the capacity to control other parts of the universe, and to become more independent of changes in the environment, while in its later stages the dominant criterion shifts to increased capacity for knowledge, emotion and purpose, notably the capacity for profiting by experience. All these criteria are still involved in progress within the psychosocial phase, but new criteria are superaddednotably increased understanding and attainment of intrinsic values
Although we have no right to regard this trend as embodying a cosmic purpose or a Divine intention, we can properly say that it constitutes a desirable direction of evolution, as contrasted with those numerous other trends which are less desirable or undesirabletrends leading to cultural degeneration or extinction, to one-sided specialization or to stagnation
It is true that the range of undesirable possibilities increases at the same time, that in the human sector at least any rise implies the possibility of a deeper fall and greater good involves the possibility of greater evil. But this in no way impugns the positive trend I have outlined. The level of desirable qualities and attributes attained by the existing world does rise; that does not cease to be a fact because of the existence of any other facts, even of antagonistic ones.
I want now to deal with the question of the inevitability of progress. In biological evolution progress is in one sense inevitable, in another sense not. It is inevitable in the sense that, given the struggle for existence and natural selection in our world or any world similar to ours during the last thousand million years, it is apparently unavoidable that true progress should occur in some of the lines of life. But it is not universally inevitable: the great majority of biological stocks either show no progress, the reverse of progress, or a progress which is only partial and limited. It is conditioned by accidents; if the identical stock which showed progressive evolution on a continent could have been transplanted to a small oceanic island with different competitors, it would assuredly not have progressed.
If the world had not had the accident of a great climatic catastrophe befall it at the close of the Cretaceous, the ancestral mammals would not have supplanted the reptiles so completely nor embarked upon such rapid new advance. And it will always remain subject to accidents. If some virus or bacterium were to arise which exterminated the human species, that would almost certainly be the end of any hopes of major progress on earth. If the temperature of the earth were to fall sufficiently, progress would undoubtedly stop and would eventually be totally reversed.
In the human sector for some considerable evolutionary future, progress is probably inevitable, in the sense that the upper level of desirable qualities in point of fact is bound to rise. But it is not inevitable in the sense that it must be steady; on the contrary, there may be serious regressions interrupting the general rise of level, as we know from history and from all-too-personal experience. Nor is it inevitable But given the present state of the human race, its thirst for knowledge and betterment, and the extent of its accumulated tradition, I regard it as certain that some degree of progress will for some time inevitably continue to occur
Progress at the present juncture may be inevitable, in the sense of being in the nature of things. But it is also in the nature of things that progress will not come about without human choice, human effort, and human purpose. With the coming of man, evolution itself comes to have a subjective as well as an objective component
The method of human evolution in general, including that by which progress can be effected, is different from that found in the biological sector Natural selection, as operative in biological evolution, depending on the differential survival of types with different genetical endowment, has ceased to be of major importance. It still operates, but in a quite subsidiary way, and it is no longer the prime agency of change. The prime method of change is now change in cultural tradition. Much of the struggle and consequent selection is between traditions and ideas, or between nations, classes, or other groups embodying those traditions and ideas
We can now consider our present situation. In evolution as a whole, it is obvious that there are two major critical pointsthe origin of self-reproducing matter or life, and the origin of self-reproducing culture or man. But there are also minor or secondary critical points, decisive not so much because of their immediate effects as for the new possibilities which they open up. The secondary critical point in inorganic evolution was the formation of giant carbon-containing molecules, rightly termed organic since without them living organisms would have been impossible. The secondary critical point in biological evolution was the origin of learningthe formation of mechanisms for profiting by experience. This was of importance partly because without it the evolution of man would have been impossible
The secondary critical point in human evolution will be marked by the union of all separate traditions in a single common pool, the orchestration of human diversity from competitive discord to harmonious symphony. Of what future possibilities this may be the first foundation, who can say? At least it will for the first time give full scope to mans distinctive method of evolution and open the door to many human potentialities that are as yet scarcely dreamt of. Meanwhile anything that can be done to increase the interpretation of traditions and their fruitful union in a common pool will help, and is itself assuredly a prerequisite of full progress
The most important of all the prerequisites for future progress is the acceptance of the fact of progress, and the understanding of its nature; for we cannot expect to achieve what we do not believe in. We command nature by discovering and obeying her laws. The fact of progress has now been discovered; but it is not yet generally acknowledged, still less its laws adequately understood.
Once we accept the fact of progress, no longer need our beliefs be restricted to anything so partial or ephemeral as a particular nation, a particular religion, a particular culture This is truly a continuing process. It has lasted for thousands of millions of years, and shows no sign of drawing to an end. It has already raised the upper level achieved by the world-stuff from the aimless jazz of electrons and atoms through a whole series of astonishing stages.
The first origin of life, with its attainment of self-perpetuating organization: the evolution of sense-organs, with the attainment of knowledge of the world around; the miracles of beauty, efficiency, and grace that are the higher birds and mammals: the evolution of brains which can store and profit by experience: the present culmination of life in the emergence of manman the microcosm, the time-binder, with brain and mind capable of annihilating the sequence of events, and tying them together in the unity of consciousness; capable of confronting alternatives and making decisions; capable of acquiring knowledge and producing beauty almost immeasurably beyond anything previously realized by any single evolutionary line; capable of appreciating and creating values, and of utilizing them as standards and goals; capable of throwing his thought forward into the future and of realizing that advances equally enormous (but equally impossible to visualize beforehand) are possible in the millennia to come
And as regards our own personal lives, although nothing can make up for blind and cruel blows of fate, we can see them in a truer perspective. Paradoxically enough, this enables us at one and the same time to realize our pettiness and insignificance, but also our unique value and importance. For we are at one and the same time mere organs of the evolutionary process, operating through society; and also, whether actually or only potentially, the transcendent outcome of evolution, through whom alone the full flower and fruit of progress can be actualized and embodied.
Through the doctrine of progress we can be both consoled and exhorted to effort; we can be guided and we can be warned; we can be given an enduring foundation, and also a goal. Our acceptance of the fact of progress and our understanding of the doctrine of progress constitute the major prerequisite of our further progress.