evolution“One reason that a profound moral improvement of humankind is hard to envision is that it seems difficult to pull ourselves up morally by our own bootstraps; our attempts at improvement are going to be made by the unimproved. The people who implement the singularity, mess about with the genome, prescribe the medication, preach the uplifting sermons, or design the moral curriculum will be, precisely, people, and hence, for example, corrupt and inattentive. In particular, they’re liable to be wrong even about what is really good or evil.

People and societies occasionally improve, managing to enfranchise marginalized groups, for example, or reduce violence, but also often degenerate into war, oppression or xenophobia. It is difficult to improve and easy to convince yourself that you have improved, until the next personality crisis, the next bad decision, the next war, the next outbreak of racism, the next “crisis” in education. It’s difficult to teach your children what you yourself do not know, and it’s difficult to be good enough actually to teach your children to be good.”

The above passages come from a NYT Stone piece by philosopher Crispin Sartwell. The article is titled “Can We Improve?” and as the the quote above suggests, Sartwell is not convinced that moral progress (or any type of progress really) is a thing.

I’m sympathetic with this kind of pessimistic, post-modern, ‘progress is non-sense’ stance to some degree. I understand how it can be really hard to look around at the world, with all the terrible things that happen, and try to say with a straight face that things are better then they used to be. I mean, like Sartwell points out, how do we even begin to measure something like “progress,” anyway? Further, if we start talking about progress in evolution (cosmic, biological and psycho-social), geez, there might be spiritual implications, BUT, worst of all, this concept of progress in evolution has sort of been tainted by racist social Darwinian type movements.

On the other hand, I’m also skeptical of Sartwell’s  understanding of “improvement” here and question the  criteria he’s using to measure it by; it’s plain to see that his comments presuppose a clear understanding of what “good” is. I’m disappointed in his lack of imagination as well. I mean, why is “progress” always conceived of as linear, deterministic, and without risk?

I would argue that if  anything is going to change and grow toward greater complexity (of experience, for example) risk is inevitably going to be involved. Further, to be fair to Sartwell, he is right to doubt this linear understanding of progress. Cosmic/Biological/Psycho-Social evolution definitely does not advance linearly and there can, in fact, be dramatic regression. But, as far as I know, most experts would recognize (however cautiously) a vertical trajectory in evolution; not linear necessarily, but more like a sprawling bush, with no main trunk or obvious tip.

This post could go on and on but, as far as human moral progress goes, I’m reminded of Whitehead’s consciousness-centric definition of evolution as “an increase in the capacity to experience what is intrinsically valuable.” I’m also reminded of how Steve Macintosh says that “humans have improved their conditions most dramatically by improving their definition of what counts as improvement — by evolving their values and their worldviews into more inclusive frames of reference.” I take Sartwell’s critical reflection piece to be evidence of what both Whitehead and Macintosh are talking about; Sartwell is trying to help us improve our definition(s) of improvement. And again, if humans and their societies can continue this trajectory (each in their own way, at their own time, in their own location) of appreciating greater, more complex levels of intrinsic value (Beauty, Truth, Goodness, Adventure, Zest) then one should probably also count on greater, more complex levels of potential problems to accompany it. In other words, progress and pathology go together and increase proportionately, I suspect.

Accordingly, fitness, I would imagine, is intimately linked to ones particular environment, not to an idealistic, deterministic goal “out there” somewhere. Isn’t it the case that we adapt as we change and progress? And could it not be said that this process is simultaneously the goal?


  1. Don Vande Krol October 6, 2015 at 5:33 pm


    You gave me some fodder for thought – not really anything I haven’t thought about, but it helps to see my thoughts articulated by others. 🙂

    Concerning ‘progress’, I wonder: Is greater complexity a good thing? Does God “lure” us toward more complexity? What about the value of simplicity? “Simplify, simplify, simplify!”, wrote Thoreau.

    • jturri October 6, 2015 at 5:57 pm


      Don, God’s lure is always toward greater realizations of inherent value, not in a moral sense, but in an aesthetic sense, I think. So for Whitehead, beauty is the primary value, and then truth and goodness and zest/intensity flow from that. Again, I wouldn’t think about greater complexity in a moral or ethical sense as being good or better, necessarily. Integral theory and Koestler’s theory of holarchy helps me here. All things are simultaneously a part and a whole; whole/parts. The more parts one thing can contain the more complex, or significant they become, BUT those parts that make up the system are more fundamental in nature; e.g. atoms can exist without monkeys, but monkeys cannot exist without atoms…

      As for the value of simplicity, I think there is a difference between simplifying something and making something simplistic. I agree with the late Steve Jobs in that if one believes something is ‘simple’ they obviously do not understand it. The challenge, he said, was to thoroughly understand the complexity so that you can then simplify it. Yes, there is value in simplicity, but I’d be willing to bet that, more often than not, behind the apparent “simplicity” of things lies something extraordinarily profound and complex.

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