Against Progress

Note: the last time I made this argument it was for cultural reasons. I'm going to avoid that side today, although I have gotten into the habit of finding colonization and colonial remnants (which Westerners of course aren't nearly as sensitive to) a bit annoying. Whether that's justifiable...is for a different day.


The most basic difference between Western and Eastern thought has to be that of the concept of "progress": that is, that time moves in a straight line and that chronologically later stages are "better" in the sense of an improved quality of life. But here's where things get tricky: the definition of 'improved' is heavily dependent upon the present. Because of the belief that chronological movement represents upward mobility of human development, an 'improvement' is automatically anything that brings us closer to the present. Yes, people rail about the environment and how we're completely fucking it, but here's the thing: they still look for ways to maintain our current lifestyles without reverting to earlier modes.

Anyway, that's the base situation. My real point here is about science and the concept of progress. Every new discovery is considered an 'improvement' over some previous mistakenly held doctrine or, rather, that each discovery has to be built on the previous one--however, sometimes it turns out that, for example, spending more than 50 years studying adaptive immunity and assuming that Metchnikoff's innate immune system was just the little sideshow before the big picture, is wrong. Sometimes scientists have to return to previously held conceptions. That's one of the base definitions we work with: test all hypotheses.

But how are we supposed to test a hypothesis that's basically been ignored for 50 years without feeling silly? Science has embarrassed itself everytime a previously ignored idea has turned out to completely revolutionize a field--and yet we'll keep doing it.

The other side of this is the assumption that new things are always better, that we're always building up to something. Sometimes, science happens for the sake of discovery. Not every receptor is a crucial vital important point-thingy of stuff--and every time something is published in a major paper and then appears in mainstream newspapers and nothing happens with it...science looks bad. There are questions like 'why do we fund this crap?' asked...and, considering how much money science now takes from the government, that's bad.

Last point--the original core of this discussion--evolution. Intelligent design advocates and other anti-evolution types love saying that humans have some pretty damn useless features. Here's the thing: evolution is random. Darwin originally rejected the use of that word because it connotes this sort of constant improvement, even though what's really happening is that whatever works, works. Polydactyly doesn't shorten the lifespan (unless it's the kind that comes with lissencephaly...), and therefore it continues to exist as a mutation.

In short, it's bad for science--not only internally, but also in the public eye--when we automatically assume the sort of progression that historians and anthropologists have famously and mistakenly attributed to contemporary Western civilization for years. (Maybe that's why anthropologists are pretty much apologists now.)

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