Home > What is science? > The Façade of Progress: A Personal Perspective

The Façade of Progress: A Personal Perspective

Okay, so it’s ~13hrs late, sue me.

Bacteria –> Fish –> Amphibian –> Lizard –> Rat –> Monkey –> Human

As common a motif as any for evolution, this ladder (not the exact ordering or the creatures named but the concept at least) dates back to Ancient Greece (or at least so Wikipedia tells me :p *slaps wrist*). The idea basically being that animals are organised in a scale (The name for this ladder of life in latin was: Scala Naturae) from the least complex (bacteria) to the most and of course humans sit atop all because most complex life is best life.

But this view of life is terribly stunted in it’s vision, take for example these things, just take a look at the pictures and tell me, what is it? It’s actually a chordate, just like you and I, just like snakes, frogs, sharks, goldfish et.c., it’s a highly specialised version of one though and it’s like a barnacle in that it gives up the pelagic (Open sea) life to live attached to a rock and filtering out their food from the water around them.

These animals are perfectly suited to their environment, you are suited to yours, despite your supposedly ‘more’ evolved complex form, you could not possibly hope to survive doing what the barnacle or sea squirt does; neither, importantly, could their ancestors, the ancestor of the barnacle is also the ancestor of shrimp, crabs and lobsters so it’s best to think of a generic (pun intended (nested brackets for those who don’t get it, look up taxonomy and think about specific and general as words)) sort of crustacean. Despite the barnacle and sea squirt each losing features and simplifying down to a seemingly more basal form, they are in fact more evolved than their ancestors and far better adapted to their environments than their more complex cousins.

This concept is a general fallacy built into our minds or at least ingrained at a young age, I know of a time when I saw progress as the way things must be. When I was a child I was always told to ‘cheer up’ and to ‘smile more’ that ‘things will get better’. Despite there being nothing wrong really, I got bullied a little, but I think it’s just how things are at school. Most people are bullied. I should say that doesn’t mean that bullying is justifiable, what I mean is that my bullying was slight and no more than I would expect of being smarter than literally everyone at your school; I was before I moved to a different area where I was much closer to the mean and when I was bullied there, well I was the new kid and everyone had known each other since they could remember, I was an outsider and a weird one at that.

I took this general theme and applied it to evolution myself in my GCSE Graphics project where I re-designed monopoly into a game of evolution, though, really it was a Scala Naturae game and it didn’t really make evolution work how it was supposed to, a bit like another game I know about.

ANYWAY, putting my past where it belongs, the point I’m trying to make is that I was told that things would get better and that matched up with a general trend where we think that things are improving and getting better, I think this is a trend which began back in the ’60s with world wars and depression receding into the distance, science improving and young and exciting new culture being developed, everyone breathed a collective sigh of relief and it seemed things were going to be getting better, follow this up with the ’90s and ’00s of my own life and we’ve seen the internet take off, we’ve seen the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the end of the Soviet Union, these events have given us a sort of ‘things can only get better’ view, one popularised by Brian Cox no less.

This view seems to make the assumption that what must be true of science must be true for the history of things science has discovered, that since science has increased knowledge, improved technology, therefore, stuff should be getting better throughout the world. But just because we have managed to improve our human lives does not mean that on the geologic time scale, things must conform to the same rule.

Combine this with the radiation of groups of organisms as they diversified through time and it gives you a sense that most things around today showed up a long time ago and that was it, they never changed. Hence the old anti-evolutionist cry of “Well if we evolved from monkeys, why are there still monkeys?!” of course there’s more to it than that but putting on a sense of progress from when we evolved through to today gives credence to that old battlecry, if they were to understand that monkeys didn’t STOP evolving when the ape branch split off from them they’d be able to understand why monkeys are a far more successful branch than apes are (Compare number of species between Cercopithecoidea and the Hominidae, it’s clear which is the healthier bush*.

Finally, I’d like to say HEY look at me, I managed to get another post done in a consecutive week (sort of), let’s hope I manage to get a third one, and a fourth and so on until my posts number as many as the intermediate fossils between me and my most distant ancestor.

* Note: The Cercopithecoidea only include the Old World Monkeys of Asia, Africa and Europe, not the New World Monkeys so by that measure, Hominidae are even worse. (Taxonomists read on: I know, the New World Monkeys and Old World Monkeys as a group excluding the Great Apes is a paraphyletic group but shush, baby steps for people who don’t know as much as you, that is, people like me)

References

This essay was inspired by my recent reading of Stephen J. Gould’s book Eight Little Piggies along with some other books of his that I’ve read, I’m probably just repeating what he’s said in a less eloquent voice but hey, I think I’m getting better? No, okay then.

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