May 16, 2022
When the Myth of Progress Unravels
By Alfie Kohn
The arc of history is long, but it bends toward catastrophic annihilation.
— Barbara Ehrenreich
The likelihood that five religious Supreme Court justices are about to eliminate women’s right to terminate a pregnancy [ADDENDUM: which they proceeded to do in late June] — a protection representing “a half-century of progress toward a more equal society” — has elicited not only widespread alarm and anger but also a sense of incredulity. Have the bad old days really returned? Can social progress be rolled back so easily, with well-established freedoms and rights just ripped away?
The answer appears to be yes, and it’s happening in real time with respect to not only reproductive rights but civil rights, voting rights, the separation of church and state (including protection from religiously based mandates and prohibitions), and democracy itself. In fact, we are witnessing a worldwide “expansion of authoritarian rule”; 2021 marked the “fifteenth consecutive year of decline in global freedom.”
Of course we know that progress tends to be slow and unsteady, with a step backward for every two steps forward, and that it doesn’t benefit everyone equally. But the fundamental reality of progress — the idea that the future will be better than the present — is something we’ve long taken for granted. Even words like “backsliding” or “setbacks” imply an expectation that improvement is the default setting.
Is it possible, then, that a growing number of us are gradually, perhaps subliminally, coming now to doubt this? And might that recognition help to explain various disturbing developments that are more commonly attributed just to the depredations of a pandemic: the reversal of what had been a reassuring decline in violent crime, the rise in domestic violence, an apparent surge in incidents of road rage, rudeness, and students acting out, not to mention the striking increase in depression and anxiety among young people (which began before Covid)? Could any of these things be due to a dawning recognition that life doesn’t necessarily get better?
There’s a broader evolutionary sense in which improvement isn’t inevitable, as the biologist Stephen Jay Gould explained. For many years, it was thought that evolution means progress as life moves inexorably toward increasing complexity. But the truth is that, while natural laws serve to limit possible pathways, contingency plays a huge role. There’s nothing inevitable about how things have turned out, let alone what happens from here. There is no Great Chain of Being (an idea rooted in theology rather than science) or a linear March of Progress from hunched, hairy ape to modern human. “Life is a copiously branching bush, continually pruned by the grim reaper of extinction,” Gould wrote, “not a ladder of predictable progress.”1
But the ladder metaphor dies hard. Unconsciously we project our social arrangements and psychological needs onto the natural world. Much as societies like ours believe that competition is just the way the world works — which reflects a confusion of Darwin’s natural selection with Herbert Spencer’s “survival of the fittest”2 — so do the ideological assumptions on which our own historical period and culture are based lead us to adopt mistaken beliefs about progress.
But now those beliefs are being rocked, not only by the reversal of Roe and the diminution of democracy — at least for those of us who view those developments as bad things3 — but also by our having had to abandon the assumption that each generation will fare better financially than the last. In a 2021 poll, “more than two-thirds (68%) of U.S. respondents said they think today’s children will be financially worse off as adults than their parents.” And it appears they’re right: Researchers confirm that an expectation of financial progress across generations “no longer applies.”4
Then, too, of course, particularly for younger people, the longer-term future as a result of climate change is beginning to sink in. Things are not going to get better. At this point, the best-case scenario is that the lives of the fortunate few will become markedly less pleasant while the lives of many more people around the globe will be horrendous. And the almost unimaginable worst-case scenario is not as unlikely as we’d prefer to believe.
Mind you, I’m not arguing that everything always regresses. Many features of human existence have clearly improved: Overall, people live longer and safer lives with a lot less warfare and starvation than was the case centuries ago. Nor is it irrational to hope that some of what we struggle with today might eventually be resolved. But some of it will not. And amelioration is far from guaranteed for the simple reason that there is no necessary direction to evolution or to history. Moreover, the law of entropy can’t be repealed and the larger reality that serves as a backdrop for all of our smaller struggles is the fact that everyone eventually dies.
There’s a kind of muted desperation lurking behind all those reminders to find something to feel grateful for and also behind our determination to believe that a solution will follow every problem or conflict. No wonder so many people insist on books and movies with happy endings. (Does repeated exposure to such stories train us to expect that this is how the world works?) And no wonder so many people cling to belief systems promising that death isn’t the end, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding.
Anyone who points out that improvement isn’t inevitable is dismissed as a curmudgeon or, more alliteratively, as a spoilsport, a party pooper, a worrywart, a gloomy Gus. When we watch documentaries or read essays about social problems, we feel cheated if they conclude without offering some encouraging news, some resolution or reason to be hopeful, regardless of whether this is justified by the facts.
What I’m tentatively suggesting is that the effectiveness of these defense mechanisms may be waning, what with the earth becoming steadily less conducive to human habitation, long-established rights being uprooted, financial security seeming more elusive, and democracy beginning to look like one of humanity’s relatively brief, failed experiments. It would be one thing if the wheels of progress turned slowly, but it’s hard to avoid the possibility that we’re actually moving backward.
Each of us is at risk of engaging in motivated cognition (seeing what we want to see) and of projecting his or her own state of mind onto the external world (seeing out there what’s true in here). And while these perceptual errors don’t discriminate on the basis of optimism or pessimism, Gould advised us to be particularly “suspicious of ideas that are enormously comforting.” The more fiercely we wish something were true, the greater the chance that it will be believed for that reason rather than because logic or evidence supports it. Hence the folks who airily declare that a particular turn of events was “meant to be,” or that “everything happens for a reason” — as if the universe were a sentient being with a plan for us.5 And hence the appeal of that upbeat “long arc of history” trope that Ehrenreich (in this essay’s epigraph) decisively skewers.
If there is a reason to be hopeful, it lies in this possibility: Maybe what has unnerved us isn’t that things don’t necessarily get better so much as the gap between that fact and our expectation that they do. In that case, it’s less painful to relinquish false hopes and face what is true without illusions. Furthermore, it’s somewhat reassuring to recognize that all of us are, as the attorneys say, similarly situated. None of us is alone.
One final observation: The promise that justice and other desirable outcomes will eventually arrive is meant to console us during hard times, but it seems to imply that “progress stems from evolution and destiny rather than struggle.” To face the reality that things may very well get worse — which is to say, that no result is assured — is to understand that history doesn’t unspool on its own. The fact that we humans make history is empowering even if the fact that we must do so is daunting.
1. Moreover, Gould argues, if we hit the rewind button, returning to an earlier point in earth’s history, life would likely evolve in an altogether different way than it did the first time. Given all the purely accidental and opportunistic developments that shape the process of natural selection, there was nothing predestined about the emergence of, say, birds or mammals, let alone of Homo sapiens. And the resulting human-free history would then seem just as inevitable to a hypothetical observer as this pathway does to us. (For more, see this article or this one or this interview with Gould.)
2. Frederick Engels put it this way: All the talk of a “struggle for existence is simply a transference from society to living nature of Hobbes’s doctrine of bellum omnium contra omnes [a war of all against all] and of the bourgeois-economic doctrine of competition together with Malthus’s theory of population. When this conjurer’s trick has been performed…the same theories are transferred back again from organic nature into history and it is now claimed that their validity as eternal laws of human society has been proved” (quoted in R. C. Lewontin et al., Not in Our Genes [Pantheon, 1984], p. 309). This same point has been made by many social scientists, including Marshall Sahlins, Ashley Montagu, Eliot Aronson, Richard Hofstadter, and, most recently, Frans de Waal. I discuss the myth of competition’s inevitability in chapter 2 of No Contest: The Case Against Competition (Houghton Mifflin, 1986/1992).
3. Obviously, some people — albeit, importantly, a minority — approve of criminalizing abortion and forcing women to carry an unwanted pregnancy to term. Likewise, some people are untroubled by what is happening to our democracy because they frankly prefer a strongman in power who is unencumbered by an independent judiciary or a free press; they seem to believe that, “if democracy threatens white Christian patriarchal rule, then democracy has got to go.” Tens of millions of Republicans now openly embrace authoritarianism, approve of the January 6 mob attack on the Capitol, endorse violence against those who disagree with them, and said they wanted Trump to stay in power even if he lost the election. For the rest of us, the fact that such sentiments have metastasized from fringe corners to become widely accepted in 21st-century America is further proof that the passage of time doesn’t imply progress.
4. For example, “the fraction of kids earning more than their parents has fallen dramatically – from 90 percent for kids born in the 1940s to 50 percent for kids born in the 1980s.” And while there is meaningful variation from one country to the next, the basic lack of mobility is now true all over the world.
5. As Edna St. Vincent Millay put it, “it is utter / Terror and loneliness / that drive [us] to address the Void as ‘Thou.'”
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