Suppose the Archduke had ducked

Andrew Berry

  • Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny by Robert Wright
    Little, Brown, 435 pp, £22.50, March 2000, ISBN 0 316 64485 4

Interviewed by the BBC 25 years after Herbert Spencer’s death, Beatrice Webb, who had known him well, referred to him as Darwin’s John the Baptist. Spencer would have relished the description, which is in many ways appropriate: he coined the phrase ‘survival of the fittest’ and was responsible for popularising the term ‘evolution’. Indeed, his adherence to evolution, ‘a profession of faith’, as he put it, both anticipated and exceeded Darwin’s. In 1852, seven years before the publication of On the Origin of Species, Spencer was already carrying the argument to evolution’s creationist adversaries: ‘Those who cavalierly reject the Theory of Evolution, as not adequately supported by facts, seem quite to forget that their own theory is supported by no facts at all.’

Spencer’s version of evolution was very different from Darwin’s, however. For a start, his was not just a biological theory; everything, in his view, evolved: ‘Whether it be in the development of the Earth, in the development of Life upon its surface, in the development of Society, of Government, of Manufactures, of Commerce, of Language, Literature, Science, Art, this same evolution of the simple into the complex, through successive differentiations, holds throughout.’

And whereas Darwin posited natural selection as the mechanism underlying organic evolution, Spencer remained, even after he had read and approved of The Origin, a staunch Lamarckian, believing that characteristics acquired in the course of a lifetime – the stretch of a giraffe’s neck, say – could be passed on to the next generation. It was this vision of individuals striving to better their lot – the giraffe craning to reach the highest foliage – that imbued Spencer’s evolution with its most prominent characteristic: progress. Spencerian evolution was about things getting better and better.

In proclaiming what he called ‘universal progress’, Spencer was merely articulating a dominant theme in Victorian thought. Biological evolution had culminated in Homo sapiens, and H. sapiens had in turn culminated in the Victorian Englishman. Although not as extreme as Spencer, the professional historians of the day also saw evidence of progressive change – though of what kind depended on the historian – and were not averse to extrapolating it into the future. Among them was Karl Marx.

The idea of progress, at least in human affairs, lost its gloss in the 20th century. Not only has it been exorcised by historians, it has also largely fallen from favour among evolutionary biologists, who now hold that we are merely one of evolution’s multifarious products, and not in any general sense ‘better’ than even the lowliest bacterium. Stephen Jay Gould, in particular, has insisted that the anthropocentric Victorian perspective was fuelled more by theology than by sound biology. Like his pet theme, Spencer’s reputation, too, has been eclipsed. In the 1890s, he was well enough known to receive a letter addressed to ‘Herbt. Spencer, England, and if the postman doesn’t know where he lives, why, he ought to’. Today, he is chiefly remembered for just four of the millions of words he churned out, ‘survival of the fittest’, and – somewhat unfairly – as having given birth to Social Darwinism.

Progress, however, has now found a new champion in Robert Wright. Wright, then on the staff of the New Republic, first entered the fray in 1990, with a lengthy (and unfavourable) review of Gould’s anti-progress manifesto, Wonderful Life. Then, deciding perhaps to make a career out of disagreeing with Gould, he published The Moral Animal, a bestselling touchy-feely introduction to evolutionary psychology (of which Gould is one of the more outspoken critics). And now we have Nonzero, a truly Spencerian paean to progress. Wright’s thesis is that both several thousand years of history and several billion years of prehistory have been shaped by the impulse to co-operate, and that co-operation breeds progress: ‘Globalisation, it seems to me, has been on the cards not just since the invention of the telegraph or the steamship, or even the written word or the wheel, but since the invention of life.’

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