On the Darwinian View of Progress

Amartya Sen

It is now a century and a third, almost exactly, since the publication in 1859 of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. In this period the view of evolutionary progress introduced by Darwin has radically altered the way we think about ourselves and the world in which we live. There are very few events in the history of ideas that can be compared in terms of power, reach and impact with the emergence of the Darwinian analysis of progress through evolution. There are, however, several distinct components in the Darwinian understanding of evolutionary progress, and it is possible that the profundity of some of the elements may make us less conscious of the dubious nature of others. In particular, Darwin’s general idea of progress – on which his notion of evolutionary progress is dependent – can have the effect of misdirecting our attention, in ways that are crucial in the contemporary world.

It can be argued that there are three distinct components in the Darwinian analysis of evolutionary progress: an explanation of how evolution works; an idea of what constitutes progress; and a substantiation of the way evolution brings about progress. Of these three, the first is thoroughly profound both in interpreting what is going on in the world and in opening up a powerful general line of reasoning, viewing change and transformation in terms of evolution and natural selection. Exacting questions can, of course, be raised about the aptness of the particular processes on which Darwin himself concentrated, and there are other divisive questions as well. For example, an important issue concerns whether the analysis should be conducted in terms of selection of species (as combinations of phenomenal characteristics) or of genotypes (as combinations of genetic features). It is often more convenient to talk in terms of species (as Darwin did), but natural selection is transmitted through inherited characteristics and that relates to genotypes. Though species and genotypes are closely related, they are not congruent. But these are secondary differences within a shared approach, and the power and far-reaching relevance of evolutionary analysis in general are hard to dispute.

Similarly, it is possible to have reasonable disagreements on the extent to which these evolutionary ideas can be used in other, particularly ‘social’, areas, such as the selection and survival of institutions and behaviour norms – fields of application which Darwin himself had not identified. But there is little doubt about the general usefulness of adding evolutionary lines of reasoning to other methods of social investigation (even though the more extreme applications have attracted some not entirely undeserved criticism). These issues have been much discussed already, and I shall not take them up here. In the threefold classification of elements in Darwinian analyses of evolutionary progress, I shall not grumble at all about the explanation of how evolution works. My focus is on the idea of progress underlying Darwinian lines of analysis.

Our Characteristics and Our Lives

Darwin had a clear conception of what he saw as progress, and he judged the achievements of evolution in that light. ‘And as natural selection,’ he wrote in the concluding section of On the Origin of Species, ‘works solely by and for the good of each being, all corporeal and mental endowments will tend to progress towards perfection.’ Progress was seen in terms of the production of ‘endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful’. Darwin took ‘the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving’ to be ‘the production of the higher animals’.

It is easy to agree with Darwin that ‘there is grandeur in this view of life,’ as he put it in the concluding sentence of The Origin. The question is whether this way of seeing progress points us in the right direction. One distinguishing characteristic of this approach is its concentration on our characteristics and features, what we are, rather than on what we can do or be. An alternative would be to judge progress by the quality of lives we can lead. That – somewhat Aristotelian – shift of focus would not only be more in line with what we have reason to value, it could also draw our attention to issues that a concentration on the ‘highness’ of the species (or on genetic excellence) would tend to hide.

Our capability to lead one kind of life rather than another does not depend only on what we are, but also on the circumstances in which we find ourselves. We can exert all sorts of influence on the nature of the world in which we live. How we view progress can, therefore, make a real difference to our decisions and resolve.

Anthropocentrism and Human Values

I shall try to examine the contrast between these two approaches, which – at the cost of some oversimplification – I shall call respectively ‘the quality of species’ view and ‘the quality of life’ view. The former – Darwinian – perspective in its modern form might well have been better described as ‘the quality of genotypes’ view, since the characteristics that are naturally selected and inherited would be the genetic ones. While 1 shall continue to use the Darwinian term ‘species’, ‘genotypes’ would often be a better description, but the distinction is not central to the main theses of this essay.

It is not easy for the quality-of-life view to escape some anthropocentrism. This is not only because the quality of lives of other animals cannot be judged in the way that the quality of human lives can be, but also because that act of judging is a specifically human exercise. These are genuine problems, and initially it might appear that they work strongly in the direction of endorsing the quality-of-species approach over the quality-of-life view. The picture, however, is more complex than that. A human evaluative framework is, in fact, difficult to avoid in both of these approaches. Even in assessing the quality of species or of genotypes (for example, in judging what forms are ‘most beautiful and most wonderful’), our own judgments are inevitably involved. It is, of course, possible to replace such judgments by the apparently ‘neutral’ criterion of purely reproductive success – the ability to outnumber and outlive competing groups. The evolutionary perspective has often been combined with implicit use of this apparently no-nonsense criterion.

Species, Conservation and Animal Lives

It could be argued that since the Darwinian view takes explicit note of widely different species and genotypes, it has the advantage of broadness over the quality-of-life view, which would tend to be more closely focused on the type of life that human beings lead. For example, it might be tempting to think that the species-oriented Darwinian perspective would be more helpful than the quality-of-life view in understanding the environmentalist’s concern with preserving different species that are threatened with extinction.

This, however, is not at all so. Natural selection is, in fact, choice through selective extinction, and the environmental interest in preserving threatened species must, in this sense, be entirely ‘non-Darwinian’ in spirit. One of the most interesting and forceful theses of The Origin is that ‘it accords better with what we know of the laws impressed on matter by the Creator, that the production and extinction of the past and present inhabitants of the world should have been due to secondary causes.’ Surviving beings, Darwin proceeded to claim, are ‘ennobled’ when viewed in the light of this process. Extinction is part and parcel of the process of evolutionary selection, and any anti-extinction view must seek its support elsewhere.

In contrast, the environmentalist is likely to get some help in this field from the rival quality-of-life approach. The presence of a variety of species in the world which we inhabit can be seen as enhancing the quality of life that we ourselves can lead. More important, if human beings can and do reasonably value the survival of all the species that happen currently to be here (even the ones that are rather ‘unfit’ and ‘unselected’), then that environmental concern is better understood in terms of human reasoning (and the values we live by) than by invoking the Darwinian view of progress through ‘the survival of the fittest’.

Furthermore, a general interest in the quality of life is more likely than the Darwinian perspective to direct attention to such matters as cruelty to animals. Some sensitivity to the quality of lives that living beings can lead can make a real difference to the way we evaluate alternatives in our otherwise callous world.

Criterion and Comparison

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[*] In Trust, edited by Diego Gambetta (Blackwell, 1988).

[†] Viking, 224 pp., £17.99, 30 January, 0 713 99079 1.