7. Conclusion

Evolution and The Idea of Progress 


Section 7.5.3

World History 
And The Eonic Effect

Civilization, Darwinism, And Theories of Evolution
4th Edition
The Book
By  John Landon





7. Conclusion  
     7.1 History and Evolution: A Paradox Resolved 
        7.1.1 Transition and Divide: A New Perspective on Modernity 
    7.2 The Eonic Effect As a Resolution of Kant's Challenge      
      7.2.1 Freedom’s Causality, Teleology and Politics  
        7.2.2 Free Will, Moral Action, and Self-consciousness       
     7.3 Will Democracy Survive? Toward A Postdarwinian Liberalism    
      7.3.1 Modernism, Eurocentrism, Imperialism, and 'Western' Civilization
        7.3.2 Ecological Endgames: A Tyranny Of Markets
     7.4 Ends and Beginnings       
     7.5 Critique of Historical Reason  
        7.5.1 Spengler, Toynbee, and Cyclical Theories 
        7.5.2 Is There a Postmodern Age?  
        7.5.3 Evolution and The Idea of Progress
        7.5.4 The Case of the Missing Centuries 
     7.6  Beyond Darwinism: A Theoretical Self-Defense
         7.6.1 The Meaning Of Evolution
         7.6.2 The Great Transition



    World History And The Eonic Effect: Fourth Edition

     7.5.3 Evolution and The Idea of Progress 


The idea of progress has fallen on hard times, but we can easily rescue the core concept as ‘eonic progression’ distinguished from the ideologies of progress that rise and falter in the wake of a transition. It is not surprising the idea creates problems, since it is a case, once again, of using the output of the system to explain its dynamics. But any process of evolution, almost by definition, is ‘progressive’ in some sense. Only the hopeless confusion of Darwinism could have obscured this issue.

The point is clear using the eonic data, as long as we are careful to see the problems involved in ‘moral progress’. S. J. Gould in many works launches a near tirade against the idea. The case of evolutionary progress in deep time is beyond the scope of our data, as used here, so we will not speculate, but the thesis of random evolution is not proven by Darwinists either. The challenge to progress is par for the course, in one way, but it is a question of the facts, given a tracker-approximator. That we don’t have for deep time, in the fine-grain of the eonic pattern. The objection is made, often using clichéd versions or images of unilinear progress (e.g. cartoon sequences from apes to man), that evolution shows many divergent sequences. But that is no objection to progression over the long term. As we can see from our eonic data there is a leapfrog process, and system return beyond divergent sequences. Darwinism allows no possibility of ‘natural teleology’ and the results are given over to paradox.

For us the idea of progress is a classic eonic emergent, almost a double emergent. As noted repeatedly, we can’t use it, strictly speaking for theory. The ‘eonic sequence’ shows stepping progression, and ‘ideas of progress’ are action scripts and eonic emergents. These relationships allow us to apply a dialectical discourse to the idea as relative free action . That debate will simply reduce its theoretical usage to equivocation. Because of the correlation with the transition and divide, a postmodern or other critique of the idea is thus entirely apt, but misleading, while the recent diatribes against it by evolutionary theorists are off the mark (certainly as far as history is concerned). We have a complete method to illustrate how progress can (seemingly) stop and wane, e.g. in the medieval periods. Note how our terminology explains at once how the ‘eonic determination’ of the idea of progress turns into the idea taken as someone’s ‘free action’ in a post-transition. That seemingly arcane statement is directly verified in modern times as the idea is championed and then turns into ideology, then suffers reversal. Between postmodernism and current versions of Darwinism , an immense literature on the subject of progress has fallen by the way side. But the idea of progress is a classic ‘eonic emergent’ and the classic case of an action script. Right on schedule as the modern transition wanes, the idea comes under attack. Like clockwork. Micro and macro teleology  diverge.

The now ‘antique’ literature here will resurface sooner or later, enriched by a postmodern critique, and the biologists’ demand for clarification. It is fascinating that J. B. Bury ’s classic The Idea of Progress  sees fit to begin in the mysterious interval between the death of Machiavelli, and the philosopher Jean Bodin a generation later, as he casts off the ‘cyclical theme and variations’ of the idea of the Four Kingdoms and sees the three stage periodization of world history in a progressive mode, roughly corresponding to the Mesopotamian, classical, Mediterranean, and European stages. This arrangement of Bury’s account is altogether apt indeed, and proves one aspect of our thesis, that the appearance of historical ideas themselves often corresponds self-referentially to the pattern we wish to point out. The idea of progress was essential in the labor of birth struggling against the inertia of antiquity. Part of the difficulty is the use of the idea of progress for ideological purposes in ‘banner of the regiment’ meanings, thence to expect it to have theoretical standing unsullied by its history. The relation of slavery and warfare, and other negative aspects of the modern transformation, to the idea of progress requires careful redefinition, in order to rescue the basic idea to the creative ferment of ‘real progress in action.’ [i]

The idea of progress has deep roots in the Zoroastrian legacy. But Theodore Olson , in Millennialism, Utopianism, and Progress , criticizes the assumptions of the idea of progress , as the doctrine that “there is a blind force, uncontaminated by historical contingency, dedicated to the continued improvement of man [that] is the central affirmation of the notion of progress”. This engages the issue perfectly. Defenders of progress often fail to answer to this sort of objection. He complains that the persistence of this idea can only be explained by its manifest convenience, and declares the notion to be at root a form of incoherence, a variant of Fisher’s lament. The problem is that we have found, not a blind force, but at least an evolutionary process that resolves its paradoxes. Although it is certainly true that proponents of the idea of progress do not often realize the difficulties of their position, use the idea ideologically or in a salto morale, and suffer the confusions of this fact, Olson’s statement is as open to challenge as the view under fire, for its assumption is that there is nothing to drive progress. If we suspect that there is, the argument fails immediately.[ii]

The eonic effect reveals the evidence that there is. ‘Progress’ as eonic progression shows itself clustered around three great turning points of history, the last of which gave birth finally to the idea itself. But as we begin to realize the existence of an historical patterning, we can easily misapply the idea of progress to its explanation, but to deny completely the progression as progress of civilization from the time of Sumer would be almost absurd. That issue is not the same as ‘moral progress’, quite another question.

Eonic Progression and the Idea of Progress We must distinguish eonic progression, from the idea of progress , as this confuses the idea of a ‘law of history’ with the potential of ‘free action’, as indeed these are entwined during the period of acceleration. The idea of progress is a joyride emergentist free action script caught in metonymy of part and whole. Further, the idea of progress is a preeminent exemplar of what we call an eonic emergent, appearing, in direct correlation, during the rise of the modern transformation. Suddenly we see that the idea is suffering a level confusion, and might suffer it in our account. Keeping straight the ironic meaning of ‘eonic evolution ’ and one of its emergents, if this is applied self-referentially to itself must require some unknown new form of ‘escher-hand’ theory. And thus the issue of progress is indeterminate, for we are ourselves are creating our progressive means, even as the process of history moves through one of its great progressions. We can see progress without its idea. In antiquity we see the idea arriving at the threshold of being born during the time of the Greeks.

Progress, Postmodernism, The Holocaust Our data throws a new light on the enigma of the Holocaust. We need to make one important observation: note that the Holocaust is well outside the eonic sequence, and falls into the rubric of ‘potential chaotification’ as ‘free action’ in the wake of eonic determination. Nothing in our eonic account can either justify or explain this psychotic episode. The question of Jews and Christians has already been displaced in emergence of secularization. It is hard to think of a people better adapted to the modern transition than Jews.

It is not too hard to see what is going wrong. Let us recall that Hitler was an extreme anti-modernist. One of the most incomprehensible aspects of modernity is the sudden appearance of the Holocaust , an unprecedented historical fiasco whose causation is, and remains, an historical mystery. In general the sudden nose-diving of modernity in the period starting with the First World War is taken as grounds for postmodern rejections of the whole modern transition, a counterproductive assessment that will only make matters worse.

Even a cursory glance at our eonic pattern would suggest that it never triggers destruction of this type, and the Judaic stream is a major one. An immense evolutionary substream was almost destroyed in the passage. In general, the twentieth century is taken in evidence, often by reactionary thought, as grounds for rejection of modern civilization. The charge is off target, and we must suspect that it is only reactionaries who are obsessed enough with the Judaic issue to foment destruction of a whole people. Whatever explanation we bring to this enigma, Big History is not at fault here. The Holocaust was a counter-evolutionary fiasco, and symptomatic of a system out of control.

To indict modernity for the Holocaust is altogether a recipe for still further train wrecks. Modernity is a fait accompli and the only way past that is to transcend it, a difficult task, rather than to undo it. Our system has done its part, and is done. We cannot indict it for the outcome of ‘free action’ as this falls blindly into the black hole of ‘radical evil’.[iii]

Note: Radical evil One of the later developments of Kantian thought is the thematic of ‘radical evi l’ in relation to his moral theory. This legacy has a number of problems associated with it, and is the object of a considerable commentary by figures such as Hannah Arendt. We tend, justifiably or not, to use the term stripped from its Kantian context, which requires a considerable groundwork. In our terms, given the matrix of eonic determination and the ambiguity of freedom as an evolving process, we can take ‘radical evil’ as a problematic for such a system as a ‘starting point’ for emended commentary. We can see the issue very simply in terms of the obvious potential for unexpected derailment of the ‘will’. Here again, confusion of ‘will’ discourse can enter our separate discourse on history. But this reminds us that our eonic sequence, by hypothesis, has recently gone into shutdown, which means the future is not locally subject to determination, except via carrier eonic emergents  subject to antinomies of teleological judgment, and the situation is like a ‘bad pointer’ in a computer program. The system’s future is suddenly undefined.[iv]



   Web:  chap7_5_21.htm


[i] Cf. Herbert Butterfield, The Origins of Modern Science (1957), Chapter 12, “Ideas of Progress and Ideas of Evolution”.

[ii] Theodore Olson, in Millennialism, Utopianism, and Progress (1982), p. 265.

[iii] Leni Yahl, The Holocaust (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990), Yehuda Bauer, Rethinking the Holocaust ( New Haven : Yale University Press, 2001).

[iv] Immanuel Kant, trans. T. Green & H. Hudson, Religion Within The Limits of Reason Alone (New York: Harper & Row, 1960), Richard Bernstein, Radical Evil ( Cambridge , UK : Polity, 2002).





Last modified: 10/04/2010