Making Progress

July 30, 2008 | Leave a Comment

Category: Biology, Society

Contemporary to Darwin was Charles Lyell, whose work deeply influenced the young biologist as Darwin read and re-read Lyell’s books while on a five-year ship journey around the world.  Lyell gestated and then helped create the contemporary idea of unfolding time and a geologic succession of stages, integral to Darwin’s later formulation of a succession of species.

Darwin died six years before my grandfather was born.  My grandfather lived to see men walk on the moon.

When my son was an infant, I noticed Studs Turkel in the produce section of my local Jewel.  I walked up to Studs, held out my son’s little hand, and asked Studs to shake it so I could tell him later that he’d shaken the hand of Studs Turkel.

Studs responded, “Well, your son has just shaken the hand of a man that shook the hand of a man that shook the hand of a man that shook the hand of Napoleon.  Tell him that when he grows older.”  Then Studs listed the lineage of hand shakers.

I have found it consoling to imagine exactly how much a billion is.  Noting the number of people in a football stadium, I multiply out until I can see in my mind’s eye what a billion people look like.  I embrace a million seconds by noting the number of days it takes to get there.  I make millions and billions, numbers representing quantities, distances and time, immediate and graspable.  I experience the ancient past as present, intimate and familiar.  Evolution feels to be happening right now.

Evolution is a very recent concept.  As evolution is interpreted from a societal point of view, what we understand as evolution is accompanied by three very different ideas of unfolding societal time, each with its own advocates.

There are those that interpret progress in society as a chance or emergent feature of the behavior of humans in groups.  No inevitable direction is implied.

There are those that believe firmly in a forward, positive direction informed by the good works of technology, science and the creations of corporations.  No larger consciousness or deity implied.

There are those that experience the presence of consciousness that informs and guides society and its individuals toward compassion, awareness of interdependence and an experience of peace.  Everything is implied.

It is an old idea, the spiritual principle that the human race is slowly profiting from our individual experiences while we head in a direction where an accumulating good will be realized in a deeply satisfying future.  It’s an idea that gradates into the modern idea of technological progress.  This idea of progress seeps further down into an understanding of social evolution, characterized by no direction, progress as illusion, just the random emergence of features chosen for their adaptive qualities when an individual survives to procreate.

In other words, our ideas of time have their own geologic logic with one concept gradating into the next.

Lyell was not the first Westerner to wrestle with the implications of the impact of an idea of time on our ability to interpret the world around us.  But he was one of the first to realize that changing interpretations of how time flows offer more and less access to the information embedded in our surroundings.  Of the three time styles just noted, I’ve at different times embraced all three.  I have shifted orientations in a day.  Ideas of evolution and time are closely tied.  Just as different theories of evolution can influence society and culture, so can varying concepts of time.

Perhaps it’s time to realize that we choose the time we’re in.  The kind of time that we are attached to may influence the future that we have.


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