The idea of Progress has a rich philosophical history, but few in recent decades have addressed it as focally as English philosopher John Gray. Careful to clarify that he grants scientific and technological progress, Gray emphasizes that it’s political and ethical progress that are not assured. Gains in these domains occur cyclically, existing under the threat of reversal at any time. As he puts it,
Postmodern thinkers may question scientific progress, but it is undoubtedly real. The illusion is the belief that it can affect any fundamental alteration to the human condition…History is not an ascending spiral of human advance, or even and inch by inch crawl to a better world. It is an unending cycle in which changing knowledge interacts with unchanging human need. Heresies, Introduction p.3
Since the 1980s Gray’s political thought has been somehow both pointed and volatile, and seems to have finally settled him in a sort of no man’s land from which he aims criticism at the progressive projects of both free market capitalism and the Marxist Left alike. Through his work he’s inveighed against both apocalyptic religion and evangelical atheism, asserting connections between the two that have irritated each. Book reviews from his columns have been notorious for instigating spats with other prominent authors (as in the case of reviews of recent works by Slavoj Zizek and Noam Chomsky, who reply here and here).
The source of Gray’s political perspective lies in his very particular view of the human condition, best explicated in his book “Straw Dogs”. Gray believes that humans are animals in every crucial respect, and that this is the primary lesson of evolution. Humanity’s insistence in mistakenly regarding itself as somehow distinct from nature, as privileged with free will and control over it’s own historical trajectory has lead to an anthropocentric worldview hazardous both to humans and the Earth’s other inhabitants. He maintains that Darwinism does not imply progress, only adaptation. According to Gray, secular humanism, non-theistic as it is, nonetheless imports Christianity’s progressive vision as it’s model, turning to science rather than providence for salvation. Yet science, says Gray, can only increase human power, amplifying human flaws but never resolving them. Thus, we must expect that the grievous ethical pitfalls of the past will return, and we should deal with them as concrete situations rather than as historical generalities to be solved once and for all.
Can such an unwavering view of human nature still hold in consideration of technologies such as germline genetic engineering, human cloning or medical nanotechnology, which seem poised to alter many fundamental human limitations? I’m not sure myself, but Gray believes so and reminds that science doesn’t occur within a vacuum but within the messy human sphere of politics, culture and the myriad other competing influences which have historically distributed its help and harm so unevenly. In a characteristically comforting passage from his book “Heresies“, he writes
If the advance of reproductive cloning produces a new breed of post-humans, it will come about from the interplay of all too human forces and motives – war, profit and the vanity of leaders. The post-human future will not be the moment when humanity takes charge of its future, but one more blind turn in human history. Heresies, p.31
Gray’s next book, “The Silence of Animals”, arrives June 4th and is being billed as a follow up to “Straw Dogs“.