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It was Darwin who first introduced the concept of Evolution in his Evolution Theory. However, whenever he and in general people speak about Evolution, I always have the feeling that they connote it positively as if Evolution always entailed Progress [1]. However, I don't see a clear correlation...

Hence the question

Does evolution always entail progress?

[1] The words "Evolution" and "Progress" are defined as in the Oxford dictionary.

  • When I asked my professor in first year of university about flat worms being the ancestors round worms, he said that the majority if not all flat worms are parasites. I pointed out that a parasite requires a higher organism host which apparently had not yet evolved to which he promptly responded with a non word, they “inevolved” after humans came onto the scene and reverted back to flat worms. I hope you see the issue with this circular reasoning. On the one hand flat worms are the ancestors of higher life forms but they required hosts to live on because they are parasitic. – Autodidact Apr 5 at 4:38
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    Evolution for Darwing (and biology) is a "physical" process related to life. Progress is a concept related to human society and culture. Maybe the two are linked, but in a very complicated way. – Mauro ALLEGRANZA Apr 5 at 6:38
  • I don't think trees have concept of progress – Richard Apr 5 at 9:11
  • Depends which metaphor one use for the "progress". Adaptation over environment? Improvement over certain function ? Or a mixing of everything? – mootmoot Apr 5 at 9:35
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    Darwin wasn't the first person to talk about evolution in the sense of species change. This Stanford Encyclopedia entry discusses the history of the concept, and includes some discussion of the relationship with the concept of progress: plato.stanford.edu/entries/evolution-to-1872 – Dan Hicks Apr 5 at 14:27
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Biological evolution is an undirected process driven by chance mutation. Many mutations have severe consequences, and even those that could be considered beneficial in certain contexts may have nasty side effects in different contexts. And of course even many of those changes which could be considered beneficial don't get passed on to the next generation.

Chance mutations for organisms living in arbitrary and unpredictable environments, being evaluated only long after the fact, does not add up to evolution always entailing progress. Quite the opposite! To my mind, everything is stacked against "progress".

The only way evolution could be said to always entail progress is if you define it as such, deliberately categorising the non-beneficial mutations as "genetic decay" or the like, so that you can ignore them. If "evolution" only refers to beneficial mutations then perhaps it does entail progress... at least until the environment changes and those mutations become non-beneficial...

  • I think you made some really valuable points. The idea of survival of the fittest permeates the notion of evolution but fittest according to who? Because currently the right virus can topple a whole specie and with ‘gene drive’ technology and CRISPR a rouge GMO can cause massive damage, irreversible in some cases. So if a fruit fly were theoretically mutated to kill off a percentage of fauna we would have to call that progress?!? If invasive species of fish destroy the local population permentantly we would have to call that progress even if it was artificially introduced – Autodidact Apr 6 at 13:37
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Depends on what you would define as progress. If you say that being fit for nature, the environment, and getting more and more adapted to it, then yes, I would argue evolution is a progress of process. However, part of evolution is selection, and that includes the death and extinction of those living organisms, which are unfortunate enough to not be well-adapted to the environment they live in. So, evolution, as a progress of mutation and selection, will, as a result, enable the fit to prevail, whilst the unfit have a very hard life, in extreme cases making it impossible to prevail and survive in said environment.

You could obviously argue tho, that becoming more and more fit to your environment will take away individuality; as the "perfectly" fit organism is not as diverse as the "not-so-fit" organism, which is not doomed to be extinct necessarily. If being more divers, covering a wider array of phenotypes etc. is progress for you, then evolution might take away that manifestation of progress.

Really, it's all depending on your definition of progress.

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Your link gives two definitions. The first is "Forward or onward movement towards a destination." Evolution is "movement", in the metaphorical sense, from earlier forms to later forms. If we take "forward" to mean "going from earlier to later", then evolution does indeed constitute progress.

But the second definition is "Development towards an improved or more advanced condition." That implies a value judgment, and there is no objective sense as to what form are "improved", and for most definitions of "improvement", evolution does not necessarily involve improvement. Even if we define "improvement" as "better able to compete", evolution does not always result in an improvement. For instance, runaway sexual selection can result in a population that would be outcompeted by a previous population.

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That change in species occurs is evident from both paleontology and Darwin's theory. It also seems, if one looks at it from a high enough level, that a progress-like pattern from simpler to more complex life forms appears to characterize it.

If there is real progress going on then an explanation for that would likely be some holistic cause effectively guiding evolution in a specific direction. This would open the door to various explanations from panpsychism to theism. To avoid that one could claim that any suggestion of guidance be reduced to unguided randomness.

However, one could challenge this unguided randomness by doing the following.

  1. Find paleontological data that shows that evolutionary change is not uniformly random.
  2. Describe a holistic pattern upon which one could make predictions that could be applied to this data.

For the first, data suggesting that phyletic gradualism, that is, uniform random change, is not what is occurring in evolution has been presented by punctuated equilibria. This is how Wikipedia describes it:

Punctuated equilibrium (also called punctuated equilibria) is a theory in evolutionary biology which proposes that once species appear in the fossil record the population will become stable, showing little evolutionary change for most of its geological history. This state of little or no morphological change is called stasis. When significant evolutionary change occurs, the theory proposes that it is generally restricted to rare and geologically rapid events of branching speciation called cladogenesis. Cladogenesis is the process by which a species splits into two distinct species, rather than one species gradually transforming into another.

Punctuated equilibrium is commonly contrasted against phyletic gradualism, the idea that evolution generally occurs uniformly and by the steady and gradual transformation of whole lineages (called anagenesis). In this view, evolution is seen as generally smooth and continuous.

In 1972, paleontologists Niles Eldredge and Stephen Jay Gould published a landmark paper developing their theory and called it punctuated equilibria. Their paper built upon Ernst Mayr's model of geographic speciation, I. Michael Lerner's theories of developmental and genetic homeostasis, and their own empirical research. Eldredge and Gould proposed that the degree of gradualism commonly attributed to Charles Darwin is virtually nonexistent in the fossil record, and that stasis dominates the history of most fossil species.

Based on the Oxford dictionary "progress" is either

  1. Forward or onward movement towards a destination.
  2. Development towards an improved or more advanced condition.

Given these definitions, because "stasis dominates the history of most fossil species", one cannot call this "progress" when there is no change. However, the period when this stasis, or equilibrium, is punctuated implies that what is going on in evolutionary change is not uniformly random either.

Evidence that a holistic pattern based on five waves up followed by three waves down (also known as Elliott Waves) has been identified for market behavior. The Socionomics Institute calls the holistic cause of this pattern "social mood":

Social mood is a shared mental state among humans that arises from social interaction. Social mood predisposes individuals in the group toward emotions, beliefs and actions. It fluctuates constantly in a fractal pattern. It is unconscious, unremembered and endogenously regulated.

These waves would be a progress-like pattern although some waves are downwards when corrections occur. Because of the correction waves down this would not be progress by the dictionary definitions. However, Alan Hall claims that this pattern can be extended to changes beyond human societies. Hence there exists a holistic pattern upon which one can make predictions that could be applied to paleontological data.


Let's consider the question:

Does evolution always entail progress?

By the Oxford definitions of progress evolutionary change does not always exhibit a forward development to advanced conditions. It does not always entail progress by these definitions.

However, evolutionary change is not uniform random change given punctuated equilibria and there may be a progress-like pattern to it given patterns identified by socionomics.


Definition of progress in English. In English Oxford Living Dictionaries. Retrieved April 6, 2019 from https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/progress

Learn the Basics. In Socionomics Institute. Retrieved April 6, 2019 from https://www.socionomics.net/learn-about-socionomics/

Wikipedia contributors. (2019, February 20). Punctuated equilibrium. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 08:34, April 6, 2019, from https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Punctuated_equilibrium&oldid=884325137

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