The Dangerous Euphemism of Progress
When I was a young man, I was captivated by the movie, “Jurassic Park”. The movie (based on the best-selling book by Michael Crichton) portrays a brilliant, but ill-fated endeavor to genetically recreate and reintroduce dinosaurs to a lush, “secure” jungle paradise. Once complete, the presumed failsafe enterprise would be marketed as an unparalleled safari-amusement park. The premise of the book and movie were extraordinary because they wedded naive scientific enterprise with fearsome unpredicted outcomes. The movie was a smash success and the awe induced by Steven Spielberg’s computer-generated animations was worth the price of admission alone. Hair-raising stalker scenes involving velociraptors and a Tyrannosaurus rex coupled with a cartoonishly-large popcorn and pop made for an unbeatable movie-going experience. But in the midst of the suspense, violence and mayhem, a deeper intellectual truth made an enduring impact on me. In the film, several experts invited to examine “Jurassic Park” before opening were expected to give unconditional endorsements. However, shortly after the initial wonder at the park subsided, the dangers of unanticipated consequences became clear. And in the realization of what was at stake, profound truths emerged about science and progress. The ever-quirky scientist, Dr. Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum), frustrated the owner of the park, John Hammond (Richard Attenborough), with his profound misgivings of a project ill-conceived from its inception:
“I’ll tell you the problem with the scientific power that you’re using here: it didn’t require any discipline to attain it. You read what others had done and you took the next step. You didn’t earn the knowledge for yourselves, so you don’t take any responsibility… for it. You stood on the shoulders of geniuses to accomplish something as fast as you could and before you even knew what you had, you patented it and packaged it and slapped it on a plastic lunchbox, and now you’re selling it.”
In my idealistic youth, this notion shook me a bit. After all, aren’t science, discovery, innovation, and “progress” uniformly good? Isn’t unfettered growth, the uniform surpassing of obstacles, the mad dash to achieve greater ends with ever-greater knowledge to be praised? Perhaps. But then, Dr. Malcolm struck the death-blow to this logic:
“Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could [that] they didn’t stop to think if they should.”
It was from this point forward, with structures collapsing, humans being eaten, and a once-innocent vision of an ignorant old entrepreneur being crushed, that science, discovery, innovation, and “progress” demonstrated their tragic fallibility. And as Steven Spielberg’s special effects waned in my mind’s eye, Michael Crichton’s lesson never did. Jurassic Park taught me about the dangerous euphemism of progress.
While this epiphany came to me in 1993, G.K. Chesterton articulated it in his book, Heretics, in 1905. Heretics, written when he was thirty-one years old, puckishly (but also with deeper seriousness) poked holes in the prevailing conventions and enlightened tropes of Chesterton’s day. Devoting each chapter to an “enlightened” man (or woman) and their ideas, Chesterton unveiled the shallow, shoddy, and unconvincing character of contemporary accepted wisdom in the early 20th century. In his playful and ingenious way, he would help readers peer deeply into enormous holes in long-accepted arguments by opinion-makers who were unaccustomed to being challenged. Perhaps, no greater hole was revealed than that associated with the term “Progress”. The term “Progress” is held to be uniformly good. It is regarded as something to be championed, promoted, and embraced. It is commonly used to insinuate improvement, and yet fails to articulate what one is progressing toward or from. One is simply to “progress for the sake of progressing” – to fall in line or get out-of-the-way. G.K. Chesterton couldn’t have disagreed more. First, more generally he argued:
“Every one of the popular modern phrases and ideals is a dodge in order TO SHIRK THE PROBLEM OF WHAT IS GOOD (my emphasis). We are fond of talking about ‘liberty’; that, as we talk of it, is a dodge to avoid discussing what is good. We are fond of talking about ‘progress’; that is a dodge to avoid discussing what is good. We are fond of talking about ‘education’; that is a dodge to avoid discussing what is good. The modern man says ‘Let us leave all these arbitrary standards and embrace liberty.’ This is, logically rendered, ‘Let us not decide what is good, but let it be considered good not to decide it.’ He says, ‘Away with your old moral formulae; I am for progress.’ This, logically stated, means, ‘Let us not settle what is good; but settle whether we are getting more of it.’ He says, ‘Neither in religion nor morality, my friend, lie the hopes of the race, but in education.’ This, clearly expressed means, ‘We cannot decide what is good, but let us give it to our children.'”
The problem, in Chesterton’s eyes, is that there once seemed to be a moral standard toward which an individual and society aspired. The degree to which you approximate that ideal standard informs you about whether you are progressing, and to what degree you are progressing. The modern era (and the post-modern era) has worked tirelessly to bleed this moral standard out of our social, political, and in some cases, religious discourse. This has led to a “standardless”, relativized society with no ideal and hence, no direction to progress. A society left rudderless and without values is nonsensical, and yet the term “progress” is still vaguely, but hypnotically used. Chesterton continues:
“Progress by its very name indicates a direction; and the moment we are in the least doubtful about the direction, we become in the same degree doubtful about the progress…In [the past] the direction may have been a good or a bad one, men may have differed more or less about how far they went, and in what direction, but about the direction they did in the main agree, and consequently they had the genuine sensation of progress. But it is precisely about the direction that we disagree. Whether the future excellence lies in more law or less law, in more liberty or less liberty; whether property will be finally concentrated or finally cut up; whether sexual passion will reach its sanest in an almost virgin intellectualism or in a full animal freedom; whether we should love everybody with Tolstoy, or spare nobody with Nietzsche; these are the things about which we are actually fighting most…I do not, therefore, say that the word ‘progress’ is unmeaning; I say it is unmeaning without the previous definition of a moral doctrine.”
For all to nod in enlightened assent when someone uses the word “progress” to justify actions is to be thoughtlessly herded in support of a potentially nefarious enterprise. Dr. Ian Malcolm saw this in the real-world implications of a poorly considered pipe-dream of progress held by the entrepreneur John Hammond. Likewise, G.K. Chesterton witnessed this intoxication with “progress” among a British society mesmerized by their opinion-makers. In the end, it is quite simple. It is incumbent on us to know what we believe, what we consider right and wrong, and what we acknowledge as good and evil. Knowing where we stand gives us better judgement about where we should go and where we should refrain from going. This is the first solid step. Once we possess, as Chesterton puts it, “a definite creed and a cast-iron code of morals”, we will be better equipped to guard against the dangerous euphemism of progress.