The notion of progress in evolutionary biology – the unresolved problem and an empirical suggestion

Biology and Philosophy 21 (1):41-70 (2006)
Modern biology is ambivalent about the notion of evolutionary progress. Although most evolutionists imply in their writings that they still understand large-scale macroevolution as a somewhat progressive process, the use of the term “progress” is increasingly criticized and avoided. The paper shows that this ambivalence has a long history and results mainly from three problems: (1) The term “progress” carries historical, theoretical and social implications which are not congruent with modern knowledge of the course of evolution; (2) An incongruence exists between the notion of progress and Darwin’s theory of selection; (3) It is still not possible to give more than a rudimentary definition of the general patterns that were generated during the macroevolution of organisms. The paper consists of two parts: the first is a historical overview of the roots of the term “progress” in evolutionary biology, the second discusses epistemological, ontological and empirical problems. It is stated that the term has so far served as a metaphor for general patterns generated amongst organisms during evolution. It is proposed that a reformulation is needed to eliminate historically imported implications and that it is necessary to develop a concept for an appropriate empirical description of macroevolutionary patterns. This is the third way between, on the one hand, using the term indiscriminately and, on the other hand, ignoring the general patterns that evolution has produced.
Keywords Biological autonomy  Complexity  Directionality  Epistemology  Evolutionary progress  History  Macroevolution  Trends
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