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There’s no automatic forward march of progress for humanity – a response to Brian Cox

This article is over 9 years, 8 months old
Dave Sewell welcomes Brian Cox’s new programme on evolution, but argues that we cannot ignore human agency
Issue 2426

Around two million people have been tuning in to the new series Human Universe.

BBC scientist Brian Cox asks how humans came to exist, by looking at evolution and the shape of the universe.

This might seem a million miles away from the struggles that socialists are involved in. 

But the nature of the world and our own story within it isn’t just fascinating for its own sake—it has real implications for how we change it.

For most of history, people thought that life forms were made fully formed and hadn’t changed. 

This made it easier for Europe’s rulers to argue that the social order was “natural”—and shouldn’t or couldn’t be changed.

But in the 1850s Charles Darwin developed the theory of natural selection.

It argued that life forms make offspring with numerous characteristics. 

But only the ones with characteristics that are well?suited to their environment live to have offspring of their own. These variations add up over the generations. 

New evidence about the earth’s age had also emerged, adding up to a shocking revelation. 

Humans were little more than the by product of a process that had been going on for billions of years before their existence. 

Darwin’s insight put change at the heart of how we understand the world and was particularly exciting to the revolutionaries Karl Marx and Frederick Engels. 

They saw the changing relationship between humans and the material world as key to understanding society.


Darwin’s ideas predictably come under repeated attack from the religious right. 

But there are also consistent attempts in the mainstream to turn Darwin’s dynamic theory into a one-way street that was always going to lead the present point. 

The determinist view portrays evolution as a ladder—with simplest life at the bottom and humanity at the top—or a forward march of progress out of the seas then onto two legs.

Both racists and sexists use an extreme version of this hierarchy to put “civilised” white males higher up than more “primitive” humans. 

But more subtle versions remained the dominant model of evolution until the 1970s.

Scientists now see evolution as a complex process that could have gone in any number of other, equally valid directions.

To his credit, Cox takes many of these newer insights into account, but he still looks at evolution from the end backwards.

For example, he claims that the changing climate spurred our ape ancestors to develop bigger brains so they could use tools and language.

It’s more likely that our hands and voice boxes were a by-product of walking upright, and using them created new possibilities that only big brains could exploit.

Engels could already understand and explain this idea in 1876. Examining the world with the purpose of changing it gave him an advantage over those who saw it as a finished product.

Cox presents a lot of food for thought in an accessible way. But he uses new ideas about how the universe was created to bring the argument back to square one.

Cox argues that despite evolution, “the existence of the whole thing is inevitable…You are because you have to be”.

This denial of human agency keeps on rearing its head.

But the science he presents reminds us that the opposite is true.


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