At the end of his life, Karl Marx was forced to reevaluate his Promethean notions of inexorable historical movement and progress. In fact, under the influence of Oxford evolutionary biologist Edwin Ray Lankester, he began to view matters quite differently: he questioned whether man’s ‘evolution’ was, in fact, degeneration – thereby making all of us ‘degenerates’. Lankester’s essay “Degeneration” questioned the “tacit assumption of universal progress – an unreasoning optimism.” Lankester reminded both self-styled revolutionaries and smug English society “that we are subject to the general law of evolution, and are as likely to degenerate as to progress.” He challenged the ideology shared by thinkers of the day from Herbert Spencer to Karl Marx alike that evolution meant inevitable progress – which is not supported by biological data.
As compared with the immediate forefathers of our civilisation – the ancient Greeks—we do not appear to have improved so far as our bodily structure is concerned, nor assuredly so far as some of our mental capacities are concerned. Our powers of perceiving and expressing beauty of form have certainly not increased since the days of the Parthenon and Aphrodite of Melos. In matters of the reason, in the development of intellect, we may seriously inquire how the case stands. Does the reason of the average man of civilised Europe stand out clearly as an evidence of progress when compared with that of men of bygone ages? Are all the inventions and figments of human superstition and folly, the self-inflicting torturing of mind, the reiterated substitution of wrong for right, and of falsehood for truth, which disfigure our modern civilisation – are these evidences of progress? In such respects we have at least reason to fear that we may be degenerate.
The point here is that we smugly assume that ‘modernity’ means we’re somehow smarter and more enlightened that those who went before. Worse, we ignore history and collective human experience because we somehow think we have nothing to learn from our forebears simply because we are so different – and therefore better – than them. A truly idiotic assumption.
Unfortunately, there’s nothing in the record to support any of our notions of superiority and quite a lot to indicate a continuing degeneracy.