Adam M. Goldstein is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Iona College and an associate editor at Evolution: Education and Outreach, a journal devoted to bringing evolutionary theory to a popular audience. Goldstein studies the history of the philosophy of science, with a particular interest in how chance explains evolution. He has become increasingly obsessed with eradicating the “March of Progress” image, that popular representation of human evolution that shows a monkey-like figure slowly transforming into an upright human being. – Nick Hune-Brown
BELIEVER: Do you remember the last time you encountered the March of Progress image?
ADAM M. GOLDSTEIN: It was actually yesterday. I was organizing my Twitter feed and the Leakey Foundation—this is a foundation that studies human evolution—this is their logo! I just couldn’t think. I couldn’t fathom it.
BLVR: How do you generally react when you see the image?
AG: Sometimes when I see it on billboards around Manhattan or on a poster I can think, “Oh, that’s cute. I see what they’re saying—recumbent bicycles are the best ones or something.” But I have to say, if I have a mission in life, all my scholarly work aside, this is it. I feel such an instinctive… I can’t look at it. It makes me feel this kind of rage.
BLVR: What’s wrong with the March of Progress image?
AG: The first thing is, it’s racist. It’s really very hard to deny that.
BLVR: Do you mean it was originally intended to be racist when it was first created?
AG: Yes, certainly, certainly. In the March of Progress image, the left-most figure dragging his hands along the ground has always been represented as a black-skinned person. And well before there were evolutionary theories, it’s always been charged by Europeans in the scientific tradition that anyone who isn’t white is on some level a degraded type of human being or a distortion of what is actually human. When evolutionary thinking came about, a primitive person was always seen with black skin and represented usually as some form of ape or monkey. So the image takes up an already existing idea of black-skinned person as inferior and puts it in an evolutionary visual idiom.
BLVR: As a visual explanation of how humans evolved, is there something wrong with the March of Progress?
AG: Yes, the fact is this march of progress thing is scientifically completely wrong. If you look up the term “evolution” in the dictionary it usually does imply a development in stages towards some end point, but biologically evolution as we understand it is not at all like that. There really is nothing in our understanding of the mechanisms of evolution that gives us really any reason to say that from one generation to the next there’s something like “progress.” I mean, you want to see who’s successful? Look how many bugs there are. They’re taking over the world. We only have one species and we could go extinct in the blink of an eye.
BLVR: It does remind me of the scientific version of the Elizabethan “great chain of being,” with rocks at the bottom and then oysters and bears and people and eventually angels.
AG: Exactly, it sort of misses the main point. If you’re going to take nothing else away from ideas about evolution, it’s that people have evolved from animals and we’re just like them. People who understand evolution know that it doesn’t really make any sense to have something like that Great Chain of Being, but they just can’t help it. It’s like, there’s gotta be something where we’re at the top. There’s gotta be something that makes us unique.
BLVR: What is it about the “march of progress” image of evolution that appeals to us so much?
AG: Human exceptionalism. It’s really scary, this idea that chance is the main factor in our evolution. Human beings are sort of crappily put together—a total hodge-podge, if you look at how a designer would have done it. And we were just this little group of people running from one little patch of trees to the next in the Savannah somewhere. There’s hardly any fossils of human beings, they’re very infrequent, so it would have taken nothing to wipe us out. One pride of lions in the area and who knows what could have happened? So it’s scary to think that nature is out there and we have no control over it and we can’t even say that we came from somewhere special.
BLVR: The way you explain it, evolutionary biology doesn’t seem to offer much consolation.
AG: I think there actually is a sense in which people can be consoled by it. But it’s not by the idea that we have a purpose and that somehow we’re the endpoint of an evolutionary progression. There is another kind of aesthetic experience, something like the sublime, which is this really painful and difficult feeling. It’s like beauty, but it’s not uplifting. Suffering accompanies it. You can think: “Wow, through all of that, we made it, but not for any reason. Not really for any reason.”