The March of Progress Has Deep Roots


A simplified, silhouette version of the "March of Progress."

The "March of Progress", the iconic evolutionary image of an ancestral ape transforming into a proud, tool-wielding human, is not going anywhere. There is perhaps no other illustration that is as immediately recognizable as representing evolution, but the tragedy of this is that it conveys a view of life that does not resemble our present understanding of life's history. Stephen Jay Gould addressed this two decades ago in his book Wonderful Life, in which he wrote;

Life is a copiously branching bush, continually pruned by the grim reaper of extinction, not a ladder of predictable progress. Most people may know this as a phrase to be uttered, but not as a concept brought into the deep interior of understanding. Hence we continually make errors inspired by unconscious allegiance to the ladder of progress, even when we explicitly deny such a superannuated view of life.

Yet the imagery is just too good to resist, and our continual desire to know whether this or that fossil was ancestral to another keeps us thinking in terms of evolutionary "ladders." (A hominin clearly not ancestral to us such as Paranthropus robustus, for example, will never be as celebrated as one that might be closer to our ancestry.) The "March of Progress" is even more useful in terms of satire. What better way to show how backward or primitive your opponents are than to slot them early into the ape->human sequence or show them stamping in the opposite direction of "progress"?

Science historian Constance Areson Clark has recently reviewed the occurrence of this kind of imagery in a new paper published in the journal Isis entitled "'You Are Here': Missing Links, Chains of Being, and the Language of Cartoons." It is not just about the "March of Progress", nor does it mention its modern manifestations, but Clark does provide a few examples of how evolution was depicted in a non-Darwinian fashion. As it turns out, the "March of Progress" has pretty deep roots.


Though the canonical "March of Progress" would not be published until 1965 in F. Clark Howell's Early Man (a Time-Life book that I had in my little library as a child) the suggestion that evolution was linear appears in much earlier illustrations. As Clark points out, one of the most famous is a Punch cartoon (see above) showing life literally progressing from chaos to Charles Darwin. It was arranged in a circle, but it still carried a straight-line message which contrasted sharply with the branching pattern Darwin had envisioned.


Ape skeletons as depicted in Man's Place in Nature. From left to right: gibbon, orangutan, chimpanzee, gorilla, human.

Even more striking is one of the illustrations in T.H. Huxley's popular pamphlet Man's Place in Nature. It was not a cartoon, and so did not fall within the scope of Clark's article, but her paper immediately made me think of it. From left to right it features the skeletons of a gibbon, orangutan, chimpanzee, gorilla, and human, with the Homo sapiens skeleton appearing to take a shaky step forward. Huxley, Darwin, and other evolutionists knew that humans did not evolve from living apes, and the illustration was probably intended to highlight the similarities and differences between the skeletons, but it still carried a glimmer of evolutionary progress since chimpanzees and gorilla's were considered to be "man's nearest allies." (Though there is more to this statement than might be supposed, and does not anticipate our current understanding of how we are related to living apes.)


"The Upstart", printed during the summer of 1925 in Judge.

As scientists debated the mechanism of evolution during the late 19th and early 20th centuries such imagery fit well into notions of evolution heading towards a particular end point. This was especially prevalent in human evolution, where the evolution of our species was often treated as if it were an inevitable event. More than that, it could be suggested that humans were "more evolved" than other creatures.


William Jennings Bryan appears as a "missing link" in this cartoon, printed during the summer of 1925 in Judge. The caption reads: "Scientists - Why, there's the missing link we've been searching for all these years-"

This feeling of evolutionary superiority can be seen in a cartoon printed during the summer of the famous "Scopes Trial" entitled "The Upstart." In it a motley crew of animals (including what one can only suppose it meant to be a dinosaur) stare slack-jawed as a young ancestral ape trots off to greet its evolutionary destiny. The meaning is that only humans have truly recognized their evolutionary potential, and it is our recent evolutionary past that separates us from all other animals. At the same time many cartoons featured religious fundamentalists, most often anti-evolution spokesman William Jennings Bryan, as being a "missing link" between apes and "higher" humans.

The "March of Progress" as it appeared during the 1960's, then, was not so much a novel image as a particularly well-known example of scientific and satirical imagery that had been around for over a century. Though it can be aggravating, it is not surprising that it is still with us. It appears to speak to the heart of evolution, that "life changes over time", yet this overly generalized view of evolution does not tell us about the way the evolutionary process works or the pattern it leaves behind. Like the term "missing link", it is recognized as representing evolution, yet just what sort of evolution that might be is left open to interpretation.


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Amen. And I mean that in a purely cultural sense.

By cromercrox (not verified) on 04 Nov 2009 #permalink

The March of Progress has very deep roots. The cartoon of Darwin was completely in line with Whiggish school of historical and cultural anthropological writing, the dominant style at the time. The Whiggish school held that history was the unrolling of a continual progress toward a more free rational and prosperous society. In cultural anthropology, it was (and is) the idea that societies follow the same progression from primitive to civilized to modern with some societies being more advanced than others. The language is even the same as we see in that idea of paleontology and physical anthropology. Some beings are further advanced along a path of development.

That nineteenth century narrative was nothing more than the latest refurbishing of the Great Chain of Being, which dates back at least to Aristotle. Conservative and immature minds have a desperate need to rank all things into eternal hierarchies. These hierarchies provide stability and continuity to an otherwise frighteningly unstable world. Even if the icon or metaphor changes--chain to ladder to path to whatever--we are never going to get rid the March of Progress. It's too deeply built into our psychologies.

I suppose it's unnecessary to point out, but I will anyway, since I'm in a pedantic mood: more advanced always carries with it a moral judgment. The right side of the page--civilized, complex, taller, bigger, newer--is always superior.


Since you mentioned conservative minds, why is it that so many liberal minds ranked Obama at such a high hierarchal level? Especially someone who should be nowhere near the top. Or is this a March of progress?

It's not just a conservative mind that does this.

Beyond the "Great Chain" or "March of Progress" or the "Ladder of Life" or any of the other misinterpretations of evolution, humans do think linearly (usually) with one thing leading to another and to another. To some extent, geneticists, too, were guilty of this with the "DNA->RNA->Protein" falsehood and the "functional" or "junk" DNA. Rather than seeing each part as interacting on multiple levels, we tend to view only single levels of interaction at once and ignore those gradations between. The mimivirus comes to mind when dealing with distinctions between "living" and "nonliving." Perhaps our desire to classify into neat categories blinds us to the slopes and instead requires us to build stairs upon the magnificent slopes which are evolutionary changes, definitions of life, and, additionally, the notion of civilization. At what point do we define someone to be an "adult," and if, as in our society, it is set as 16, 18, or 21 depending upon your criteria, we really don't think if someone is 20 years and 11 months, that one magic month will somehow convey new wisdom and insights into life.


Two things. First, I'm not sure that "so many liberal minds ranked Obama at such a high hierarchical level." The whole "The One" business was the product of a few silly Obama supporters magnified a hundred fold by news media. And even if Democrats, liberal,s and others had more enthusiasm for Obama than they had had for any candidate in a long time, it doesn't necessarily mean they were placing him in a rigid hierarchical framework. I like chocolate better than caramel, and caramel better than nougat, but that doesn't mean I have a hierarchical structure into which I must place all sweets.

Second, and this was a lack of clarity on my part, by conservative, I didn't mean strictly politically conservative. At home I frequently rattle on about there being a psychological conservative and non-conservative that isn't the same as political conservative and liberal. If you're familiar with George Lakoff's "strict father" and "nurturing parent" idea, that's fairly close to what I mean. Psychological conservatives tend to be more politically conservative than not, but there are a good number of conservative liberals.

As children, we are all conservative; we don't like change, we want things to fit into neat categories, and we want to be able to rank those categories. Some institutions and social groups are inherently conservative. Religions are almost all conservative. Clubs and fraternities are conservative. Sports is conservative. Societies that cannot afford to experiment--peasant farmers and pre-agricultural societies--are conservative. People at the top of the social and economic pyramids, who the hierarchy has treated very well, are conservative. Conservative politics is conservative, even though some conservative are not. There are exceptions in all of those cases.

As we get older, we should learn to handle nuances, change, and cultural relativism. We should learn to handle shades of gray. Non-conservative thought is more comfortable dealing with lateral relationships and competing hierarchies. Non-conservative thought is less likely to see hierarchies as reflection of moral value. Some institutions and social groups are inherently non-conservative. Art is not not conservative, but art critics are. Personal tastes (that is my taste versus your taste) are not conservative. Liberal politics is not conservative, even though some liberals are. The scientific method is not conservative

It's basically a problem of language. One of those conservatives has got to go. That was a very non-conservative thing for me to say.

One thing that always helps me to better embed Gould's 'copiously branching bush, continually pruned by the grim reaper of extinction...into the deep interior of understanding' is to regularly remind myself that every organism alive today has been evolving for the same length of time and is therefore equally evolved.

Definitely some good points... *but* two observations: 1) criticism of long-discounted ideas like orthogenesis are fine and everything, *but* when you zoom in enough... extreme bushiness should disappear(oh, somewhere smaller than the "family" level) the bushy argument only goes so far: i.e. at some point you deal with anangenetic lineages that don't branch for a given amount of time (a few Ma, to perhaps over a dozen Ma for some sharks for example). Then the problem becomes 'what is the null hypothesis? anagenesis or cladogenesis? Well... anagenesis is fundamentally a simpler process, so what happens then?

All I'm saying is that on a certain scale, assuming a bushy pattern is not any better.

Ah, that was enlightening. I'd wondered about the roots of March of Progress ever since I read it in Gould's book. Till then I'd thought that was what human evolution was about.

By Daniel J. Andrews (not verified) on 07 Nov 2009 #permalink

Dear Sir/Madam,
I am currently studying my GCSE's and i am doing my IT coursework. I would like to ask for your permission to use your 'march of progress' image. It would not be used commercially in any way. It would be great if you could reply soon. Thank you.
Heather Cheng

By Heather Cheng (not verified) on 02 Dec 2009 #permalink

Interesting conversation, and I look forward to reading Written in Stone. Meanwhile, I've published a little more on this subject: a book from Johns Hopkins Press called God or Gorilla, and an essay in March 2001 Journal of American History, "Evolution for John Doe."

By Constance Clark (not verified) on 31 Dec 2009 #permalink