"Most people in our society take progress for granted. Both scientists and laypeople generally assume that the human condition is improving, and will continue to improve. But there are some salient reasons to doubt this. The population is still growing, and resources are dwindling. Most of the world remains in dire poverty. The most disconcerting fact is also one of the most famous -- it would take seven planet earths to support the world population if everyone were to adopt the way of life of the richest countries (Nielsen, 2006, p. 32). This fact alone shows that it is nonsense when Western society is flaunted as an example of the possibility of progress. (See also Sen, 1999; Sachs, 2005; Easterly, 2006; Clark, 2007; and Moyo, 2009.).
"In evolutionary biology, the idea of progress is no longer taken seriously (cf. Van Valen, 1973; Gould, 1996; Ruse, 1996). Since organisms invariably compete for resources, evolution is ultimately an 'arms race' in which there are no permanent victories or advances. In this essay, I will argue that no population subject to resource constraints can experience a permanent improvement in fitness. The argument I will present appears to be general enough to apply to human culture as well."
-beginning of my manuscript,
"Progress, Regress, and Evolution"
The first couple of weeks of last November were a rough time for me. I had just sent my manuscript, a several hundred page argument against progress, to three members of faculty, asking them if it might make a suitable dissertation. By the end of the week, Professor Q had said he would not recommend sending it to any external readers, Professor Cigar had complained about my lack of page numbers, and Professor Plum had sent a long, harsh, and -- I felt -- unjustified critique. Over the weekend I tried to cool off, deciding that I would send my response to Plum Monday.
Over the weekend I mulled things over. I had expected Professor Plum to be the most interested, but apparently he didn't find it a worthy project. I would have liked him to read the whole thing and then decide, but I wasn't prepared for long, hard battle it would take to get my work accepted chapter by chapter. By the time Monday came I had decided to back down. Emily supported this decision, pointing out that I was already a wreck over this thing -- hardly sleeping -- and that any more of this drama probably wouldn't be good for me.
However, before I could write an email Monday, I received another message from Professor Plum. He told me that his computer had crashed Friday when he was sending me his response, and wondered whether I had received it. And in case I hadn't received it, he sent another brief evaluation of my work.
But the tone of this evaluation was much different. Though he again stated that it was "not a scholarly work" he said that "maybe" it could serve as a dissertation and that he would like to meet about it soon. He restated some of his earlier doubts, but in much more tentative terms. He said that he thought Professor Plaid would be the best person to work with on this project, since he was interested in the problem of scientific progress.
My spirits were buoyed by this more positive feedback. Detecting a desire to forget about the things said in the earlier email, I lied in my response and said that it must have been lost because I had received nothing on Friday. I hoped that this lie would smooth things over and give us a fresh start. We planned a meeting for the following Monday. I sent another copy of the manuscript to Professor Plaid, this time with a more relaxed cover letter and much looser deadline.
But my raised spirits only lasted for a couple more days. Professor Cigar started sending me emails complaining that "parts of the manuscript are confusing," without providing any more substantial feedback. Professor Q remained silent. I started worrying that Professor Plum's second email had been more about sparing my feelings than expressing any genuine interest. I also started doubting again that there would be any way to have this huge and ambitious project judged fairly. The manuscript touched on big issues -- such as the meaning of life, the fate of civilization, and the possibility of improving the human condition. I worried that it would seem even more ambitious the more they read and that the same nitpicky problems Plum had described would come up no matter what. When I looked at the detailed comments that Plum had resent, it only confirmed these doubts. He was still just as critical of my arguments as before, and for all the same reasons.
By the end of the week I was losing sleep again. I told Emily I had had enough, but she did her best to raise my spirits, telling me to wait for my face-to-face meeting with Plum to raise any further concerns. Obviously email correspondence wasn't the best way to work things out. I agreed.
I was nervous when Monday rolled around, but optimistic that I would be able to explain things so that Plum and I would at least be on the same page.
Five minutes before the scheduled meeting, I walked into the HPS office on the 10th floor, only to find Plum's door closed. I told the secretary why I was there, and she said that Plum hadn't shown up for his seminar that morning, calling in sick.
I was disappointed. It was very strange that Plum had not at least tried to contact me. And the secretary's somewhat confused way of responding indicated that Plum hadn't even let her know he would be canceling his appointments.
On the way out of the building I fortuitously ran into Professor Pipe. I had TA'd for him my second year of grad school, and had gone out for drinks with him on a dozen different occasions over the years. We had always gotten along well, though our academic interests were quite different. He had retired months earlier, though, so could no longer act as a dissertation advisor. When he asked me how I was doing I couldn't help but explain what was bothering me. He invited me into his office and we had a nice chat that helped put things in perspective for me.
When I explained to Professor Pipe what my manuscript was about, he expressed a great deal of support, saying that he believed that I was in much richer and more fruitful territory than I had been in my studies on emergence. He even said that he thought Professor Plum was the best choice for being my advisor. But he also warned that this "is not the time to compose your symphony, Sam. You will have time for that later."
Pipe asked me a little more about my manuscript. As I tried to explain, he asked me whether the thing I was after was "human nature." I said yes, you might say that was the thing that interested me. He had certainly come closer to the mark than anyone else in the department. He mentioned that he believed that Nietzsche was actually a very important philosopher, and even had some old philosophical articles to suggest.
All in all, it was a good conversation. I left the office in somewhat better spirits, despite having missed Plum.
As I rode the bus home, I wished that years earlier, before Pipe retired, that maybe I could have worked with him. But that probably wouldn't have solved the problem either -- Pipe might have been willing to advise a dissertation on Nietzsche, but it would have been near impossible to form an unbiased committee from the remaining faculty. Pipe was in the minority, a fading remnant of the days when philosophy as whole had been more free-spirited. In fact, the next two oldest members of the department, Professors Plaid and Cigar, have tended to be at the top of my list of possible advisers, for this very reason. They seemed to be the most broad-minded of the faculty, if also among the most critical.
In any case, I waited another week for any further responses, so that I wouldn't preempt the deadlines I had given. When I receive none, I sent out another e-mail to Plum, Plaid, Cigar, and Q, explaining that I had decided to set aside my manuscript for now and simply work on a more conventional dissertation. I never did manage to meet up with Plum.
So I returned to my original project -- the evolution of the steam engine. I had given my book a shot, but apparently now wasn't the time. I figured that if I pursued a purely scholarly project, unnecessary controversy could be avoided, and I could finally just get my Ph.D. and leave.
Unfortunately, things didn't turn out to be so simple.