“I am here to tell you that in time, the mutator gene will activate in every living human being on this planet. Perhaps even your children, Senator” — Jean Grey
“I can assure you, there is no such creature in my genes” — Senator Kelly, X-men (2000)
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People love progress. Progress is widely accessible in pop culture, for example X-men where certain mutant genes have allowed some people to develop superhuman abilities. Eighties movies like Terminator (1984) and Blade Runner (1982) imagine a future where we advance so far technologically that technology becomes independent and takes advancement into its own hands. Progress is found in the scientific world (which I know little about), in evolution where animals ‘progress’ from single-celled organisms to not-so-single-celled organisms and then they learn to live on land and they grow legs and some get wings and then finally some lucky guys and girls start finding out that they can access abstract thinking or whatever it is that separates the peoples from the animals. It is after crossing this point of separation that we can imagine the future possibility of the likes of invisibility or even, recently, immortality, and movies like Gattaca (1997) can imagine a society where only the best genes are passed onto the next generation through some technological interpolation.
But does a materialist perspective in any way allow for such a notion of progress? Is it possible to say that Homo sapiens is more evolved than Homo erectus? Is it possible to say that a domestic cat is more evolved than a bacterium? Is it even possible to say there is something which separates humans from the animals?¹ No to all the above. There is no point in evolutionary history where humanity steps outside its animal bounds. Technology does not provide humanity with an abiological means to a post-biological or post-evolutionary ends. If it did, then at what point did we transcend our biology? Use of tools/technology is contained within our biology so technology escapes ostracisation as abiological.
What is more, progress assumes an invisible universal measuring stick. All organisms can be measured against this to determine who is the most ‘advanced’. But the evolutionary measuring stick is not located in the universal but the particular, the environment. Species adapt not according to what is universally awesome, but specifically to what allows them to survive and pass on their genes in a particular environment. Thus X-men, which takes advantage of the relatively random process of mutation, falls prey to the same concept of universality. Mutants in X-men may have problems controlling their powers, and then there are far-reaching social consequences of their genes, but according to the universal measuring stick they have progressed not because they are adapted to their environment in such a way that secures survival and positive reproductive ends but they receive the possibility of mastery over the universal environment. Thus in the third movie, Xavier can refer to Jean Grey as a ‘level five mutant’. To this we can say with Senator Kelly, “There is no such creature in my genes”.
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There are various ways in looking at progress in theology. Kierkegaard famously introduces his Fear and Trembling with a comparison between faith and philosophy:
In our time nobody is content to stop with faith but wants to go further. It would perhaps be rash to ask where these people are going, but it is surely a sign of breeding and culture for me to assume that everybody has faith, for otherwise it would be queer for them to be . . . going further. In those old days it was different, then faith was a task for a whole lifetime, because it was assumed that dexterity in faith is not acquired in a few days or weeks. When the tried oldster drew near to his last hour, having fought the good fight and kept the faith, his heart was still young enough not to have forgotten that fear and trembling which chastened the youth, which the man indeed held in check, but which no man quite outgrows. . . except as he might succeed at the earliest opportunity in going further. Where these revered figures arrived, that is the point where everybody in our day begins to go further.
(Retrieved online here).
Kierkegaard is attacking the idea that we can start where others have left off. But we are in reality not a part of some external framework where this is possible. Yes we can learn and build on the discoveries and theories of those who have gone before us, we can consider ovens and then make microwaves, but these are external to what it means to be human. There is an a-temporal core to human existence. Thus Nietzsche can address his work within his work at the end of Beyond Good and Evil, “You have already taken off your novelty and some of you, I fear, are on the point of becoming truths: they already look so immortal, so pathetically righteous, so boring!” (Penguin Classics, 2003, p.221). Whereas he experienced and lived his philosophy, now it was overtaking him to exist in the external world of truth, the world where philosophical progress supposedly exists. Faith on the other hand, or Nietzsche’s existential struggles, exists between the subject and God, or existence. The subject, though a part of space and time, ignores any progressive meaning contained in the spatio-temporal to interact with the infinite/eternal, etc which transcends it.
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¹If no, then you could probably also say that this inevitably leads to monism or, more familiarly, a kind of pantheism, where unity precedes difference. If there is nothing which separates a person from being a jellyfish from being a fungus from being the Loch Ness Monster (I swear she exists) because we are all contained under the category of ‘living’, then further there must be nothing to separate the animate from the inanimate, unless life is to be accorded some transcendental value.