The Tangled Tree, the Selfish Gene and the problem of Progressive Thought

What does it mean to be progressive. To say that we live in a “progressive” society. To champion progressive policy. To share a “progressive” view of this or that issue. To be labelled a progressive in the world of politics, religion, philosophy or social reform.

I started to think about this word “progressive” a number of years ago after finding myself at a point of frustration over the ways we tend to give opposing points of view both a label and a box. I wondered about the wisdom of viewing the world in such overly defined ways that sees one generation as smarter, more advanced and more aware than the last. Or whether there even is such as a thing as a highly defined trajectory towards better, more enlightened ways of thinking and being in this world that can be measured without the muddled presence of human presupposition.

In the midst of all of this wondering and perusing I happened across an article which led to a book which led to more articles on a revolutionary find in the world of scientific theory that appeared to be changing the way we see, or at least my Grade 10 and 11 Biology textbook saw, the evolutionary process. This is a theory I have found myself returning to all these years later after once again feeling frustrated by similar things and picking up a book called The Tangled Tree by David Quammen. And it has found me thinking about these questions all over again


The revolutionary theory in question is called horizontal gene transfer (HGT). It is an idea that challenges the old paradigm of the Darwinian Tree of Life, in which gene transfer happens inwards and in protective isolation by proving that genes can also transfer sideways and backwards and forwards by permeating DNA from the outside world via outside sources (read: molecular phylogenetics).

In this theory we are far more a product of our environment than we once thought ourselves to be. So what are the implications of this theory?

As said, it changes the old paradigm, which it is worth noting remains the reigning paradigm in my son’s Grade 11 Biology textbook. It takes the Tree of Life, where a single source branches out over time into succinct, measurable and defined evolutionary changes via inherited genes, and rewrites that picture as a web, or in the case of the book a picture of tangled branches where these same evolutionary changes are far from succinct, measurable and defined and rather a testament of an extremely complicated mix of sources and outcomes that defy previous notions of natural progression.

In other words, in purely biological terms life is a bit of a mess. A bit of a sprawling, undefined mess. Far messier than we once thought it to be. And, for what it is worth, far less “naturally” progressive than we once perceived it to be under the old evolutionary paradigm.

Which begs the question in my mind, why is it that we hold so tightly to the idea of “progressive” on purely human terms, a key tenant of the modern age, when there is no true paradigm in nature on which to measure this sort of natural progression, certainly not in the linear fashion that history tends to read back into our human evolution on both a social and biological level. Why have we attempted to deviate from the natural process so succinctly, desperate to pick and peruse elements of nature that match our perception of the “good” human condition while ignoring the others? The root word, progress, after all is burdened by the idea that we are becoming better, more advanced, more informed, more “progressed”  than we were before, and therefore weeding out the less productive, less ideal, less enlightened stuff that used to hold us back. It is a word that owes itself heavily to the old paradigm in which the enlightenment was essentially birthed. And in terms of human advancement in progressive ideology, this tends to be seen as “freedom” and rights of the individual as the highest value.

Yet, science would suggest that this is not a consistent picture of the evolutionary process as a whole. We aren’t evolving to become a more advanced species, nor an advanced version of our species. The idea of a progressive society is in a sense an aberration born out of humanities need (or desire) to circumvent the norms of the process precisely because we looked at the process at one point in time and found it unbecoming and in need of a recognizable moral foundation. And yet this needs a universal morality to work, and the idea that philosophers (for as much as they have tried) can actually pull a universal meaning or value out of the evolutionary construct is questionable on the best of days, precisely because it is something that must work against the natural order.

Thus, if one was to spend time with the philosphers who created the framework for progressive ideologies, we would find a philosphy that still sits in tension, needing to work against the natural order while also proporting to work in service of it.

In truth, the only real universal constant over time is change, and in the context of HGT this change happens without regard for the sort of progress we have long been trained to see by modern philosophy, at least in the ways we are taught to see it as measured against idealistic visions of what “civilized” societies must be. What we see as progressive is little more than a facade, a mirage, a value that we have superimposed onto society that nature does not hold to on its own merit outside of change for the sake of survival and reproductive methods, the two central values of that construct. The best philosophers can do is read into this construct some proclaimed higher, superimposed values of human activity that render things like inclusion and social awareness as a representation (or means) of these values of survival and reproduction. For example, freedom for all is a value we have set over and above the natural order, but this is a value because by protecting freedom for all we can protect the survival of the human species.

And the more I consider this tension the more I feel like it is a rather large problem when it comes to how we view the world, especially as we use our need to see civil and social change as a means of filtering out the weak (non progressives) from the strong (progressives).

One of the other big implications of this revolutionary theory is the way it reintegrates our understanding of human nature back into nature itself. HGT recognizes that we are at our core “mosaic creatures” made up of bits and pieces of the world that surrounds us over time. In this sense the idea of a unique human condition that sets us over and above nature as civil versus wild is little more than a figment of our inherited imaginative process. With the old paradigm of the tree challenged, we are as much a part of this nature as anything else, and a randomized and broken version of it at that. Not as enlightened or in tension with the old construct of nature as we tend to see ourselves to be.

Further, HGT has shown that 8 percent of the human genome originated through virus genomes operating on this horizontal transfer theory. In other words, regardless of how we see the size and/or function of our brains as the thing that sets us apart as “civilized” beings, we are at our core broken, flawed and corrupted representations of the natural order given purely to the construct of change for the purpose of survival. This remains the highest order.

Which had me thinking even further. By its very nature the word progressive divides. In fact, on philosophical terms the entire construct of evolutionary theory divides. Not simply according to ideologies, but it divides us by our nature. Tribalism, seperation of species, nationalism, progressive ideologies. It all flows from the same place. In modern terms it sets humanity directly above the natural order from which it belongs and is in relationship to and divides us from nature. The word progressive also coopts for its own purposes and sets us over and above one another. It supplants nature with superimposed virtues and values that essentially attempt to control the trajectory of the one constant in the process- change, and thus gives it meaning and purpose according to our own culturally embedded values. And lastly, the word progressive sells us on an idea. It sells us on this idea that because nature is heading somewhere particular, so should humanity, and that this progress aims for something better, whatever utopian ideal that might embody, at the expense of what we deem as worse.

Which leaves philosophers trapped by this need to find a universal value that can pull all this division together (because values tend to throw the old natural construct into disarray) or accept the division as a function of natures value (which leads to things like the Holocaust).

So back to my question, why do we hold on so tightly to this idea of “progress”? I think some semblance of an answer could come from contextualizing the word into our modern paradigm of old versus new. We have been taught that nature is heading somewhere particular, towards self correction and the betterment of our world and humanity, and therefore we expect it to be true and make it our task to interpret this. And in many ways we need this as social and socially aware creatures that can actively measure one action against another. This is an affect of becoming increasingly aware of the world around us, the world which we inhabit and must make sense of in order to reconcile how we feel against what we see.

This same contextualization could also apply to the way we understand this old versus new paradigm in the light of history. Historically we can measure human society as being at some sort of intersection of secular and religious ideologies. And as humanity continues to try and control this shift away from the old (religion) and towards the new (secular), with the belief by the stronger that this is progress, we are experiencing a tension between what is essentially still borrowing from the language and assumptions of the old paradigm- religion, and what is also fighting at the same time for freedom from this paradigm. Which means that this idea of heading somewhere particular, of this process having universal meaning and purpose beyond just survival (the assumptions of religion), of this trajectory being one of heading somewhere better (which is built into the language of redemption and restoration of creation in religion) is an inherently religious one that is trying to disassociate itself from religion altogether. Talk about messy.


The harder answer of course is to say there are no easy answers. I’ll be honest, the reality of this revolution in scientific theory bogs me down even on my best days. I have no real answers, only struggles and considerations and convictions. There are moments though where contextualizing my struggle into my own relationship to this old-new paradigm shift, which largely includes wrestling with my own faith based perspective and progressive ideologies and value systems and questions of meaning has been helpful.

At the heart of this for me is the question of why. Why should we care about what is good or bad? Why should we spend our time trying to convince others about what is right or wrong, helpful and not helpful when it comes to our ideas of what it means to progress and to get better and advance as a civilization? Why does any of it actually matter when, at best, meaning and purpose on a purely biological basis is something that we must admit we have presupposed and superimposed seemingly to make ourselves feel better about what is at it’s heart an aimless process?

When the author of this book encountered the question, why does nature choose to invest its energy in this HGT when there is no consistent or measurable outcome to be gleaned from it (sometimes it results in good, sometimes bad and at other times it is simply benign), he went on to suggest it comes down to one thing- it does it for purely selfish reasons.

To arrive at his answer it is important to recognize that the author holds to the conviction that what he writes is hugely important to not only our understanding of how things work, but about where we are headed in terms of medicine, exploration and ultimately survival. But if there is a sharp criticism to be made here, it is not so much about his material as it is about his assumptions. He spends so much time challenging the perceptions of the old paradigm where he believes it is necessary to do so that he fails to consider the ways his own assumptions are indebted to the ways of the old paradigm in the first place. He assumes a measure of meaning and worth to human advancement. He assumes a measure of meaning and worth to the idea of progress, which for him is still an important part of human participation in the natural “disorder”. But he cannot disassociate it from selfishness or the disorder of HGT.

The end result of this research is that the only true carry over from the old paradigm that still matters as perceivable and rationalized truth is that of survival. We all, as an interconnected species, share this same need and want and built in natural desire to survive on purely selfish terms. Which is super interesting to me, because if there was one big takeaway from this book for me it is what it exposes about our need to survive, the same answer the author gave when asked the question, which is the idea that in this revolutionary theory it is the selfish gene that still reigns. From the pages of Ayn Rand to the polemics of Dawkins and the modern, neo-darwinist new atheists, to modern expositions of the importance of the selfish way, it is the power of the selfish gene that continues to permeate the messiness of the process. And in HGT we can see that this is still the only real reason nature would have for expending energy on something that has been exposed as far more eraddic than we once thought it to be.

And then I wondered about this notion of selfishness as I pondered some of the markers of progressive thought. What if selfishness really is the great adversary, the great mark of the natural condition. What if even our ideas of progress, when you pull back the curtain of those imposing “why” questions, is indebted to these same selfish aims. It all leads me to wonder about where it is we think we are heading when we speak of investment in space travel, advancement in technology and medicine and genetics, protection of the earth and our children and future generations. For the book this is all a reason to celebrate. The necessary science to better our understanding of the world and give us a better chance at survival. But when I pare it all down, to what aim do we invest in all of  this when progress is little more than a carry over from our old nature? Why survive as  human species? Why live?


Selfishness becomes even more complicated when one tries to make sense of the values of socio-political progress in ideological terms. Values that grow out of and depend on reading a level of distinction into this mosaic. Of finding individual beauty in the mess. Values that assume meaning in the importance of individual rights and expression as the highest order of society, of being able to distinguish why one value matters next to another based on a “given” meaning that says we have value to begin with. And yet the paradox of this is the thing that holds it all together continues to be, and has always been selfishness. Human survival. Species distinction. The betterment of our society and our future generations. All things that fight against the picture of the mosaic creature as a virtuous being in and of itself, valued because of it’s diversity. Ask someone why progressive ideolgies are necessary and important and the answer will be because it means something important to the value we can give to humanity. But where does this greater meaning actually come from?

Which brings me back to the intersection of the old and the new. And this is purely my personal and subjective opinion. In my eyes, the only true paradigm that we have for meaning is religion. It seems to me that for as much as philosophers try, the only true measurement we have of expressing this degree of value and meaning is spirituality. Sure, we might be lying to ourselves in order to believe religion is actually a viable (human?) construct on which to base our progressive ideologies, but we owe much to it in terms of our modern social evolution. But the reality is we are lying to ourselves on the other side of this paradigm as well. Outside of religion nature orients us around species. Nature embellishes who we are by taking broken beings and adapting us to our environment for the sake of ensuring our survival. It’s an instinctual genetic function, not a given value. And to give it value from our “human” perspective is simply to play god with nature. And we all know how that is turning out.

Which, again, all leaves me even more curious about the place of faith in helping us to understand why we continue to see progressive thought as important in light of the evidence to the contrary. Spiritually speaking I can begin to see the idea of the new creation all over this concept of the “mosaic creature”. I can begin to see the promise of redemption against the light of our corrupted and broken genes. I can begin to see notes of grace in the messiness of the process. I can begin to see beauty in the diversity, even if the selfish gene continues to challenge my human condition. And I can begin to grow a love for all of life and the whole of the created order.

In the same light of this spirituality it also then becomes even more compelling to me to consider that what this book calls endobiosis (the event that set up and enabled life to begin to take shape) has only ever happened once. In other words we are indebted still to a single source on either side of the old/new paradigm. This to me is hopeful. This to me makes some sense, because if there is a singular source of life it means it is possible to see a given meaning rather than a created meaning, one that maybe has been hidden but in our awareness is now being revealed. This is different than the progressiveness modern eyes tend to read into the evolutionary process, if because it means we are not growing into more enlightened beings, but rather discovering truths about who we have always been, who God has always been and what this world has always been. We are then coming back to a point of perspective before evolution had its way with this world.

Which means the real question is, can this single, universal source actually shape our values and sense of direction (or lack of it) with purpose? With science alone I feel like my answer to that is no. When I leave space for my faith to inform my wrestling with this science, I can at least begin to see the possibility of a yes forming out of the mud, out of the messy mosaic, and that gives me the strength to at least begin to accept the process of itself. To actually see the mosaic as beautiful, not only in its cohesiveness which pushes back against our divisive ideologies, but in its expression of the spiritual process itself that is in fact heading somewhere, towards being made whole again.


Published by davetcourt

I am a 40 something Canadian with a passion for theology, film, reading writing and travel.

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