ProgressKant’s “What is Enlightenment”
and the Evolutionary Model of Progress
Kant’s essay “An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment?” holds a very optimistic tone for the future of humankind. He defines enlightenment as “man’s emergence from his self-incurred immaturity” (p. 54.) By this he means the immaturity of reason of which he believes the majority of the world is lacking in. This is not in itself a bad thing as he argues that the natural progression of mankind inevitably calls for the ultimate attainment of reason. Kant believes that if people throw off the chains of laziness and cowardice they will be one step closer to a successful end. This linear notion of progression has been rejected by anthropologists as misleading but it certainly fits its time-frame.
In classrooms today we are still taught that humans emerged on a sort of ladder of higher achievement. The picture that many of us received to learn about evolution contained a straightforward line of progression: fish mouse monkey ape human. This is a similar formulation of progression that Kant portrays in his essay. Mankind moves historically from a time of chaos and little reason to more reason, to more reason, and so forth. He did not believe that he was living in an enlightened time but rather that he was living in an “age” of enlightenment. This thought process establishes himself and his society as being on the right route but not near the goal line. However, reaching the goal is inevitable because it is simply humankind’s natural progression. In his day and age nature was a fitting metaphor for the inevitability, or the innate right, of mankind’s passage through time. Of course, there was not much cloning going on even twenty years ago. Nonetheless the image of progression that this essay contains is that of a ladder of success: we will continue to climb up one rung after another. This image is something that anthropologists have argued about for a few years now. They ask the question: is the model of evolution that we see accurate in the eyes of evolution itself? The most recent answers to this question are generally no, it is not accurate.
The most current models have more in common with trees than they do with ladders. The trunk of the tree is the common history, the evolutionary dribble that all life stems from. However, there are an awful lot of branches along that trunk and not one is judged better than another. Each branch is a historical experiment of evolution to examine whether fur is better than scales on a particular species in its environment. Or, say, a protruding thumb may or may not benefit certain apes in their environment. Every twig on every branch is such an experiment and is not prone to judgment. There are more twigs that stop growing and eventually fall off than there are those that stay and grow. This means that not every change is necessarily better, it simply means that there is a change. This is not a progressive and linear examination into the evolution of the most “godlike” of animals on the planet. Rather it is jumbled and lacks in such a sense of progress: that we are better than apes, that apes are better than monkeys, and that eventually we will become “the enlightened ones.” The idea that human societies will one day merge into one and that humans will become the very definition of reason is extremely idealistic as well as arrogant. It may very well be possible, as a twig on a branch on the trunk of some roots, but it seems very improbable. In order for us to be enlightened in such a manner, the environment has to create an atmosphere in which emotion is detrimental. If such a thing occurred we would no longer be human, rather we would be a new species altogether. It does not even mean that human beings would cease to exist as the two twigs could be attached to the same branch. Those with reason and those without reason can very well coexist on the tree of evolution.
Nevertheless, Kant’s model of the progression of reason is