Invention and Progress

Nothing is more descriptive of the human linage than invention. In fact, in the history of the earth, almost 4 billion years of which includes the history of life, there was no invention (either object or process) before the hominids began doing it roughly 2 to 4 million years ago. The changes associated with evolution are not invention, but are the consequence of the “selecting”, storing and re-implementing arrangements of nucleotide bases of DNA. The Living System of Order captures information from reality (what remains in the moment continues) and allows the variations in structure and function that occur as a result of the DNA/protein storage and implementation designs to feedback into the system. New things? Yes. Inventions? No. There have been some truly incredible new things like photosynthetically produced free oxygen, perhaps the most dramatic and significant development in the history of life, but it came from variation in the arrangement of nucleotides.

Invention begins when an information storage tool like a nervous system has the capacity to combine stored experiences that are weakly related by type and that have occurred widely separated in time. This design of function I have called the Consciousness System of Order. When you start to think about it (with it!), the CSO may compete with free oxygen production as a profound new thing.

Progress is the more problematic. First of all, we (hominids) invented ‘progress’ using our new toy, consciousness order. The dictionary says that progress is: “forward or onward movement toward a destination; advance or development toward a better, more complete, or more modern condition.” We, of course, invented this definition; it most likely describes an illusion; a useful one, but, like all illusions, dangerous when misused.

What makes this more interesting and important than playing shuffleboard with words is that we have made certain notions of invention and progress central to our social, economic and political values. The utter horror that can append to the expression, “WHAT! You are opposed to progress?”, is a clue as to how deep and unquestioned is both our dedication to and misunderstanding of this idea.

‘Invention’ is a consequence of a new system of order that presently resides in the human species, and ‘progress’ is an invention of the process of invention (we are trying to invent a way to put this new system of order into our machine inventions. Thoughtful people are rightly concerned since we have not even begun to master this revolutionary capacity in its biological form.) Neither one is an inherently positive value that can justify the uses of our other inventions to subjugate other humans, remove other species or damage the biosphere. We do these things only because we have not yet invented a way not to.

A more difficult, but more accurate, way of looking at these changes is — the changes are certainly real — that our consciousness tool of invention is combining all manner of experiences in novel ways with occasional combinations produced, tested and spread to other humans. These new things can then contribute to new experiences and ultimately to more new inventions. The design of this process in the Consciousness System of Order is inherently geometric and uninhibited. And thus, inherently self-terminating: unless we invent ways to inhibit and govern the process. The first step is to recognize that “progress” is not a natural good; our understanding of progress is a distortion that has taken on political and social value.

The down and dirty political, economic and social consequences are that any different way of doing things offends some group. But first comes the Idea (an invention), it is tested and then possibly spreads. The powerful do not control the invention of idea, but they try to control what we call progress by controlling the spread of ideas. I wrote in an essay on my blog: We lose control “…(u)nless actual leadership has a vision driven by the natural representatives of the people and the people themselves. Labor leaders, academics, writers, community leaders of all sorts are the natural nodes of interest and concern, not political “leaders.” Science and engineering clarify options and possibility. Specialized academics and super-community leaders summarize and suggest. Un-tampered with, such a system will produce, with differing degrees of quality, direction for societies and visions for leaders to lead with. It needs to be noted that these “natural” nodes for the articulation of the pubic interest are exactly those demonized by authoritarian conservatives.”

However, the details of our political reality must not distract us away from the actual functioning of our human process; our actions are a result of those processes. The better we understand how our world functions in biophysical and social-biological terms the less we can be fooled. Progress is only change that someone sees as more or less immediately useful. Invention is the combination of experiences measured against possibility. We humans of this planet have become servant to these behaviors and, along with spin-offs like growth economics, are pressing our biological luck.

We need social dialog, we need regulation, and ultimately we need a social/political mechanism to reject inventions (physical and behavioral) that, while immediately useful, are destructive in the longer term. If we understand that the Consciousness System of Order is not evolution in action, but a new system with its own rules, that invention is a new and powerful process and that Darwinian and Spencerian thinking don’t apply, then it might be possible to find a way to live with this incredible power. Up to now we have only been riding it.

We must use the only tools we have to begin reconstructing our relationship, first personally and then possibly societally (obviously can’t be in the other order), with the biophysical reality (the one and only!). That these tools are the very ones that drove us into this cul-de-sac should not be a damning concern; they would seem to me to be the natural ones, when brought more under our control, to carry us out.

(This is part of a series of essays that look at the primary articles of faith that seem normal and essential to our present cultural life, but that are the underlying forces for damage to the biosphere, destruction of our specieshood and ultimately devastating to the most positive qualities of the cultural life we are trying to sustain.)

James Keye is the nom de plume of a retired academic and small businessman living with an Ecological Footprint of 1.6 earths. He can be reached at Read other articles by James, or visit James's website.

12 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. bozhidar balkas said on August 25th, 2008 at 8:04am #

    trains, cars, machines, planes, tanks, missiles, etc., kill lotsof people.
    OK, it’s not machines that kill, it’s machines/people who make them and use them that kill/maim.
    all that is done for a ‘better life’.
    thank u

  2. Max Shields said on August 25th, 2008 at 8:29am #

    “We must use the only tools we have to begin reconstructing our relationship, first personally and then possibly societally (obviously can’t be in the other order), with the biophysical reality (the one and only!). That these tools are the very ones that drove us into this cul-de-sac should not be a damning concern; they would seem to me to be the natural ones, when brought more under our control, to carry us out.”

    Agreed. Your journey is one I share. We have begun a local communiversity which speaks to this “reconstruction” of our relationships.

    You may be interested.

  3. Donald Hawkins said on August 25th, 2008 at 9:45am #

    I sent this to one of the finanical channels this morning before reading James’s article.

    So we need to drill, drill, drill and why do we need to do that? I know to keep that sleek twenty first century train moving down the tracks full of happy consumers. A little secret ahead of the train where there was a bridge there is a bridge no more. There is still tracks on the other side where the bridge was and to drill, drill, drill and keep using fossil fuels as we do now another ten years we the lose the tracks they will be no more. You know China how they look to the States and want to be like us. Might be a good idea to give them some new ideas but first we need some new ideas drill, drill, drill, no no, no. We might want to think about slowing down until we can get those new ideas. Can’t do that well why not where in the book does it say we can’t do that. Don’t you think it would be a smart idea or to do that is admitting we are wrong and that is to hard to do?

    Slowing down is knowledge for some.

  4. bozhidar balkas said on August 26th, 2008 at 6:03am #

    we swim in one genetic pool from which we obtain an endless number of people with an endless number of talents.
    yet some humans make it a living hell for so many of us.

  5. Lab Rat said on August 26th, 2008 at 8:02am #

    A very interesting artical. Do bear in mind though, that the idea of Progress is a cultural one. In buddhist thinking (for example) things are circular rather than linear, the idea of progress is not so strong. Also I believe in some ancient cultures (I will look it up, but for some reason the Egyptians spring to mind) there was also less emphasis placed on movement and progression. Stagnation is not necessarily a bad thing if one can stagnate in security.

    But certainly in the western world the notion of ‘progress’ has really taken off. Here is a Terry Pratchett quote for you:

    “Progress is just a way of making bad things happen faster.”

  6. David said on August 26th, 2008 at 3:11pm #

    “When you can measure what you are speaking about and express it in numbers, you know something about it; …when you cannot … your knowledge is of a meager and unsatisfactory kind.”

    Lord Kelvin

    So, what have you got for us, Mr. Keye?

  7. James Keye said on August 26th, 2008 at 5:33pm #


    The whole history of idea helped inform Kelvin where and how to lay down his ruler. He did a great service to the advancement of reductionist science, and the tool of scientific positivism has dug many a ditch, but these are not the only tools of thought. It just might be they have only specialized application.

  8. bozhidar balkas said on August 27th, 2008 at 9:26am #

    just reread your post in which you state that individual responsibilty must come first.
    to me, it is like chcken and egg. don’t know what comes first.
    similarly, i do not know whether individual or collective responsibility comes first.
    i do aver that one can’t have one w.o the other. thanx

  9. Max Shields said on August 27th, 2008 at 10:36am #

    bozhidar balkas
    I’m perplexed by your post referencing “individual responsibility”. Was this on another thread that I stated this?

    I’ll be glad to respond if you can be more specific about what I “said”.

  10. bozhidar balkas said on August 27th, 2008 at 2:03pm #

    you wrote: “….. reconstructing our relationship, first personally and then possibly societally (obviously can’t be in the other order)
    i thought that you meant individual or personal responsibility in a relationship.
    as we know, a relationship betwn individuals and betwn an individual and a collection of individuals involves some rules, obligations, responsibilities, etc.
    to me, collective and individual obligations are aspects of one behavior.
    and we do not know and perhaps never will know which in value comes first.
    it’s like chicken-egg relationship. we do not know which came out first.
    american ruling class praises individual responsibility more than any other nation but collective duties towards an individual is never, as far as i know, even mentioned let alone vigoroulsy studied. more can be said…. thanx for inquiry

  11. James Keye said on August 27th, 2008 at 2:42pm #

    bozhidar balkas,

    Actually that was text quoted from my essay. I am suggesting that today all that we can do is to develop a personal relationship with the biophysical reality. This was once the function of community, but today community (society) is so distorted and distorting that we will not find satisfactory guidance there. If enough people are able to create effective personal relationships with Reality, then it might be possible to bring them together to allow effective community relationships with the biosphere in which we live.

  12. bozhidar balkas said on August 28th, 2008 at 7:24am #

    james keye,
    as an egalitarian/socialist, i agree with you that we have in US/canada and many places much, too much distorted teachings by clergy, educators, generals, politicos, media, and individuals.
    but warping of minds had begun long ago; perhaps it started some 20,000 yrs ago by a few mad priests and psychopaths.
    how else to explain the emergence of barons, earls, kings, grafen, princes, bishops, cardinals, etal.
    such misdeeds cld have been done only by priests and the extremely avaricious/vain people.
    and the disease/cancer is still with us. thank u
    in short, we had organized theft for ca. 20,000 yrs. mafia i think rose just because of that. they had ‘good’ teachers.