The first section of Steven Jay Gould's (1996) Life's Grandeur is called 'How shall we read and spot a trend?'. Gould's subjects here are nothing less than the meaning of life on earth and the cherished human idea of 'progress'. He begins by discussing people's tendency to use both the word and the metaphor of 'progress' whenever they talk about 'natural selection' and 'evolution', even though formal evolutionary theory suggests no such thing. For Gould, this is a mistake because, as with pre-Copernican and pre-Darwinian ways of thinking, it tries to locate humanity at the centre of creation, constructing it as the crowning achievement of life on earth. The idea of 'progress' also assigns to evolution a sense of inevitability, as if the only reason for there being life in the first place was to produce human kind. So even though we may think humans are the embodiment of 'progress', we should not forget that Homo sapiens is 'only a recent twiglet on an ancient and enormous genealogical bush' (Gould 1996:41).
The idea of 'progress' is also an example of the way people retrospectively impose order on events so that we might understand (or think we understand) what has happened. After all, not only are random events and systems virtually impossible to predict or control, it is also extremely difficult to tell a good story about them. 'Progress' is a good story, something which no doubt partly explains its popularity and Gould shows how people as varied as footballers, artists, journalists and scientists often use the word 'evolution' as code for 'progress'. While we may be inclined to assume that footballers and journalists are more likely to fall into these unfortunate habits of mind than scientists, Gould's message is that this is also a trap - scientists, as much as any other group of people, often think in predetermined, pre-packaged ways which, rather than telling it 'like it is', interpret data so that they fit the story they wanted to tell all along.
Writers and scholars have often noticed that archetypal stories and ideas, such as the idea of 'progress', co-exist within cultures alongside their opposites. For example, the idea of essential human goodness exists, no doubt, partly as a consequence of the opposite idea that at their core humans are self-centred animals acting on base instincts. In the same way, the story of inevitable decline in human affairs is just as familiar as the one about inevitable progress. Gould (1996:79) writes: 'Remember that our cultural legends include two canonical modes for trending: advances to something better as reasons for celebration, and declines to an abyss as sources of lamentation'.