It may well be irrational to believe that history is progress after the unprecedented moral and political calamities of the twentieth century. But it does not follow, as [John] Gray apparently assumes, that history has no meaning. There is another possibility. To my knowledge Gray never endorses it, and it extremely difficult for a post-Darwinian mind to grap, but it has been presumed true by most civilizations and philosophies of the past, and is still so regarded by many non-Westernized cultures today. The possibility is that history does indeed have a meaning, purpose and end, and that these can easily be discerned by human beings, but that the direction of history's development is backward not forwards. History is not progress but regress, not advance but decline, and it leads to destruction rather than to utopia.--David Hawkes reviewing John Gray "The Silence of Animals" in TLS (30 August, 2013).
Let's distinguish four main conceptions of history:
Eternal Return. Within philosophy this goes back to Book 3 of Plato's Laws. It was revived by Nietzsche (and is part of the sub-structure of much continental philosophy and via Ian Hacking it is seeping into philosophy of science). It accords well with a cyclical conception of history with a rise and fall narrative or with periodic destruction of civilization(s) (think of the Atlantis story in the Timaeus and Bacon's riff on it). I expect it to become increasingly attractive to people as we head for man-made environmental catastrophe.
Open-ended progress. This is the ruling ideology of science and scientific philosophy since Darwin undercut the grounds of teleological explanations and the natural alliance between science and divine providence. In general open-ended progress dispenses with teleology, but, of course, many who embrace this conception will insist -- pace Kuhn -- that science is getting closer to truth. To see the most rigorous version of this concept of history we need to look at the logic of open-ended growth in market-based societies. We need not agree with Dawkes that it is "irrational" to believe in open-ended progress, although it may be so as man-made environment disaster becomes increasingly felt.
Decline. This is familiar from Genesis and a variety of lost Golden Ages in poetry. The past really was better (along some fundamental dimension), and we're worse even smaller now (Vico toys with this in amusing fashion). I do not understand why Dawkes thinks this is especially hard to grasp (and especially post-Darwin); curmudgeons of all generations happily embrace it. Until the physically necessary end of the solar system (in about six billion years), decline will be a live option, but, I expect, a minority position because decline can be subsumed under the cyclical and the messianic conceptions of history.
Philosophy has cozily inhabited all four conceptions of history, but modern science less so. In particular, modern science is inimical to decline. If open-ended progress is forced to retreat in the face of environmental disaster, I expect the rhetoric of science to move either toward eternal return (you know, our cosmos will eventually day and give rise to a new cosmos, etc.) as Nietzsche prophesied or toward a new epistemocratic messianic religion in which the very smart and deserving high-priest elites will guide us past the ever-present abyss.