The Case For (and Against) Progress

What is progress and have we experienced it in a meaningful manner? Have we made life better for ourselves, or improved the planet? Or have we bankrupted our environment and cursed our progeny to a life in the Stone-Age?

The short answer is: Yes.

There is ample evidence for both arguments. Human welfare has most definitely improved, epecially in the last 100 or so years. But with improvements in health, quality of life, and longevity, have come new problems — lifestyle diseases, over-population, environmental degredation and rampant inequality. For a doctor on Madison Avenue, for example, the world has never been a better place. For a Lybian fleeing war in a rubber boat in the sweltering Mediterranean… well, not so much.

There are many starting points for a discussion such as this, and I’ll consider more of them in later essays. But a good place to consider both sides of this argument is in historians’ assessments of imperialism. In the nineteenth century European powers expanded their sphere of influence dramatically. What ensued once Europe went global were bloodbaths and progressive revolutions in equal measure — the making of the modern world in all its guts and glory.

Britain, for example, having originally made inroads into India in the eighteenth century via the East India Company, came to control the entire sub-continent of 300 million people with a force of under 100,000. And the British empire is a great example for our debate: there is plenty of evidence that Brits were responsible for the killing of millions of native peoples (British policies in Bengal, which they conquered in 1764, were responsible for some 10 million deaths through starvation). Their racist administration oppressed those with darker skin, and their businesses carted off millions of tons of raw materials out of which to squeeze a profit for their investors in London. Profit drove expansion, but science was a willing handmaiden, as much of the profit derived from advances in transportation and weaponry. Meanwhile, an ideology of white, Christian, British, superiority rendered it all perfectly decent.

All this catastrophic decency, however, had unintended consequences, as is the way with warfare and conquest in general. There is plenty of evidence that the British, along with other European empires, saved millions of lives through medicine, technology and law, while improving many more.

Edward Jenner, the inventor of vaccines, comes to mind here — one of the early breakthroughs of the scientific revolution. Researchers pushed the limits of human knowledge via their pursuit of a uniquely European approach to science, or rather a uniquely European approach to the world, that of “Science” — a new methodology born of the seventeenth century. Yes, there were glimmers of science before — ancient Greeks, Arabs, etc. — but here one should think of astronomy in place of astrology, philosophy in place of physics, alchemy in place of chemistry, and mythology in place of biology. (Aristotle ranked women just above slaves in the natural hierarchy of beings). Scientific thinking, however, de-coupled knowledge from religion, and allowed people to ask questions without reference to any sacred compendium of answers. Quite handy, as it turned out.

While Brits were busy conquering and controlling, they were also cataloguing — languages, geographies, ethnologies, flora and fauna. It was the British (not the Mughals, Sikhs, or Delhi Sultans who preceded them as conquerors — and who were equally horrible to their underlings) who, stumbling across the ruins of Mohenjo-Daro, India’s first great civilization, thought to dig it up, analyze it and document it for posterity — just as other Europeans were doing in Africa, the Middle East and Asia.

No one, anywhere in the world, had hitherto deemed it useful or interesting to ask where these gargantuan ruins all came from, and then apply a scientific methodology to find the answer.

William Jones, who served as a judge in Bengal in the eighteenth century, set up the Asiatic Society to study cultures, histories and languages of Asia. Noting the multiple similarities between different languages, his studies led to him identifying the Indo-European family of languages, thus founding the modern science of linguistics. In Persia, a British army officer named Henry Rawlinson deciphered the cuneiform script of the Achemaenid empire (working in his spare time), opening a door onto the ancient Middle Eastern world, which had been firmly closed as contemporary Persians moved around the ruins and inscriptions in their midst without probing them. In the same cultural-scientific tradition, nineteenth-century Americans uncovered the Maya homeland, hacking behemoths such as Tikal and Chichen Itza out of their jungly graves and deciphering their scripts (eventually).

Don’t misunderstand me; this is not to say that Euros, and their American descendants/cousins, are smarter or superior. It is to say that the scientific thinking originating in Europe in the seventeenth century — and before — gave rise to this kind of curiosity, which is now, I should point out, a global possession. While it may have been Europeans who pioneered such works of global heritage, such disciplines as they founded have all been adopted, and honed by non-Europeans today.

And don’t misunderstand me on this count either: Edward Said’s Orientalism is a valid critique: to a certain extent, nineteenth-century European scholars did not so much describe the “Orient” as invent it. Kind of. There is no doubt that the European project of “getting to know” the non-European world put them in a massively powerful position vis-a-vis the people they occupied. European expansion, from the fifteenth century onward was, afterall, prompted by economic and military competition, of one state against another. Portuguese antics in the Indian Ocean in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries are a case in point. Profit fueled their exploration, underwrote their systematic approach to navigation, map-making and “trade.” Behind it all was the figure of the priest sanctifying the bloodletting, while booty was hauled back to Lisbon.

The goal was initially China, the “Indies,” and the riches that lay there. Exploration was undertaken with the full expectation of military action, it was a meme, part of the European modus operandi (these things change: once known for Vikings, the Scandinavians now give us Volvos and progressive politics).

Even before the full unfolding of the scientific revolution, the Spanish conquistadores pursued enough knowledge to figure out the political lay of the land in the Valley of Mexico, sufficient to side with the Aztec’s enemies in order to defeat them. The Aztecs, had they acquired more information about their own backyard, might have been better prepared for the arrival of the Spanish on the mainland, given that these newcomers had been terrorizing the Caribbean for years before setting their sights on Veracruz. Knowledge, Montezuma had none when it came to what the weird palefaces wanted. And when Pizarro showed up in Peru, the Incas had never heard of the Aztecs, nor their fate, so were equally unprepared for Spanish deceit.

So far I’ve argued that even in historical eras and episodes that were ugly, there are glimmers of something that looks like progress. These, we should point out, are not intentional; neither the British empire, nor the Han, Roman, Mongol, or any other, existed to better the conquered people. Empires resulted from expansionist and usually greedy policies of certain people — history itself in Ambrose Bierce’s words being made by knaves, fools and scoundrels. The results, however, were often positive in the long run — not for all individuals equally, but in the larger context of human welfare. Larger polities often create peace, and warfare usually created larger polities, as the strong absorbed the weak.

Regardless of your disdain, moral outrage, or disapproval of imperialism, ancient or modern, British or American, imperial polities historically appear to have had considerable upsides if one dispassionately looks at the numbers.

The ultimate example of this is Warring States China (450–221 BCE). Roughly eight different polities battled with each other until there was one left (the Qin). This became the China of today. Now, some may argue that China as a polity has always been coercive, oppressive and detrimental to human welfare — in the aggregate. But there is also a substantial argument that…well, it hasn’t, that the unity of polity achieved by the chinese did actually lift all boats — in the rising tide metaphor. State granaries opened up and fed thousands in times of drought and famine, repeatedly. Its markets created an economic unit far bigger than any regional state could have operated. It is possible, then, to say that warfare has, over the long haul of human history, had a unifying effect, and to ask whether it is not possible that we will ultimately end up (50 years from now, 200?) with the kind of world government that Albert Einstein fervently believed was necessary, the nation-state, is after all, only the most recent iteration of a polity.

But human history has seen continuing disasters alongside its successes. But we should make a distinction here, between pre-agricultural, agrarian and post-industrial societies. The Agriculture-as-mistake argument popularized by Jared Diamond suggests that agriculture caused multiple downstream problems — in the Agrarian era (roughly 5000 BCE to the 1800s). After that, Industrialization solved some (reductions in slavery — eventually medicine, transport, etc), but caused wholly new ones — or massively expanded existing ones (population explosion, environmental degradation, lifestyle diseases, rampant global inequality).

If the Industrial Revolution caused new problems or aggravated old ones, make no mistake, there was suffering aplenty in the agrarian period which preceded it. Until very, very recently, few except the very rich had any “rights;” individuality, whatever that is, scarcely registered as a thing, as most humans on earth struggled to get the bare necessities for survival, let alone “self actualization.” Security from hunger, rape, murder, or war, was very thin on the ground in pre-industrial societies. The state, in places where it existed, was usually run by a greedy oligarchy bent on preserving its own power at all costs. “Civil Society” did not exist — was not to be invented until the nineteenth century, although the Ancient Greeks for a short while had something like it, extended only to their citizens, who were only free-born men, no women, no slaves, please. In Rome in the first century CE slaves comprised 30–40% of the population, and were largely denied membership in the human race. Women the world over were largely the property of their husbands and fathers with few or no rights whatever. This has only begun to change very recently, with many societies barely registering change at all.

If there was any benefit to living in a state (whose primary function was to tax and control you) it was accidental. Such benefits, however, may have been considerable. Steven Pinker has argued that states reduced violence. You have to understand Hobbes to get this idea: Pre-state societies had no monopoly on violence. Hobbes’ idea of pre-state life being “nasty brutish and short,” is probably outdated. But the state took the means of violence away from the individual — at least legally — so vengeance, a key Hobbesian concept, became more challenging.

To say that pre-state societies were a free-for-all is manifestly not the case. But if Rousseau argued that pre-state societies were largely peaceful, and that the end of the tribal lifeway led to war, studies have not born this out. Instead, scholars today suggest that there is ample evidence for constant hunter-gatherer violence — and even warfare — as far back as we can see. If pre-state hunter-gatherer violence was a constant trickle, states had occasional all-out wars, but in-between lived in conditions of relative security (Pax Romana, for example, the first 100 years or so the the empire).

If states exist to extract money from you and force you to fight for them, they usually conceded that they needed to give something back, and this has traditionally been security. If the Romans of Monty Python’s Palestine gave back roads, aqueducts, health care, and ultimately peace, others looked out for society’s weaker members. The Arthashastra of India’s Mauryan empire (c. 300 BCE) says: “No man shall have sexual intercourse with a woman against her will.” That is pretty progressive for the time period. The Romans could never touch that.

Of course, owing to the lack of state power in the ancient world, this was more of a guideline than a law, but it was at least published as a standard with state authorization. Similar injunctions were included in this book, along with specific punishments for men who abandoned wives, as well as laws allowing wives to abandon husbands in case of abuse. Here, then, are some very early glimmers of progressive light ushering from ancient states which otherwise seem like massive systems of coercion.

Ultimately — even under the dastardly Mongols — when the conquering was over, peace ensued (pax Mongolica) and those left standing had to be incorporated into the new body politic. Even the scions of Genghis Khan, such as Kubilai Khan, his grandson who ruled China, rejected the opinions of some of his advisors, who wanted to turn China into grazing land for Mongol ponies, and instead saw the benefits of a functioning society and a lucrative tax base — which was what China had always been for its rulers.

So the state, which was often repressive, had some benefits. It was also the birthplace of writing. Sumer and Egypt in particular pioneered writing systems first of all to keep track of stuff, as in accounting. Only later did people develop full alphabets to get poetic and start actually writing about their lives, or politics, myths, etc. (see Gilgamesh, written some 2000 years BCE). Of particular importance when it comes to writing is its ability to transfer knowledge — hence power — from generation to generation, vastly enhancing the scope and potential of learning, as the internet does today. Writing then, represents a kind of “J curve” moment, when things changed rapidly and momentously for the human species.

Alongside writing came mathematics. Arguably, this did not achieve anything really earth-shattering until the scientific revolution of the eighteenth century, when mathematicians like Newton began describing the world in mathematical as opposed to religious terms. Until that revolution most people looked to the religious traditions for all answers. If there was a question that was not answered by the religious texts then it was not worth asking.

But before the full-blown scientific revolution, math did produce engineering: Most mega-structures which resulted (Egyptian and Mayan pyramids, the temple compound at Angor Watt, etc), were largely put at the service of megalomaniacal rulers, warrior-kings, and ruling elites, so arguably they didn’t benefit the 99% of the population who built them and lived in their shadows. This practice probably started with the tower of Jericho, believed to be some 9000 years old. Whether military or religious or both, the tower begs the question of who built it, and under what conditions (slavery? forced labor, service to a “lord?”), and what was it for?

Beyond burial chambers such as pyramids, or the mounds at Cahokia on the Mississippi, or Anasazi Great Houses, another case-in-point was Rome’s Coliseum, commissioned by Vespasian in 72 CE. Seen by millions as an icon of human progress, it was an engineering feat as well as an historical legacy. Yet the purpose of such an edifice was to host grizzly spectacles in which humans killed each other, killed wild animals, and were in turn killed by them. The purpose of this “entertainment” was largely to distract people from their poverty and the callousness of their rulers. Eleven thousand wild animals were killed there to celebrate Trajan’s conquest of Dacia in 106 CE. By the early centuries of the second millennium, elephant, rhino and zebra were extinct in North Africa and the Hippo entirely removed from the lower Nile. So much for Progress.

Other ancient mega structures were laid out according to solar or lunar sight lines, serving as calendars with additional supernatural relevance. For many amateur historians, these practices for some reason made them think aliens must have been involved, but the sun and moon — which were not understood in any but a mythical/religious sense in the pre-modern imagination — were always put in the service of the ruling elites and priestly classes, from Egypt to Tenochtitlan, to enhance their prestige (these two cultures in particular erecting pyramids with reference to celestial bodies).

But in the ancient world astrology stood in for astronomy — the modern science of studying the heavens. Ancient astrologers used their observations of celestial bodies to predict events for rulers. Commencing a military campaign or entering into a dynastic marriage alliance, from China to the Valley of Mexico, were best undertaken under auspicious conditions. Atop a variety of astrologically-aligned mega-structures, then, leaders strutted their stuff, awed their subjects, cut the hearts out of orphaned or captive children and offered their blood to the gods. Religion (not Monotheisms in this case) and “Science” came together in a perfect storm of oppression — even if that oppression was dressed up as a way of keeping the cosmos ordered — literally preventing the sky from falling on one’s head.

The Industrial Revolution will be seen by optimists as a Great Leap Forward. It enabled us to multiply the amount of energy we squeezed from the earth, exponentially. Arguably it allowed us to dispense with slave labor — as we needed to rely less on human — and animal — power and more on steam, and led to the modern life — and amenities — we all (well, many of us) enjoy today.

But here, again, there were distinct downsides. In perhaps the mother of all progress traps, the gains from the IR (which were preceded in the period between 1400 and 1800 by many developments in agriculture) included history’s biggest J curve, a dramatic population increase. The world population doubled in the five centuries between 1000 and 1500, to reach a little under half a billion. By 1800 it had doubled again, reaching one billion. The forces unleashed by the IR would see global population rise to over six billion by the end of the twentieth, and still keep climbing. In the twentieth century alone, world population increased over 400%.

The IR is hugely controversial; many people swear it was the best thing to happen to humanity, while for others it spawned a new round of slavery — in factories, and the creation of unprecedented urban crowding, poverty and environmental degradation. And for non-Europeans it meant colonization, occupation, and conquest at the hands of technologically advanced, greedy white Christian men (who often preached that the pen was mightier than the sword, while ruling by the sword).

This had already happened in the New World in the sixteenth century, but to the “Guns, Germs and Steel” of the sixteenth century you could now add locomotion, machine guns, telegraphs, and high explosives, in addition to the kind of uber-rational organization that accompanied western industrialization — exhibited for example by the British Army’s stand at Rorke’s Drift in Natal against a force of 4000 Zulu warriors in 1879 (made famous by the movie version of events which starred a young Michael Caine).

With the Industrial Revolution we come nearly up to date. Since the 1800’s we have overturned almost everything we understood from the dawn of agriculture: gender roles, food, sexuality, individuality, geography, space itself, all have been transformed in our imaginations through our technological achievements.

What about human welfare?

As you can see, there is material here for decades of debate. The pendulum swings back and forth. Massive advances in quality of life and longevity are undeniable (see the Gap Minder Institute for more data on this). And yet there are terrible threats that face the species and our planet, and millions living in a new kind of poverty and violence. Ultimately, perhaps, we have gained in knowledge and power, and while we have in some quarters developed ideologies of peace and equality, these have been unevenly applied and as yet have failed to become an enduring global standard, displacing forever the older human default, that of power.

Writer of fiction & non fiction. Author of “The Thinking Past: Questions and Problems in World History to 1750,” and the ebook Look Smart!

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