Polarities of Progress

While researching my next post in the series on the idea of “progress,” I came across two articles sitting at opposite poles of the progressive spectrum. In the first, the arch-skeptic of progress John Gray reviews yet another book by Francis Fukuyama which prophecies a kind of Hegelian world-spirit movement toward liberal capitalist democracy. One might think that events since 1992, when Fukuyama wrongly declared the “end of history,” had dissuaded him from this sort of thing, but he keeps churning out optimistic forecasts along similar lines. Gray is having none of it:

The telltale word here, and throughout the two volumes, is ‘evolve’. For Fukuyama, as for many other modern thinkers, today and in the past, political development is an evolutionary process. What drives this process is never specified; if there is a social equivalent of the natural selection of genetic mutations, we learn no more about its workings from Fukuyama than we did from Karl Marx or Herbert Spencer, who produced similar speculations in the 19th century. It is never explained why political evolution should have any particular end state, nor why the process should involve the convergence of institutions. As it operates among species, evolution shows no such tendency. Drift and diversity, punctuated by extinction, are the normal state of affairs. Why should evolution in society – if there is such a thing – be any different?

While Gray is surely correct, his dour pessimism grates on people. Just the other day, one of the smartest people I know quipped: “John Gray would benefit from someone else coming along to argue John Gray’s case against progress.” After I had stopped laughing, I realized it was true: Gray has an unfortunate tendency to proclaim against progress from on high, and assumes that everyone has the read the books he has read. The books I have in mind, which Gray has surely read, include JB Bury’s The Idea of Progress: An Inquiry Into Its Origin and Growth (1920) and Robert Nisbet’s History of the Idea of Progress (1980). I just finished the former (and have more to say about it below) and am halfway through the latter. They form the essential foundation for any serious consideration, either for or against, the idea of progress.

Before getting to these, let’s look at a particularly vulgar (in the marxist sense) manifestation of progress. In this Guardian article announcing a new series on materials, Mark Miodownik sounds like the Francis Fukuyama of stuff:

Everything is made of something. Take away concrete, glass, textiles, metal, and the other materials from our lives and we are left naked, shivering in a muddy field. The sophistication of our lives is in a large part bestowed by material wealth, we would quickly revert to animal behaviour without the stuff of our civilisation: what makes us human is our clothes, our homes, our cities, our things, which we animate through our customs and language. This becomes very apparent if you ever visit a disaster zone. Thus the material world is not just a display of our technology and culture, it is part of us, we invented it, we made it and it makes us who we are.

The fundamental importance of materials is made clear from the naming of ages of civilisations – the stone, iron and bronze ages – with each new era being brought about by a new material…Making is not just an economic activity, it is the equal of literature, performance or mathematics as a form of human expression…The ages of civilisation are named after materials precisely because they transformed and shaped society. By distancing ourselves from the act of making, by buying and consuming stuff but never having any experience of their manufacture, the developed world finds itself not to be the illiterate society that education ministers fear, but an unmakerly society. 

Woe unto “primitive” societies without lots of stuff and “illiterate” ones that don’t know how it is all made! It is hard to imagine, given this view of things, how impoverished people were before bronze. A lack of stuff, Miodownik tells us, is species transformative: “the sophistication of our lives is in a large part bestowed by material wealth, we would quickly revert to animal behaviour without the stuff of our civilisation: what makes us human is our clothes, our homes, our cities, our things.” Humans are of course primates and therefore animals. No quality or quantity of “civilizing” stuff can change this biological-behavioral fact. Miodownik is, in the end or at the material bottom, many conceptual miles away from an anthropology of materiality and adequate theory of things.

These ironies aside, I encourage everyone to read JB Bury’s classic on the idea of progress (free download here). Those who don’t have sufficient interest or time should read, at a minimum, the penultimate chapter “Progress in the Light of Evolution.” It’s such a tour de force that I have excerpted the full chapter (in Word format) for interested readers and students. In the following passages (which I have further excised, condensed, and emphasized), you can get a good sense for Bury’s style and argument:

In the sixties of the nineteenth century the idea of Progress entered upon the third period of its history. During the FIRST period, up to the French Revolution, it had been treated rather casually; Progress was taken for granted and received no searching examination either from philosophers or from historians. In the SECOND period its immense significance was apprehended, and a search began for a general law which would define and establish it. The study of sociology was founded, and at the same time the impressive results of science, applied to the conveniences of life, advertised the idea. It harmonised with the notion of “development” which had become current both in natural science and in metaphysics. Socialists and other political reformers appealed to it as a gospel.

By 1850 it was a familiar idea in Europe, but was not yet universally accepted as obviously true. The notion of social Progress had been growing in the atmosphere of the notion of biological development, but this development still seemed a highly precarious speculation. The fixity of species and the creation of man, defended by powerful interests and prejudices, were attacked but were not shaken. The hypothesis of organic evolution was much in the same position as the Copernican hypothesis in the sixteenth century. Then in 1859 Darwin intervened, like Galileo. The appearance of the ORIGIN OF SPECIES changed the situation by disproving definitely the dogma of fixity of species and assigning real causes for “transformism.” What might be set aside before as a brilliant guess was elevated to the rank of a scientific hypothesis, and the following twenty years were enlivened by the struggle around the evolution of life, against prejudices chiefly theological, resulting in the victory of the theory.

The ORIGIN OF SPECIES led to the THIRD stage of the fortunes of the idea of Progress. We saw how the heliocentric astronomy, by dethroning man from his privileged position in the universe of space and throwing him back on his own efforts, had helped that idea to compete with the idea of a busy Providence. He now suffers a new degradation within the compass of his own planet. Evolution, shearing him of his glory as a rational being specially created to be the lord of the earth, traces a humble pedigree for him. And this second degradation was the decisive fact which has established the reign of the idea of Progress.

Evolution itself, it must be remembered, does not necessarily mean, applied to society, the movement of man to a desirable goal. It is a neutral, scientific conception, compatible either with optimism or with pessimism. According to different estimates it may appear to be a cruel sentence or a guarantee of steady amelioration. And it has been actually interpreted in both ways.

The ablest and most influential development of the argument from evolution to Progress was the work of [Herbert] Spencer. He extended the principle of evolution to sociology and ethics, and was the most conspicuous interpreter of it in an optimistic sense. He had been an evolutionist long before Darwin’s decisive intervention, and in 1851 he had published his Social Statics, which, although he had not yet worked out the evolutionary laws which he began to formulate soon afterwards and was still a theist, exhibits the general trend of his optimistic philosophy.

The receptive attitude of the public towards such a philosophy as Spencer’s had been made possible by Darwin’s discoveries, which were reinforced by the growing science of palaeontology and the accumulating material evidence of the great antiquity of man. By the simultaneous advances of geology and biology man’s perspective in time was revolutionised, just as the Copernican astronomy had revolutionised his perspective in space. Many thoughtful and many thoughtless people were ready to discern—as Huxley suggested—in man’s “long progress through the past, a reasonable ground of faith in his attainment of a nobler future.”

That optimism was not endorsed by all the contemporary leaders of thought. In fact, upon the neutral fact of evolution a theory of pessimism may be built up as speciously as a theory of optimism. And such a theory was built up with great power and ability by the German philosopher E. von Hartmann, [in whose works] we see how plausibly a convinced evolutionist could revive the view of Rousseau that civilisation and happiness are mutually antagonistic, and that Progress means an increase of misery. 

Huxley himself, one of the most eminent interpreters of the doctrine of evolution, did not, in his late years at least, entertain very sanguine views of mankind. “I know of no study which is so saddening as that of the evolution of humanity as it is set forth in the annals of history….Man is a brute, only more intelligent than other brutes”; and “even the best of modern civilisations appears to me to exhibit a condition of mankind which neither embodies any worthy ideal nor even possesses the merit of stability.”

I have quoted these views to illustrate that evolution lends itself to a pessimistic as well as to an optimistic interpretation. The question whether it leads in a desirable direction or not is answered according to the temperament of the inquirer. In an age of prosperity and self-complacency the affirmative answer was readily received, and the term evolution attracted to itself in common speech the implications of value which belong to Progress.

In the 1870s and 1880s the idea of Progress was becoming a general article of faith. Some might hold it in the fatalistic form that humanity moves in a desirable direction, whatever men do or may leave undone; others might believe that the future will depend largely on our own conscious efforts, but that there is nothing in the nature of things to disappoint the prospect of steady and indefinite advance. The majority did not inquire too curiously into such points of doctrine, but received it in a vague sense as a comfortable addition to their convictions. But [the faith in Progress] became a part of the general mental outlook of educated people.

Within the last forty years nearly every civilised country has produced a large literature on social science, in which indefinite Progress is generally assumed as an axiom. But the “law of Progress” whose investigation Kant designated as the task for a Newton [of the social sciences], the “law” which Saint-Simon and Comte did not find, and to which Spencer’s evolutionary formula would stand in the same relation as it stands to the law of gravitation, remains still undiscovered.

We are still searching for the “law,” or even the “fact,” of progress. Our search for these will continue with the next post in this series.


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Data Meets Durkheim

Ever since Durkheim’s Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (1912), most scholars have assumed that collective rituals function to arouse emotions and bond people together into more cohesive groups. In this post, I commented on this assumption and the remarkable fact that Durkheim’s big idea had never been tested or supported with anything other than qualitative observations. The post also noted that the idea was in fact being tested by Dmitri Xygalatas and that this seemed to be a nice start. In response to all this, Dominik Lukes left a comment which bears close consideration:

My first reaction was “proof, what proof.” [Durkheim's idea] is so obvious, no additional proof is needed. And indeed, we could easily think of this in an axiomatic way. But on reflection, I think that it is far from obvious that “collective rituals function to maintain the cohesion of groups or society.”

This notion has such wide appeal because it resonates with so many situations all scholars can relate to both personally and professionally. It is hard to think of groups of any size that don’t develop some ritualized behaviors over time. But I could easily think of at least two other ways in which this could be explained.

1. Since all groups have to have some cohesion to be groups in the first place (groups with no cohesion are not groups but just random groupings), rituals could be an expression of that cohesion rather than a necessity for it. This would explain why those who express stronger attachments are more likely to take part in the rituals.

2. Rituals could be an expression of something else (e.g. human tendency toward repetitive behavior) and groups simply have to accommodate them. They may become carriers of cohesion once they’re in place but they don’t do anything to maintain it.

But I don’t think you can test for these hypotheses because you always have to find some proxies – such as expressing a feeling of belonging – and make some testable predictions about them. But because group cohesion is such a complex thing (frankly we don’t have an unproblematic definition of group or ritual – let alone cohesion) you can’t formulate any definitive set of testable prediction types. Or it will be so large you’re bound to meet some and fail others simply by chance. But I think we can take these scenarios as metaphors and play them out on any given piece of evidence and see what that can reveal about them.

Can Durkheim’s idea be tested? In this recent Aeon article, Dmitri Xygalatas explains his research and findings in much greater detail. His methods and results appear sound, though the intensity of the rituals he has studied may limit any larger inferences. It’s a fantastic article, but while reading it I kept thinking about Dominik’s comments (above) and the alternative ways in which Xygalatas’ results might be construed. Regardless, some testing is better than no testing, and it’s nice to see data meeting Durkheim.


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Survival of the Supernaturalist

Since it seems to be the season for critiquing evolutionary psychology, some may be interested in a recent Nation article, “Survival of the Sexiest: How Evolutionary Psychology Went Viral,” by Mal Ahern and Moira Weigel. While the focus of this article is evolutionary psychology’s obsession with sex, some of the insights are equally applicable to the evolutionary psychology of religion. With this in mind, let’s consider these excerpts:

Both historians and scientists criticized evolutionary psychologists for making broad claims about what humans desired in a prehistoric past to which we have very little access. Adaptationist narratives rarely qualify as scientific hypotheses, quite simply because they are impossible to prove right or wrong. Evolutionary psychology does draw on empirical data and laboratory studies, and those data are falsifiable. But the adaptationist explanations that evolutionary psychologists offer are not. We can know what today’s college students say they want in a mate, but it’s impossible to know what our Pleistocene ancestors were after by reading our own preferences backward.

In each case, we are presumed to believe in the phenomenon under analysis already. All we require is an explanation, a story that tells us why we are the way we are. Ultimately, the explanation is always the same: evolution—i.e, reproductive advantage. Click on one of these stories and you will find two things: first, the results of a recent psychological study that verifies an observation about a common human behavior; and second, an evolutionary explanation for why that behavior was advantageous for our ancestors. Because their standard operating procedure is to begin from behaviors that they perceive as universal, evolutionary psychologists tend to confirm received wisdom. Many EP studies tautologically assert that widely held social values are…well, widely held.

These observations are especially pertinent to the evolutionary psychology of religion, a field in which researchers begin with what they take to be a universal (such as “religion” or “belief in invisible agents”), perform psychological testing on WEIRD people like university undergraduates, and then spin evolutionary stories about how the psychological propensities identified in the lab would have been adaptive in ancestral evolutionary environments. Some of them dispense with psychological testing altogether and simply scour anthropological records for evidence which confirms the adaptive story they wish to tell about the evolution of religion.

An example of the former is Jesse Bering, who projects his “Imaginary Alice” lab findings back into the Paleolithic past to explain the alleged adaptiveness of invisible agent ideas. An especially notorious example of the latter is Matt Rossano, an evolutionary psychologist-theist who selectively culls anthropological archives for anything and everything that confirms the marvelous unfolding of God’s plan the evolution of religion by “supernatural selection.” When teaching the anthropology of religion, I always have my students read some of Rossano’s articles, which we then use to discuss methods and just-so storytelling. In other words, we read them to learn how not to do science.

None of this is to say, and I do not mean to suggest, that evolutionary psychology is entirely bankrupt or fraudulent. There are methodologically appropriate ways to do evolutionary psychology, and restrained ways in which insights gleaned from evolutionary psychology can assist us in understanding “religion.” The purpose of this post is simply to point out some of the ways in which it should not be used, or ways in which EP findings have been overextended or misapplied.


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Crying Babies & Religion

You know things are going bad for evolutionary psychology when the field, and its methods, have become the subject of satire performed by scientists. The Festival of Bad Ad Hoc Hypotheses (BAH!) is an annual competition that celebrates “well-argued and thoroughly researched but completely incorrect evolutionary theory.” Presentations are judged, in part, by how much “scientific” information is brought to bear on the hypothesis, data, and conclusion. In practice, this means that these post hoc evolutionary hypotheses must be supported by lots of citations, graphs, and most importantly, fancy maths and impressive statistics. These are of course the adornments that make things, like bullshit, look and sound scientific.

I was not aware of the BAH-Fest until the other day, when I happened across last year’s winning presentation by Tomer Ullman. He explains the adaptive advantage of crying babies in the theoretical context of group level selection:

While watching this brilliant bit of bullshit, I couldn’t help but think that crying babies and religion have much in common. To be more precise, I was thinking that “crying babies” function, in this BAH evolutionary argument, in much the same way that “religion” functions in similar kinds of adaptive arguments.

If Ullman had substituted “religion” for “crying babies,” his presentation would have been taken seriously, and passed scientific muster, by those who argue that religion is a group level evolutionary adaptation that fosters social solidarity. It should go without saying, but it won’t, that such solidarity is said to “promote loyalty” and “foster altruism,” which is just a polite (or “scientific”) way of saying that religion, like crying babies, makes for fanatical warriors and competitive success. If you don’t believe me, just look at the models and maths.

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Progressive Notes

Whilst this is not the next post in my series on “progress,” I want to share some notes I’ve taken while preparing for that post. And before going any further, I want to note that I’ve long wanted to use “whilst” but have never done so until now, perhaps because it sounds rather corny, British, or both. Some grammarians argue there are differences between “whilst” and “while” and the latter should be used with the past progressive tense. Because past progressive tense describes an activity which was occurring but was interrupted, I probably should have used while to start this paragraph but I’m sticking with whilst in the hope that my British friends will appreciate it.

All this aside, I should note that the proximate inspiration for this series of posts was a recent Atlantic article, Is “Progress” Good for Humanity: Rethinking the Narrative of Economic Development, by Jeremy Caradonna. While (not whilst) my concerns with progress are broader in scope than Caradonna’s, he nicely captures the industrial-moral aspect of progressive stories:

The stock narrative of the Industrial Revolution is one of moral and economic progress. Indeed, economic progress is cast as moral progress. The story tends to go something like this: Inventors, economists, and statesmen in Western Europe dreamed up a new industrialized world…Europe had rescued itself from the pre-industrial misery that had hampered humankind since the dawn of time. Cheap and abundant fossil fuel powered the trains and other steam engines that drove humankind into this brave new future. Later, around the time that Europeans decided that colonial slavery wasn’t such a good idea, they exported this revolution to other parts of the world, so that everyone could participate in freedom and industrialized modernity. They did this, in part, by “opening up markets” in primitive agrarian societies. The net result has been increased human happiness, wealth, and productivity—the attainment of our true potential as a species.

This makes for a great, or comforting, story, but as Caradonna later observes it is not a neutral story. Like all cultural myths, it can be interrogated:

Narratives are inevitably moralistic; they are never created spontaneously from “the facts” but are rather stories imposed upon a range of phenomena that always include implicit ideas about what’s right and what’s wrong. The proponents of the Industrial Revolution inherited from the philosophers of the Enlightenment the narrative of human (read: European) progress over time but placed technological advancement and economic liberalization at the center of their conception of progress. This narrative remains today an ingrained operating principle that propels us in a seemingly unstoppable way toward more growth and more technology, because the assumption is that these things are ultimately beneficial for humanity.

Advocates of sustainability are not opposed to industrialization per se, and don’t seek a return to the Stone Age. But what they do oppose is the dubious narrative of progress caricatured above.

The great intellectual historian of progress, J.B. Bury, is also attuned to the normative assumptions embedded in the stories we tell ourselves. In The Idea of Progress: An Inquiry into Its Origin and Growth (at 2, 4-5), he states:

In short, it cannot be proved that the unknown destination towards which man is advancing is desirable. The movement may be Progress, or it may be in an undesirable direction and therefore not Progress. [Progress] cannot be proved either true or false. Belief in it is an act of faith.

The idea of human Progress then is a theory which involves a synthesis of the past and prophecy of the future. It is based on an interpretation of history which regards men as slowly advancing in a definite and desirable direction, and infers that this progress will continue indefinitely.

As time is the very condition of the possibility of Progress, it is obvious that the idea would be valueless if there were any cogent reasons for supposing that the time at the disposal of humanity is likely to reach a limit in the near future. If there were good cause for believing that the earth would be uninhabitable in A.D. 2000 or 2100 the doctrine of Progress would lose its meaning and would automatically disappear.

Bury wrote these prophetic words in 1920, in the sobering and pessimistic aftermath of World War I. He could not have foreseen a nuclearized and industrialized world in danger of destroying itself. While I don’t think there are any particular time limits on humanity, there are time limits — set by the finite supply of fossil fuels on which industrial society is based and almost totally dependent — on our current ways of life. But this is a blog about religion and not the post-industrial future. Those interested in the latter should head over to The Archdruid Report, a superbly written blog that makes for fascinating reading.

Heads in Sand

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Interrogating Progress (Part 1)

“Men and societies frequently treat the institutions and assumptions by which they live as absolute, self-evident, and given. They may treat them as such without question, or they may endeavour to fortify them by some kind of proof. In fact, human ideas and social forms are neither static nor given.” — Ernest Gellner, Plough, Sword and Book: The Structure of Human History (1987)

What constitutes “progress” and how can we measure or assess it? As regular readers know, this is a question that has been much on my mind over the past few years. During these years, I have often argued that biological evolution is not progressive and that cultural evolutionary models are inherently progressive because they normatively assume that complexity is adaptive advance. I have argued against “progress” in both these contexts, and in the process have observed that non-progressive evolution (whether biological, cultural, or both) entails the idea that religions, however they evolved or developed over time, are not progressive. In other words, “modern” religions are no more advanced, complex, or progressive than “primitive” religions.

This has been a big, and in some cases bitter, pill to swallow. There is a great deal of secular and religious resistance to the idea that evolution (and, by human-specific extension, history) is not progressive. I have encountered this resistance in the classroom, among friends, and my posts on these subjects have engendered a great deal of push-back. In light of all this, let’s take a closer critical look at the concept of progress. Let me start by saying this is not a definitive statement but is simply a sketch or initial consideration of the issues.

Because the concept of progress is so deeply bound up with our most cherished assumptions, wishes, and desires, our first and hardest task will be to avoid subjective and normative arguments about whether some allegedly progressive thing, development, or process is “good/bad” or “better/worse.” These kinds of arguments will not take us very far, are usually tautological, and will almost always devolve into context and culture specific disputes that evade principled resolution. With this in mind, let’s look first at some potentially neutral measures of progress. In the next post, we will evaluate anthropocentric measures of progress, and in a final post we will apply these to specific fields such as science, technology, politics, economy, philosophy, and of course religion.

Time: This measure is perhaps the biggest conceptual culprit when it comes to the idea, taken for granted by most, that progress is “natural” and “universal.” In western cultures, time is conceived in linear fashion, as having a beginning and end. This conception can be either scientific (starting with the Big Bang and concluding with the eventual collapse of the Universe) or religious (beginning with Creation and concluding with eternal Paradise). In both conceptions, the passage of time from beginning towards an eventual end is assumed to be progressive. While this may seem a natural way of thinking, there is nothing inherently progressive about the elapse, or apparent flow, of time. Time can occur, or be experienced, without the attendant value of progress. There is no reason, at least in principle, why an embodied observer of time could not conceive it dually: as progressive for the growth portion of a lifespan and as regressive for the decay portion of a lifespan.

While I am not aware of any such cultural conceptions, I do know that not all cultures conceive of time in linear fashion. Many aboriginal or indigenous societies are famous for conceiving time as non-linear and non-progressive. While it may be tempting to dismiss these cyclic conceptions of time as “primitive” flights of fancy, and to assert that we “moderns” know better, this would be a mistake. The notion of Eternal Return is a venerable one that can be found in many traditions, including modern philosophy and physics. Metaphysics and cosmology aside, it is also worth noting that cyclical conceptions of time may pragmatically reflect, or refract, millenia long experiences with exhaustible resources and fragile environments. They are, in this sense, inherently conservative rather than progressive.

Movement: This potential measure might also be called change. Movement can be forward, backward, sideways, angular, or circular. Neither movement nor change has an inherent direction. Putting it normatively, change can be for better or worse. There is nothing about this potential measure which suggests or requires progress.

Growth: Along with time, growth is a major conceptual culprit when it comes to the assumption of progress. If something is growing, we chart or measure the growth as “progress.” This is true, ironically, even of things like cancer. When the economy grows, we count it good. When crops grow, we count it good. But does growth necessarily imply progress? Surely not. For organisms, there is a period of growth, followed by decay and death. This only partly progressive. Volcanoes grow, but we don’t characterize this as progress. Societies grow, and while economists and other enthusiasts may applaud this, there are serious normative questions about whether rapidly increasing world population (watch this counter for five minutes and marvel) constitutes progress. We will leave these questions for later. Suffice it to say that growth is not an inherently progressive measure, though it certainly can be an ideological measure.

Size: This metric has much in common with growth, though there are some differences. Humans are impressed by size, perhaps because we are large mammals and only see things from the perspective of large organisms. This of course ignores the fact that we live in a world made and dominated by microbes. When paleontologists discuss the Big Five extinction events and say things like “the end Permian event resulted in extinction of 96% of all species,” they are referring to multicellular organisms. Microbes survived all those events quite well and microbes will survive all future extinction events. As Carl Woese likes to remind us, all multicellular organisms could become extinct tomorrow, and microbes would continue living on earth as they have for billions of years. But if all microbes became extinct tomorrow, all multicellular organisms would follow them in short order. Size, in other words, isn’t everything and it is surely not progressive. This aside and normatively speaking, we can all acknowledge that big tumors and large wars are in no way better than little ones.

Accretion: Although this potential measure is closely related to growth and size, I have chosen to treat it separately because there are some (such as the sociologist Robert Bellah) who claim that culture is cumulative and that “nothing is ever lost.” On a purely physical level, we know this cannot be correct: energy and matter are finite, and neither can accumulate beyond finite bounds. Such a conception also ignores entropy, which beyond its thermodynamic aspects surely plays an analogical role in human history and culture. Bellah, a Christian with a linear and teleological view of evolutionary history, seems to have been overawed and blinded by the cumulative impact of writing and expansion of symbolic storage facilities. This caused him to claim that culture, writ large on a world scale, was cumulative and that “nothing is ever lost.”

This is an incredibly naive claim, for cultural creation always involves some level of cultural destruction and social forgetting. Setting aside for the moment issues of globalization, industrialization, and homogeneity, it does not take much to realize that entire ways of life, being, experiencing, conceiving, and speaking have all been lost. We have only the faintest idea what human lives and societies were like during the Pleistocene. We have a better sense for what has been lost, and what we are rapidly continuing to lose, over the past few hundred years. In When Languages Die: The Extinction of the World’s Languages and the Erosion of Human Knowledge (2007), K. David Harrison gives us this sense and it’s all about loss.

Energy: This potential measure is non-directional and contains no inherent value as either progressive or regressive. It’s certainly not static. Humans are of course much impressed by energy and our attempts to create and harness it take us deep into anthropocentric considerations of progress. Let’s leave those aside for this post and simply consider energy in its cosmological and terrestrial forms. There is lots of energy out there in space, but I’m not sure anyone would claim that the ongoing process of galaxy, star, and planet formation and destruction is progressive. It is a process to be sure, but normatively characterizing it as progressive is an anthropic principle, something that exists only in the eyes of human beholders. Here on earth, energy manifests in its most raw and powerful forms as solar radiation (which creates weather) and vulcanism. A sometimes placid but often turbulent planet is neither progressive nor non-progressive. It just is.

Complexity: I have saved this metric for last because it’s a big one when it comes to progress. Like size and related to it, humans are suckers for complexity. On an organismic level, we see the world through the eyes of large mammals. In doing so, we tend to ignore the fact that our world is not just microbial to its core, but is also dominated (in terms of diversity and biomass) by less complex organisms such as plants and insects. On a societal level, we normatively assume that bigger, and hence more complex, is better. In doing so, we ignore the possibility that the specialization (and stratification) which is the engine of complex societies often results in a phenomenological and existential narrowing of human life at the level of individuals who constitute the masses. We also tend to forget that with 7.5 billion people on earth, the majority are masses. Of all the measures I have considered thus far, complexity is the most normatively fraught, stemming as it does from anthropocentric views and biases about the world. For this reason, I will consider it in more detail in the next post. Suffice it to say that there is nothing about complexity, per se or in and of itself, which suggests progress. Complexity must be evaluated on a case by case and contextual basis, with the context being something more than a single organism or type of society.

Stay tuned for Interrogating Progress Parts 2 and 3.

Research and Reading Note — As I began working on this post yesterday, I wrote the following: “We are sorely in a need of a book on the concept of progress, one that considers the ways in which the idea has developed and been deployed historically, philosophically, and cross-culturally. The standard narrative — i.e., that ‘progress’ is a child of Judeo-Christianity which was secularized by the Enlightenment and turned into a modern faith — is hardly sufficient. Deep-seated assumptions and taken for granted ideas about progress have a history and I’m sure that history will be revealing. If anyone is aware of such a book, please let us know.”

After writing this, I did some digging and found that there are in fact such books, all of which I have just ordered. Because I have not read these, my musings above may turn out to be naive or off the mark. We’ll see. But in the meantime, here are the books:

March of Progress

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Unnatural Histories

Were humans happier as Stone Age hunter-gatherers? This is the question asked, but not answered, by historian Yuval Noah Harari in this Guardian piece which previews his book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. Weirdly, the book is being described as an “international best-seller” even though it won’t be published until February of 2015. That is quite an accomplishment! Those who don’t want to wait can take Harari’s Coursera class which apparently led to the writing of the book. In the course description, we get a much better sense for Harari’s answer(s) to the initial question:

  • We rule the world because we are the only animal that can believe in things that exist purely in our own imagination, such as gods, states, money and human rights.
  • Humans are ecological serial killers – even with stone-age tools, our ancestors wiped out half the planet’s large terrestrial mammals well before the advent of agriculture.
  • The Agricultural Revolution was history’s biggest fraud – wheat domesticated Sapiens rather than the other way around.
  • Money is the most universal and pluralistic system of mutual trust ever devised. Money is the only thing everyone trusts.
  • Empire is the most successful political system humans have invented, and our present era of anti-imperial sentiment is probably a short-lived aberration.
  • Capitalism is a religion rather than just an economic theory – and it is the most successful religion to date.
  • The treatment of animals in modern agriculture may turn out to be the worst crime in history.
  • We are far more powerful than our ancestors, but we aren’t much happier.
  • Humans will soon disappear. With the help of novel technologies, within a few centuries or even decades, Humans will upgrade themselves into completely different beings, enjoying godlike qualities and abilities. History began when humans invented gods – and will end when humans become gods. 

This doesn’t sound very original, even if it is (as the course description states and book blurb promises) “provocative.” In fact, it sounds like a macro-historical rendering of Daniel Quinn’s novel Ishmael (1992). The description of Lecture 4 (“The Human Flood”) also sounds familiar:

Following the Cognitive Revolution, about 70,000 years ago, Homo sapiens spread all over the planet. While doing this, it drove numerous other species to extinction. In Australia, up to 95% of all large animal species vanished. In America, 84 of 107 large mammal species disappeared. Altogether, about half of the large terrestrial mammals that populated Earth became extinct. How could a few million individuals who possessed no more than Stone Age technology have caused such devastation?

These are questions asked, and persuasively answered, in Tim Flannery’s The Future Eaters: An Ecological History of the Australasian Lands and People (1994). I just finished Flannery’s magisterial tome last week and can say it’s one of the better books I’ve read over the past year. Those interested in this topic should also read The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines Made Australia (2011) by Bill Gammage. These two books are natural companions and essential background reading for those who wish to understand Aboriginal worldviews.


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