Philosophy, Top Stories

Does Progress Exist?

I should start with a caveat. This article discusses an issue which reaches well beyond the scope of a couple of thousand words or so, and as such will provoke questions and challenges which cannot be addressed within these limits. The argument presented, being downstream of some more fundamental principles not covered here, is necessarily incomplete, and therefore I don’t mean to present it as a slam-dunk refutation of progress (it falls well short of that), but merely as a curio; a piece of argumentation that hopefully amuses even as you conjure ways to disagree with it. Moreover, contrary to the ‘anti-progress’ tenor of much that follows, I actually mean to provide a template that allows for more effective innovation—a consequence that I hope will become clear by the end of the piece.

So, does progress exist? Clearly I’m going to argue that it does not, since otherwise this would be a pretty redundant piece. However I should point out up front that this isn’t to say that things can’t get better, and haven’t been doing so; it’s more that we misunderstand the process by which this happens, and that we misattribute this process to progress (or perhaps mislabel it ‘progress’), when there are in fact other forces at play.

Before we begin, we need to get our definitions straight. What do we mean by ‘progress’?

Progress tends to be defined as 1) change, 2) which is for the better, and crucially 3) which is driven by humans rather than arrived at evolutionarily. It’s very important that we’re able to make this final distinction since, although one could argue that the things humans come up with are the products of evolution (in so far as humans themselves are a product of it), and also contribute to evolution (as does everything), they do not fundamentally work the same way. The crucial difference is the presence of consciousness; the quality that has enabled man to have ‘ideas’ and thereby seek to improve upon his evolutionarily determined natural state by ‘brute force.’

These ideas aren’t arrived at gradually, automatically, species-wide, in response ecological churn. Instead they are the products of our choice, of our ability to ‘manually override’ our evolutionary template in the pursuit of something we think might be better. A wolf, for instance, can’t suddenly decide to shave off all its fur and become a vegetarian. It can’t decide anything; it’s locked into its template (even though that template will be gradually evolving over time). But we can decide, and because of that one could even say that man’s ideas not only contribute to evolution also act in opposition to it—since they overrule the conditions it had laid out before we developed this competing agency.

Bearing all this in mind we might take our definition one step further, and say that progress is the extent to which humans have bettered their position since the advent of consciousness—a moment I shall call Point Zero. Prior to Point Zero we had ‘man as animal,’ who essentially did whatever his nature told him to do, just like any other animal, all the while evolving gradually and unconsciously. After Point Zero we had ‘man as innovator,’ who had the ability to deliberate and question his condition and rapidly improvise in the form of agriculture, departure from habitat, language, and so on.

This is where we start to run into problems. Clearly man’s ideas unfold much faster than evolution’s, and as a result the ‘mind and body’ of man isn’t able to adapt to the changes he makes in real time. This means that every single non-evolutionary development must, by definition, create conditions that the human body ‘fits’ less perfectly than those found at Point Zero. This rule applies no matter how good the idea seems at first glance, since you are replacing a condition based on infinite variables, with a condition based on a mere handful of variables that the human brain was capable of taking into account, while blind to the long tail consequences of that decision.  To put it another way, evolution makes its ‘decisions’ based on complete knowledge, whilst we make our decisions based on incomplete knowledge.

Rather than pulling at the thread of any specific innovation here, we can illustrate the point more elegantly with a parable from The Jungle Book. Baloo the bear loves honey, but his supply is very limited due to the bees understandably building their hives out of his reach. So when he meets Mowgli, the human, he begs him to use his “tricks” (i.e. consciousness) to create a system by which he can access all the honey he wants. Mowgli obliges, and sure enough Baloo gorges himself to the point of sickness. The lesson is clear: the bear is adapted to have X amount of honey, but not Y amount of honey. When these conditions are disrupted, the bear’s functionality is impaired in a manner that he had no way of predicting.

This illustrates the foundational issue with the idea of progress:

We are unable to rapidly create conditions better suited to the functioning of the human animal than those arrived at evolutionarily, and instead simply impair our functioning in an unpredictable ways.

Before I continue, I just want to address the most obvious counter-argument that will no doubt occur to many at this point—that of life expectancy. We live longer (on average) now than we did at Point Zero, so does this not undermine the whole premise? Not necessarily. This assumption draws a false parallel between life expectancy and optimal functioning, when in fact life expectancy is actually determined by mitigation of mortal risk, which can even be achieved at the cost of general wellbeing. Consider for instance that animals in a zoo have higher life expectancy than animals in the wild. Would we say that they are higher functioning? That they have higher physical and mental wellbeing? Or, moreover, that they are operating the way they were designed to do, and are therefore fulfilling their purpose? Probably not, but they have traded those things for massive risk reduction. You may still think that’s a good trade to make, which is fine, but a separate discussion. For now it should suffice to say that a long (low risk) life is not necessarily an optimal life.

Returning to the argument, even if you accept the premise laid out so far, to deny the presence of something that seems an awful lot like progress would be foolish. Just look around you. It’s palpable. So what’s going on here? How do we square the presence of ‘obvious’ progress with the above axiom? Well, they do not in fact contradict each other at all—it’s simply all a question of scale.

To explain we can collect most of what we call progress into one of two categories—neither of which are improvements on our situation at Point Zero, but both of which look like they are:

  • Progress as complication; where we simply develop more sophisticated and less accessible ways to achieve what we were achieving before automatically.
  • Progress as regression; where we come up with an innovation that does indeed represent an unambiguously positive development, but only through unravelling a prior innovation that was causing us harm. This is more accurately described as a ‘regression’ back to Point Zero rather than a progression from it.

Let’s start with progress as complication, since this covers many of the most obviously ‘good’ forms of progress we regularly herald. As an illustrative example, let’s use the poster-child of the progress movement, literacy. At first glance, it’s quite hard to make a case against literacy (particularly in written form…) since we live in a world where to be illiterate is to suffer. The question we have to ask however is whether this condition is answered by literacy, or caused by it. It should be stating the obvious to say that for the majority of humankind, literacy has not been the ‘price of admission’ for a functional life. In 21st Century New York? Sure, you’re in the gutter without it. But for most people throughout history (including some around today) the framework they operated within wasn’t reliant on literacy to work. However, as literacy began to spread, it started to shape society to the point that it became non-optional.

In this way literacy is rather like the car—something that progressed from amusing luxury to outright necessity as it bent the world to its presence. It seems clear therefore that, at a macro level, such innovations represent complicated ways of standing still. In fact it’s worse than that; since literacy and cars replaced prior systems that required ‘nothing’ to access their rewards (e.g. effective communication, accessing food, social cohesion, etc.; all the fundamentals we use these things for), they simply introduced a form of inequality where none existed previously. Before everyone had equal access to X; but now your access may be dependent on being able to read or access transportation. It is for this reason that we now hail advances in literacy—and rightly so, since we instinctively understand that it has created a world that is irreversibly dependent on it. However this only gets us back to functional Point Zero, and only if and when we hit literacy levels of 100 percent, therefore cannot precisely be called true ‘progress.’

As a brief interlude before exploring the second category of progress, could we not say (as many will) that even if such inventions don’t move us on ‘functionally,’ they still enrich our lives? This is a compelling point, and certainly a good reason for why we could never happily unravel such innovations—however we should also ask whether it is possible to miss what you never had. Are we to say that every person in history who didn’t know the joys of car ownership was somehow a less complete, less satisfied, less contented person than the car owners of today? And therefore are we also to conclude that we are by definition less complete/satisfied/contented than people of subsequent generations who will enjoy innovations we haven’t yet thought up? This is like arguing that a heroin addict is better off than the person who’s never tried heroin—it’s sort of true, but not on an essential level.

The second form of progress is progress as regression—where something seems like progress but is actually, strictly speaking, more like ‘regress’ back to a simulation of Point Zero. An illustrative example of this would be our triumph in overcoming the blight of scurvy on long sea voyages by providing sailors with limes to counter vitamin C deficiency. Superficially, this looks like a typical scientific triumph for the human race—we were struck down by a problem and used our ingenuity to overcome it for an unambiguously good end. However, the difficulty with this view is it overlooks the fact that the problem was a side-effect of a man-made innovation in the first place—long sea voyages. Without going to sea we would never have warped our diets in such a way as to develop scurvy—therefore the introduction of limes simply represented the rewinding of an element of that idea back to a Point Zero state. We didn’t really achieve anything—we just cleaned up our own mess.

The same effect applies in instances of moral progress. Consider, for instance, the abolition of slavery. Naturally this is held as a landmark of moral progress—and indeed it is, but only if we calibrate our timeline to a fraction of human history. If we calibrate it to encompass Point Zero we can see that slavery, rather than being a natural blight that we overcame, was in fact once upon a time a ‘progressive’ innovation, itself requiring various prior innovations to even become possible. We could call it an unintended consequence of agriculture, long range travel, or a whole lattice of other prior ideas. Therefore, by abolishing slavery, human beings were, once again, engaging in an act of regress, spinning things back to the way they were at Point Zero. This isn’t to say that man as animal was more ‘moral’ than we are today; it’s just that he didn’t suffer the conditions that produce the moral hazards we commonly face today. Accepting that this is a far bigger debate than can be covered here, let’s just say that morality pertains to how humans engage with consciousness, not how animals engage with nature.

So what is the application of all this? To burn everything down and start rolling in the dirt? No—the implication of these two kinds of progress is not to cease innovating, but to innovate with an eye on Point Zero scale and potential unforeseen consequences. We have built a house of cards that requires the two types of ‘progress’ I’ve discussed to continue, since we must help people fit into the weird superfluous systems we’ve created, and we must continue cleaning up our own mess. Difficulties arise with innovations that do neither of these things, which cannot be argued to restore Point Zero conditions in any way. These are quite common when you look at various ‘big ideas’ proposed by different interest groups and, as a rule of thumb, can generally be sniffed out by their apparent lack of humility. This is where we produce ideas which inflame rather than soothe, where we allow low-variable thinking to seduce us into believing that the answers are obvious, and where we fall prey to the illusion that we are heading to some glorious ‘endpoint.’

Ultimately we can’t make tomorrow better than it’s ever been, but we can make it better than yesterday. Understanding this, and nothing else, should be enough to keep us tentatively moving ‘forward.’


Alex Smith is a strategist specialising in the underlying nature of complex systems and companies.  He is founder of Basic Arts and you can follow him on Twitter @smithesq


    • donald j. tingle says

      Gee, I had learned in school that evolution was thought of by social theorists as being the source of human progress long before there was any idea of biological evolution. You seem strangely to confuse (or limit) “progress” with successful social engineering, which of course doesn’t work, although the costs are frequently so well hidden as to be easily ignored by the engineers.

      This might have been interesting to someone who never read Hayek, or Burke, or Newton, or most any history book.

      • DBruce says

        Tingly mate, try connecting your sentences.

  1. Let’s see if I’ve gotten the gist of this.

    Evolution is God.

    Long ago Man rebelled against God, and has been unhappy ever since.

    If God wanted us to have motor-cars, he would’ve created trees that grow motor-cars.

    Human progress is a fantasy.

    The only real progress is regression back to our Garden of Eden animal-state.

  2. You lost me when you said increased life expectancy does not necessarily mean a better life at all periods of a life span for human beings. I am pretty convinced it does.

    • Nick Ender says

      How could you not agree with that? I could lock you in a room and keep you alive for longer than you would otherwise, but would you choose that over risking dying in a fiery car crash? Probably not. You’d rather risk death than denude your life of all novelty. You do this every time you drive faster than the speed limit, or have sex without protection, or travel. There’s no connection between life expectancy and fulfillment. Mybe you could argue a longer life gives you more opportunities for fulfillment, which I’d agree with, but the fact remains that fulfillment and longevity are not equivalent.

  3. ga gamba says

    It’s an ambitious essay, I’ve give you that.

    Antibiotics, vaccines, and immune globulins.

    I’ll say I’m pleased to exist in a world where very few faces bear the pockmarked scars of smallpox and no one now living has to endure their loved ones succumbing to it and other diseases such as polio. We rarely see old people bent and crippled by osteoarthritis – when I lived in Korea you’d see rural villages filled with bent over elderly women, some as much as ninety degrees. That’s progress.

    I think being unafflicted by diseases such as these, and having medicines to treat bacterial and even some viral infections, achieves optimal functioning. Is it regression? Some may argue some of these diseases were due to human’s domesticating animals or by living closely together in developed settlements, but not all if these were that. Of the ancient diseases TB, cholera, typhoid, leprosy, rabies, malaria, pneumonia, trachoma, and rickettsial and related infections I presume some of these existed prior to Point Zero. There may even be diseases that disappeared once human crossed Point Zero. Anyone here a paleopathologist?

    Consider for instance that animals in a zoo have higher life expectancy than animals in the wild.

    Not all of them. A study of 59 mammal species found that, in 80 per cent of cases, zoo animals live longer than their wild counterparts. Larger, slower species with few predators, such as elephants, live longer, in the wild. Elephants in captivity typically live half as long as those in wild.

    • l wish the writer had brought up declining birth rates in developed countries. I would think optimal functioning would include reproduction, but it seems like large swaths of people are putting off parenthood (adulthood, too) until much later than previous generations. Some aren’t having children at all. With talk of UBI, automation, AI, VR etc, it seems like we’re progressing ourselves toward obsolescence. I can’t help but wonder if working toward a future where aquiring food and reproducing is no longer necessary or viewed as desirable is actually progress.

  4. D.B. Cooper says

    These ideas aren’t arrived at gradually, automatically, species-wide, in response ecological churn. Instead they are the products of our choice, of our ability to ‘manually override’ our evolutionary template in the pursuit of something we think might be better.

    If true, does it follow that progress is dependent upon or limited by “our ability” to choose what we think might be better? Working back from that presupposition, could we say the differences we see in progress – from one nation/population to the next – is due, at least in part, to differences in the provisional abilities (capable of attaining specific benchmark) of nations/populations to achieve a given paradigm of progress thought better?

    Put differently, is the author suggesting that since there are quantifiable differences in progress (from nation to nation) it is, therefore, reasonable to conclude that differences in “ability” also exist from nation/population to nation/population?

    A dangerous thought, to be sure…

    For matters of clarity, by ability, I mean a nations/population’s ability to recognize a “more preferred” progressive paradigm (social self-reflection + assessment/diagnosis) and then institute a successful model (strategy + tactics) to achieve said paradigm. As far as the genesis of these abilities, well, it has been discussed (nature vs. nurture) ad nauseum and no doubt it will continue to be so.

    Lastly, and I’m not sure if this is the minority view on the subject, but I am persuaded that social progress can be quantified using certain metrics. Examples include: GDP, Women’s Rights, Minority Rights, Property Rights, Democracy-Dictatorship Index, Literacy Rates, etc.

    • Nick Ender says

      I think the author was defining “progress” as being population wide, as including the entire human population. But that’s still an interesting point. It may be a dangerous idea but by the very metrics you’ve cited it would be an idea you’d have to agree with. If progress exists it must be exists in a tangible sense it must be quantifiable. If it’s quantifiable then there must be variations in distribution. Which would mean some populations would be less “progressed” than others. In my opinion that’s obviously true. Without that distinction there would be no basis from which one population of people could justify influencing another population of people. That would almost certainly be an unhelpful degree of relativism.

      • D.B. Cooper says

        At the risk of congratulating one another on how right we are – sympathizing with oneself comes natural to me – there’s not much here that I can disagree with; although I would say that justifications for influencing people are maybe a little more accessible than you suggest. In my experience, justifications are kinda like assholes – they’re not hard to come by. Also, I’ve yet to encounter a degree of relativism that’s been terribly helpful for much.

      • dirk says

        But, Nick, this is what’s happening on a large scale, and I must admit, having been part of it in African nations. Also the Pax Americana is founded on the idea that democracy, free market and equality of humans is better than the systems that still exist in Asia and Africa. On a personal scale: wherever I travel, I am looking for sites and spaces that I used to love (maybe for romantic reasons) and almost always find them destroyed or modernized (e.g., Mc Donalds in Slowakia, instead of the local restaurants of once with fantastic local food).Local people also are happy with such modernisations, maybe, it takes them again 1 or 2 generations to realize what is lost: that progressivity in fact often is just regression .

        • I’ve thought about this a lot lately, Dirk. It’s sad to me to look around the world at all of the diversity and rich cultures and see them being swept away or distorted by American pop culture. I don’t write this to be hip and criticize my own country. American culture is fine – in America. When I go to another country, I want to experience the culture of the people who made that country, not the same horrible pop and hip hop, superheroes and Star Wars, fashion, and fast food I’m surrounded by in my own country.

        • D.B. Cooper says

          “Progressivity in fact often is just regression.”

          Yeah, I’m just not sure that’s true. There’s no doubt the author has taken up a rather arduous task – he’s admitted as much; which is why, while I agree with a lot of the criticism being made here, I still find his ideas intriguing and very much thought-provoking, even if the application of his underlying propositions (consciousness & evolutionary theory) are liable to backwards reasoning. But that’s not to say everything the author claimed was irredeemably wrong. Some of them were actually just wrong.

          It is at this point that I should probably qualify my own limitations on the matter: As a layman, having no formal training in neuropsychology or evolutionary biology (or really anything else), it’s hard for me to fully appreciate to what extent, if any, the author has errored in his understanding/application of either phenomena. That being said, I’ve never let my ignorance get in the way of drawing conclusions from incomplete information on complex systems that I know nothing about. They say a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, so I see no good reason to let naked nescience get in the way of my opinions now.

          The weakness in Smith’s argument, and by extension yours, is the ambiguity of the propositions (e.g., (1) The crucial difference is the presence of consciousness; the quality that has enabled man to have ‘ideas’ and thereby seek to improve upon his evolutionarily determined natural state by ‘brute force.’ AND (2) Progress is the extent to which humans have bettered their position since the advent of consciousness.) due to either Smith not narrowing his units of thought enough or his inability to do so.

          But, again, Smith admits his argument should be understood “merely as a curio.” In the interest of charity, we should take this into account before attributing too harsh a criticism of his claims. Having said that, I’m now going to criticize without quarter. #hypocrite

          Proposition (1): The crucial difference is the presence of consciousness; the quality that has enabled man to have ‘ideas’ and thereby seek to improve upon his evolutionarily determined natural state by ‘brute force.’

          The proposition that consciousness enables man (via ideas) to improve his evolutionarily determined state is utterly self-defeating. Consider that Smith himself claims ‘man as animal’ evolved “gradually and unconsciously” to “Point Zero” where ‘man as innovator’ suddenly became aware (conscious).

          But this begs the question: if consciousness is an emerging phenomena of some evolutionary process of descent with modification, with natural selection – via environmental pressure – being the primary force that determines biological fitness, then it would seem the genetic variations which led to the cognitive faculties that allow us to experience what we call consciousness is at best an unreliable guide to what will improve our natural state, and at worst (but in truth) completely incapable of doing so.

          Ask yourself, how consciousness could ever act to improve what its own antecedent (cognitive faculties) was selected for (biological fitness – promoting survival and reproduction). This is a non sequitur. Man’s ideas cannot be ends onto themselves, nor can consciousness logically be its own warrant and; therefore, the proposition is self-defeating.

          Proposition (2) Progress is the extent to which humans have bettered their position since the advent of consciousness.

          It’s still not clear to me why Smith assumes the “advent” of consciousness was the point at which the optimal standard of functioning/flourishing began. As we can see in Proposition (1), consciousness, just like any emerging phenomena of natural select, does “whatever [its] nature tells [it] to do.” Since that’s true by definition, the “advent” of consciousness is no more a “Point Zero” than any time before it or since. It is merely an arbitrary point along our evolutionary timeline.

          Innovations, which act to unravel what are now harmful innovations, do not regress us to any prior point. That’s not to suggest that evolutionary pressures are exclusively found in nature. Pressures can obviously be man-made, but these ‘manufactured’ pressures (innovations) do not regress us to some mythical point zero any more than would naturally occurring pressures. And if so, I would like to know why and how this distinction occurs. Smith claims that consciousness is the decisive resource that accomplishes this distinction. It is for him, somehow, irreducibly complex, while fully capable of acting outside its own system. Obviously, I’m less partial to circular reasoning than others.

          • dirk says

            My comments were an answer to Nick, D.B., extended with some personal experiences (annoyances during work and travel).
            About role of consciousness: I just read in my newspaper about Homo habilis and his first instruments found in China, far before the point O, I think, but an important evolutionary step forward. Read also Harari’s Sapiens, who had important considerations on the disadvantages of as well agricultural and the Industrial/economic revolution (the indefinite growth). Rousseau, of course, was first to do so, he won a contest with his alternative view on civilisation as regression, instead of progress, what everybody at the time thought for sure. But he also admitted that the noble savage (point zero?) might never have existed as such. Nevertheless, was important in his philosophy as a touchstone, a construct, (a historic limit?).

          • D.B. Cooper says

            Thanks for sharing those sources. I’m not familiar with any of the works you suggested (save Rousseu), so I’m sure there’s got to be something in there that would shed a little more light on the subject for me.

          • nka says

            I’m going to be that guy: you’re misusing “begging the question.” Begging the question is circular reasoning which fails to distribute the the second term from the major premise to the first term position of the second premise, resulting in a classical, logical flaw. It does not mean “prompts another question” or “leads to the next question.”

  5. My thoughts on the car example. So perhaps in modern days, a car is a barrier to entry for success, where in the past it wasn’t. In the past, there were no barriers to entry if people wanted a high paying. In modern times, a car is needed to commute to work, however, it’s also the motivational tool to encourage somebody to work more productively. Lets say right now I’m broke, with no car, but I have a minimum wage job, and live 3 miles from it. Let’s say I walk every day. I am now likely motivated to channel all my additional resources towards saving up for a car. Because of this I may be more inclined to work harder, and for longer hours. The car, instead of a barrier to entry, is now the driver (haha) for my success. The car is the goal, and the goal I can progress to, which will open up new opportunities for me.

    • But, if you’re within walking distance of work, you don’t need the car. Which means you don’t have a car payment. If you get the car, you may find a better paying job, but will it be enough to offset the car payment or does it leave you in the same financial position you were at the start?

      • Bill says

        I had the same argument with my wife but about childcare. As a stay at home, my salary paid the bills. She wanted to return to work and I pointed out the break-even salary was $X based upon the added cost for the commute PLUS the cost of childcare. It was shocking what that $X turned out to be when she looked at the “Dream job” market for her and that it for the pleasure of working her dream job we’d actually be in the red versus in the black if she had no job at all.

  6. AC Harper says

    Apart from any other omissions or errors in the article was there ever a Point Zero (other than a literary device)? No argument has been advanced to justify a Point Zero, and the point just sneaks ‘consciousness’ in as a basis for ‘progress’.

    I could, and have, argued that man’s co-evolving ability to imitate others has been the main factor behind the development of society and progress. Is this another Point Zero or some other general evolutionary development?

  7. Simon M. says

    True, not all advances result in a net improvement of happiness, but this is more to do with the human condition as a species that leans more to focusing on the negative. This is an evolutionary adaptation, as the negative change that you ignore is the thing would previously kill you.

    So perceived progress will always be tainted by humans ability to think rationally about the real improvements we have achieved:

    ‘The brain/computer synergistic world is not progress. It allows us to create complex weather monitoring systems which are beamed to my pocket computer warning me about a hurricane that could kill me and my family in 3 days, but with it comes social media, which make me feel socially isolated. Therefore computers are a not progress.’

    We are progressing, but the blinders of the human condition create a negative perception of change.

  8. defmn says

    Let’s see if I got this right. Mr. Smith sets his Point Zero at the ability to survive and then argues there has been no progress because all we have accomplished is an ability survive in a more sophisticated manner in larger numbers with longer lifespans. Since survival is still only survival there has been no progress.

    Not sure this epiphany is worthy of more typing on my part but . . . .

    If you change the premise from survival as the measure of progress to encompass Aristotle’s telos for man as an animal that reasons then I believe you arrive at a different and more accurate conclusion.

    Evolution seems to be the flavour of the decade in deciphering all human behaviour these days. I assume this is a side effect of the advances in genetics but it really has distorted a lot of analysis.

    As a species evolution does not do much to explain how we are different than those who lived thousands of years before us. The writings of Plato and Confucius seem to indicate intellects at least the equal of our current generation and far superior to most of us. So if the ability to reason defines the most salient aspect of human nature it is difficult to argue that we have evolved in this most significant aspect.

    Progressivism fails when it attempts to conflate the changes and improvements possible through culture with improvements in human nature which are negligible. We progress – and regress – through culture and the technology that one of those cultures created through the efforts of Bacon – scientific method – and Hobbes who completed his mentor’s vision by establishing the prototype for a regime that could take advantage of that method.

    In other words progress is not necessarily linear or inevitable but where it does occur it has not been due to the evolution of our species so much as changes wrought to our culture through the genius of a relatively small number of our species and the ability of a small but larger number to recognize the value of those ideas who worked to spread and implement them.

    This is what we call progress and there is little doubt that it has led us to a point where we are weaker as a species when viewed through the lens of physical attributes but far stronger when the focus is placed upon the salient aspect of our telos as reasoning beings.

  9. Cheester says

    I understand that this is a fragment of a larger piece, but I can’t help notice many incoherent, weak lines of thinking in the writing. The use of literacy as an example of “progress of complication” is based on the obviously untrue assertion that everyone becoming literate simply returns us to Point Zero. Actually, everyone can read now, so it’s not Point Zero. People can enlighten and amuse themselves with the written word to improve their lives, which is not something they could do at Point Zero. Then there is this idea that we have a new problem since not everyone is literate, yet being literate yields massive benefits. It’s like saying that only getting seven out of ten people out of starvation is not only not “true progress,” it also creates a new problem because the well-nourished people can function better than the starved ones. Then, when ten out of ten people are well-fed, we’re back at Point Zero, because everyone’s hunger levels are equal. It’s the thinking of someone whose ideas have been severed from practicality, floating in a cerebral amniotic fluid that protects them from the gravity of the real world.

    The whole idea of returning to Point Zero reminds me of people who complain about being “wage slaves” and working 40-50 hours a week “just to make ends meet”. 1) Your “ends” constitute a quality of life that is absolutely unprecedented in the history of mankind. 2) People from a century ago, or further back, worked ridiculously long, hard hours for much less than you make, if anything at all. It’s not like they were sitting around with vaccines, antibiotics, air-conditioning and Youtube, with the only difference being that all this stuff was magically available without any hard work.

    —These are quite common when you look at various ‘big ideas’ proposed by different interest groups and, as a rule of thumb, can generally be sniffed out by their apparent lack of humility. This is where we produce ideas which inflame rather than soothe, where we allow low-variable thinking to seduce us into believing that the answers are obvious, and where we fall prey to the illusion that we are heading to some glorious ‘endpoint.’—
    I suppose this applies well to the power-hungry, embittered, jealous, naive people that want to bring Socialism about while having no clue how to do so or maintain it at even the most basic levels.

  10. I appreciate your perspective on this! thanks for the article.

    The biggest question and concern for me is whether progress is something that can be controled through human means and choice. Given the complex nature of reality, I don’t think this is the case at all. Humans make choices about particular innovations, but not choices about ultimate outcomes, therefore, it stands to reason that any process of change or ‘progress’ is not entirely directed by the human.

  11. Michael says

    The caveat of your article was well placed. I have in fact very much enjoyed conjuring up some counterarguments.

    I will argue that there is no Point Zero.

    If I understand your position correctly, you assume that our species has adopted its present form in a time span and environment you call Point Zero. You probably understand this as a habitat, where all tasks necessary to survival where met with exclusively genetically inherited abilities. Then, consciousness entered the field and disturbed the balance. Let us further assume, that Point Zero happened in an african environment, before our ancestors populated the other continents.

    A crucial point to your argument is the idea, that our conscious mind cannot produce anything superior to our unconsciously achieved form at Point Zero. You say:
    “This is where we start to run into problems. Clearly man’s ideas unfold much faster than evolution’s, and as a result the ‘mind and body’ of man isn’t able to adapt to the changes he makes in real time. This means that every single non-evolutionary development must, by definition, create conditions that the human body ‘fits’ less perfectly than those found at Point Zero.”
    Usually, adaptedness and fitness are a measure of relative reproductive success. Since we have outreproduced all other hominin species and multiplied exponentially, we are very successful in that regard.

    But probably you define fitness differently. I guess a perpetuum mobile, a set of interlocking purposes that retain their configuration, is a better metaphor for your ideal of fitness. And indeed, sometimes natural populations come close to a balance with their environment and keep looking the same way for dozens of millions of years. Their teeth fit their food, their feet fit the ground, their colour matches their surroundings and their innate reactions amount to a stable reproductional strategy. For some time, change might only be detrimental.

    Now what happens if such a species has only perfectly adapted features? Nothing superfluous? Any change of environment will mean harm. And that kind of change is inevitable. (The deep sea was a good contender in the competition for the most stable environment until we found coke bottles there.)

    Usually the genome of any species is more than just the toolbox for its present survival. It is also a museum of all the battles its ancestors fought. All our colour pigments, the three types of melanin, are restricted to a narrow range of colours. Is that an adaptation to our Point Zero? No, it´s the result of relentless predation by dinosaurs. Fish, amphibians, reptiles and birds have a huge array of colours. But unfortunately, mammals happen to be the offspring of nocturnal rodentlike prey animals that far too often ended in dinosaur stomachs and could only wish they´d look more like sticks and stones. We are lucky some of them did.
    Then there is the human hand. This battle is illustrated in Kubricks 2001: A Space Odyssey. When australopithecines invented stone tools 2,6 mio years ago, it was first an advantage and then a necessity to be able to use them. All species of homo have hands that are fit for tool use. If tool use and culture imply consciousness, we have to place Point Zero more than two million years before the time of the first homo sapiens. I think at that point, the idea of an unconscious but perfectly adapted population of homo sapiens has no place in history. When homo erectus climbed the Caucasus and went fishing in Indonesia, adaptation of the body to culture had already been a given. I want to stress that: There are at least four species of humans, that have evolved after culture began.

    The list goes on and on. Fish invented our spine. Amphibians gave us four limbs. Our lineage is the history of all challenges that our ancestors have overcome. Their change was the path to our existence. Why should we be the species that stops evolution at some Point Zero? This is just a value judgement, but I think staying at Point Zero is utterly undesirable.

    I would also argue that animals have consciousness but this comment is getting too long and I will just recommend taking a look at the research on animal cognition by Jaak Panksepp, Michael Tomasello and Frans de Waal. “The Archeology of the Mind: Neuroevolutionary Origins of Human Emotion.” by Biven and Panksepp is especially fascinating.

    • neoteny says

      I want to stress that: There are at least four species of humans

      With all due respect, and acknowledging that I think highly of your comment, I would like to point out that the working definition of ‘species’ is those individuals who are able to sexually reproduce with each other and their offspring are capable of reproduction, either (i.e. they aren’t sterile). Using this definition there’s only one species of humans: I’m not aware of any reproductive depression between any two humans.

  12. Patrick says

    Count me in the Luddite camp..
    As I think most progress is illusory.
    There may be fewer pock marked faces, but there are plenty of bent and crippled elderly in our mist.
    That doesn’t even factor in the large numbers of the aged tucked neatly away in what can only be described as warehouses.
    For the young It’s hard for me to see how the young are fully functioning humans, and it seems that in a lot of successfully progressive countries the young stay young, less than fully functioning, for a long time. It seems a legitimate argument, at least to me, to claim that a not insignificant amount time in modern life , both in the beginning, and at the end, is spent just marking time to no useful purpose.
    That leaves the middle portion of life to be fully functional. On the face of this argument seems unduly harsh, and so it is. There doesn’t appear any way of turning back the clock, yet assuming I survived the first couple of years, I continue to believe I would have had a more fulfilling life working as a serf on the fields, drinking a lot of whatever stimulant was available in the evening, and being enthralled by a world filled strange creatures.
    In short a world of magic.
    No doubt I’m wrong, but the thought persists.
    And don’t get me started on the evil internal combustion machine, and its evil progeny, the silent killer, all electric machines.

    • Susan says

      “. . . a more fulfilling life working as a serf”-unless your neighbors decided you were a witch. What is the retirement package for a serf?

      • Patrick says

        As a serf I would have simultaneously lived astride two worlds, with minor separation between the two.
        The separating line, is of course, death.
        Again as a serf I would of had one foot in each world, and as such had no need to worry about such mundane concerns as 401Ks, defined pensions, living trusts, Social Security and other progressive benefits.
        Instead I would have lived out my allotted years looking for elves, leprechauns, and thinking of all the wonders that awaited me when I crossed the bar.
        This admittedly is a romantic view of life, but life as a serf still accommodated romance, unlike the sterile world we’ve all inherited.

      • dirk says

        @Susan: probably much better than for an industrial worker in Chicago mid 19th century.

  13. Steve says

    “Or, moreover, that they are operating the way they were designed to do, and are therefore fulfilling their purpose?”

    Just no. Evolution (according to theory) follows no “design”. Animals are not “designed” and they have no “purpose”.

    There is so much wrong with this article that it’s far easier to just refer the author to

  14. Toni Pereira says

    (sigh)The notion of progress is an inheritance from christianity.Once you really give up on Monotheism and see all phenomena in evolutionary terms it makes no sense talking about history as a progression.

    • You are obviously ignorant of religious doctrine if you think it teaches progress. Christianity breaks with the anctient cyclical conception of time to posit a beginning and an end. That’s it. What happens between these points is an epic battle for the salvation of souls who are by nature fallen and incapable of the type of self guided and gradual improvement that we understand as progress.

    • Sorry if I came off as abrasive in my response. It’s just that the unreflective bashing of religion as the source of all the world’s misguided notions sticks in my craw.

  15. Anthony Taylor says

    Regarding barriers to entry in the workplace, the innovations associated with time-space compression for example have had huge benefits to everyday life.

    Take cars as the example innovation. The two scenarios being before cars were invented and after cars were invented as a mass produced tool for travel to work. In the first scenario (pre car) most people were restricted to employment opportunities that were relatively nearby and hence restricted in number of employment opportunities.

    In scenario two (post car) most people have the opportunity to access a vast array of employment opportunities at a greater distance from home in the same time taken by previous modes of transport.

    Hence, the invention of car travel for the masses should not be seen as simply a pre-requisite to adequate life functionality, but as a significant improvement in accessing a greater array of for example employment opportunities.

    Car innovation, therefore, is not simply a resetting of ‘Point Zero’, as the benefits associated with it far outweigh those associated with previous modes of transport. And hence, it is absolute progress, not relative progress.

  16. Randy says

    The author misunderstands that the key differentiating characteristic in humans is intelligence, not simply consciousness. Our unique ability to creatively solve problems and especially to create explanatory knowledge enables open ended progress, the “Beginning of Infinity.” If you’re interested in these deep ideas, I’d recommend David Deutsch’s book, and his podcasts and videos. Also Pinker’s new book, Enlightenment Now.

    • But you have to have consciousness as the precondition for coming across anything in the world that would pose itself as something of concern to be explained. In this sense, the author is correct in identifying consciousness as our most fundamental human characteristic.

  17. So if one were taking drugs that kept one alive but also cause side effects that adversely impacted their quality of life, that would still be a better life then what they had prior to the necessity of medication?

  18. But what is the definition of “better”? From an evolutionary perspective, better is simply an increased probability that your genes propogate into the future. If that is your definition of better, your argument has some feet to stand on though previous commenters have pointed out several flaws.

    But what if we want to choose a different better? It seems you assume we can’t make that decision. Presumably after gorging himself to sickness once, Baloo could eat a reasonable amount of honey that would not make him sick, particularly if he were conscious. We’ve had a couple generations of Americans gorging themselves as we encountered an overabundance of food, but it seems people are becoming aware of that and attempting to fix it. Do you really think life without ice cream, all else being equal, would be better?

    Your argument rests on an unstated assumption that better consists solely of the evolutionary definition. You should make that argument first.

  19. Hannah Lee says

    Wow, that was some painful ‘Noble Savage” Twaddle.

    I nominate this for ‘Worst Quillette article ” Ever.

    • It is unusually bad. Fortunately not many here seem to be falling for it.

      Maybe it was sponsored content.

  20. Thatsmysecretcap says

    I’m struggling to see what exactly this article is advocating or really even saying. I feel like this is all a setup for “now that we agree that we should be careful what kind of progress we make, lets agree that I’m the one who should decide that”.

  21. Actually the author,s point was clearly articulated in the closing paragraphs. It’s quite cautionary and quite the opposite of the sentiment you came away with:

    “This is where we produce ideas which inflame rather than soothe, where we allow low-variable thinking to seduce us into believing that the answers are obvious, and where we fall prey to the illusion that we are heading to some glorious ‘endpoint.’”

  22. Ray says

    I see progress as the ascent of Maslow’s Pyramid.

    This works at personal and community levels. Living a life of subsistence in a cold cave is not as attractive as a solid home, hot water and a range of wholesome foods, that I can barter for my time condensed into whatever currency we all believe in. I believe that we can use Maslow’s Pyramid, or Hierarchy of Needs, as a measure of progress for all kinds of community sponsored activities intended to improve quality of life.

    We all begin life as a conscious entity, and we all end life alone, a point zero if you want one, but I suggest that the concept of ‘progress’, as fuzzy and indefinite as it appears to be, makes our journey from life’s first day to its last, as safe, comfortable and as healthy as it can be.

  23. Jesse says

    I think the article could be simplified to one basic premise- sometimes mankind outsmarts itself! We’re too clever by half. Not sure why it wasn’t mentioned but it seems the most glaringly obvious example of this is human-induced climate change brought on by the Industrial (r)evolution.

  24. Kessler says

    I view human happiness as motion – we quickly tire of what we have, move goalposts and view things that previously gave us happiness as unbearable.

    I’m reminded about an article, that touched on morality effects of capitalism.

    Slavery is viewed as morally wrong and it’s also economically inefficient. You can produce in third-world countries or use immigrant labor far more cheaply.

    It is morally right, that women can do whatever work they want, which doubles available labor force and keeps wages down.

    Discrimination is wrong – businesses make more money, if they can sell their products to all people, without restriction and employ whoever they want.

    The unraveling of previously held social taboos – is it about making more products available for sale?

    So, is our modern enlightened morality, simply product of our economic system, maximizing it’s output? Does it all boils down in the end to supplying what is needed for our survival?

  25. dirk says

    I fear, for big policy only one no nonsense measure of progressivity exists: economic growth nationwide as an average percentage. Sociologists and psychologists try to find out the happiness (increase, decrease over time) of a population by enquêtes and interviews. And generally find that their citizens are the happiest (or near happiest) of all nations worldwide. In the NL,we seem to have the happiest child worldwide, but the suicide number last year has almost doubled (and of all successful suicides, 20 other have considered it or tried so). It’s clear for me, the two situations have very little in common.

  26. John AD says


    Just to pick one point to mock: “Ultimately we can’t make tomorrow better than it’s ever been”. “It” in this sentence is “tomorrow”. So yes, logically, there’s an impossibility here. But to take the intended meaning, the sentence is saying that the best day has been, and we can’t have a day as good as that again. Arghh, I’m getting jaded just chasing after one sentence.

    But more generally, perhaps there’s a bit of truth hiding in this article, but could be summarised fairly simply. Any progress might include aspects of change that result in a some kind of downside that is at odds with our nature. Such progress is ratcheted, and we need more progress to deal with the downsides.

    This kind of philosophical aggrandising one expects from a “strategist specialising in the underlying nature of complex systems” whose Basic Arts consultancy practises “brand psychotherapy” with a mission statement to “help shape businesses to capture the attention of the public, inspire their employees, and redefine their markets”, that thinks “if everybody in your organisation knows exactly what you’re for [sic – presumably this you’re is meant to refer to the business, not the consultee], and is inspired by it, then your business will effortlessly blossom in that direction”. I don’t believe this kind of thing would come out of the mouth of someone who has actually studied complex systems, including the maths, from control theory to fluid dynamics.

    Sorry, but to let this kind of stuff pass without a mocking is to give a free pass to the forces pulling against the progress the article purports to support. (I recognise that some of my motivation for saying this is the bitterness I feel having spent half a lifetime breaking my back firstly getting actual scientific qualifications, including an MSc in systems engineering, then working to actually create stuff whose value can be judged by the fact that it works and folk want to use it, and where I couldn’t hide behind florid and ethereal claims to practise brand psychotherapy and to be the husband to the effortless blossoming of businesses through some kind of social engineering voodoo)

  27. MCA says

    For fuck’s sake, Quillette editors, can we seriously have a ban on non-biologists going on weird pseudo-scientific tangets based on cleatly flawed understanding? This is twice in a week.

    The author of this essay clearly has no idea how evolution works, particularly macroevolutionary processes. The idea that evolution has some mechanism for taking into account long-term consequences over short term is disproven – specifically see the work of Sepkoski & Raup on non-selectiveness of mass extinctions. Ditto for the idea that evolution somehow optimizes for or even takes into account “infinite” variables.

    This sort of crap is why you need peer review. It’s like watching new age crackpots gibber about quantum mechanics, or coffee-shop philosophers make grand proclamations based on their mis-understanding of chaos theory.

    Sources – am an actual biology PhD & professor

    • dirk says

      And what about a ban on non-sociologists, non-humanists, a-technicals, non-parents and illiterates, MCA? It would make the place a lot more quiet and articulate, I guess!

    • If we’re going to start banning people, I submit That we should start by banning you from commenting.

    • X. Citoyen says

      Not very edifying behavior for a university professor–I pity your students. If you’ve taken your posture from Dawkins, you’re aping not emulating. As irascible as Dawkins is, he keeps a lid on it most of the time and makes his case.

      In my experience, the amount of vitriol and credentializing in a remark is inversely proportional to its persuasiveness. Even the choir expects wit. At least, I’ve yet to see “I’m an expert and you’re all stupid fucking dummies” win over an audience. It’s possible that you’re different—a sort of Chosen One in the Quillette matrix—though I’m not seeing the signs of it.

    • cardiffkook says

      MCA is right. I am not a biologist, but almost every paragraph in this post is a mess. It is so bad, that there is no real point in addressing any of it. The only way to correct this post would be to start over with an even longer post.

      Indeed this article is the perfect example of why discussion of progress is so unfashionable today — because those writing on it have made such a sloppy mess of it.

  28. The author seems to be presenting a corollary to the idea that biological evolution isn’t necessarily a positive, uni-directional process. It goes sideways and seemingly backwards sometimes, in the process of gradually ensuring the survival of the fittest. What constitutes “fit” depends on a feedback loop driven by the technologies we invent.

    But what the author fails to see is that over the long term, there is a positive progression for our species, since more and more of us survive, and enjoy better standards of living by virtually any measurement. If we look back at homo sapiens from the so called “Zero Point” , our overall levels of happiness and longevity have risen at an astonishing rate.

    As for slavery, if the author thinks there was no human bondage at the Zero Point, he reveals himself as a utopian rather than a realist. Maybe he read too much Rousseau?

  29. “Progress”, at least in 20th Century terms, was based on the belief that science and technology would gradually eliminate nationalism, militarism, ethnic and racial chauvinism, religious sectarianism and probably religion altogether. By late 20th Century, patriarchy and stereotypical male behaviors (at least performed by possessors of Y chromosomes) got added to the list, so by the 22nd Century, everyone will wear skirts and sit down to use the toilet I expect, while the world would be governed by one world government, and regional disputes resolved through arbitration. There would be only one people, the “humans”, one government, the “UN”, and they would all enjoy “human rights” everywhere and equally.

    Of course, History has had other ideas, bending the arc elsewhere, meanwhile the emerging tribe of “humans” doesn’t seem to have the fertility rates necessary to compete with the “non-humans” or perhaps “subhuman” religious fundamentalists and/or ethnic nationalists.

    Its all very well to talk about indoor plumbing and cholera epidemics, but the conceit of “scientism” was that flush toilets, antibiotics and the pill would lead to the dissolution of all collective identities, save the “secular human” one, and the dissolution of all nation-states (ala Marxism), into something like Star Trek. While I’m no prophet, I have no faith in the vision of the future held by folks like Bertrand Russell, if for no other reason than the ecological unsustainability of modern affluence combined with the sharp divergence in group fertility rates.

    • dirk says

      From a very old comment in the Morning Post about Russells new book -Icarus, or the future of science-: “Mr. Russell refuses to believe that the progress of science must be a boon to mankind”.

      • From Wikipedia on Russell’s politics:

        Political and social activism occupied much of Russell’s time for most of his life. Russell remained politically active almost to the end of his life, writing to and exhorting world leaders and lending his name to various causes.

        Russell argued for a “scientific society”, where war would be abolished, population growth would be limited, and prosperity would be shared.[168] He suggested the establishment of a “single supreme world government” able to enforce peace,[169] claiming that “the only thing that will redeem mankind is co-operation”.[170]

        Russell was an active supporter of the Homosexual Law Reform Society, being one of the signatories of A. E. Dyson’s 1958 letter to The Times calling for a change in the law regarding male homosexual practices, which were partly legalised in 1967, when Russell was still alive.[171]

        In “Reflections on My Eightieth Birthday” (“Postscript” in his Autobiography), Russell wrote: “I have lived in the pursuit of a vision, both personal and social. Personal: to care for what is noble, for what is beautiful, for what is gentle; to allow moments of insight to give wisdom at more mundane times. Social: to see in imagination the society that is to be created, where individuals grow freely, and where hate and greed and envy die because there is nothing to nourish them. These things I believe, and the world, for all its horrors, has left me unshaken”.[172]

        I don’t think my characterization was unfair. But you can find a stable of these characters, Karl Popper, Issac Asimov, etc. They don’t believe in “religion” but they envision the “Kingdom of God” arriving peacefully through the “scientific society” (even as the “scientific societies” of the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc executed and imprisoned dissidents). I say “Yeah, right!”

        • dirk says

          @KD: what I understand from Wikipedia, Russell was much more positive about science in his -What I believe-. In my youth he was a fierce adversary of the Vietnam War (if I remember well).

  30. dirk says

    New children rhyme ( of my own invention, but inspired by the commenters here:

    A.A. Donald J.

    B.B. Hannah Lee

  31. X. Citoyen says

    I sympathize with the reaction you’re getting because I had the same one: Abstractions, buzzwords, and conjectures all tangled together in a modified motivational speech.

    Anyway, an extremely charitable interpretation would read that you have some sensible intuitions that haven’t been well thought through. Part of the problem is that you’re mixing up different ideas of progress and confusing social change with biological evolution.

    Progress has at least three meanings. The first is the secularized version of Christian Providence that grew up in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and still inspires religious fervor today. The second and third are connected. The second is the comparative improvement of material conditions over the past 200 or so years. This is an observation that has given rise to the third, the theoretical claim that human societies evolve in a Lamarckian but not in a Darwinian sense of the word “evolution.”

    Early in the piece, you seemed to be acknowledging the second while denying the third. You wouldn’t be the first to notice that social changes rarely occur without losses. We can see that around us. Even if you think the sexual revolution was progress, for example, it didn’t exactly come without individual and social costs. Such observations undercut the idea of theoretical progress without denying material progress in other areas.

    The other problem you seem to have recognized is that history hasn’t come to an end, so we have no endpoint against which to judge progress. For example, we don’t know whether the improvements in medicine—as wonderful as we have it compared with our ancestors—will turnout to have done something horrible to us in the long run. (I’m not saying this is the case, of course, or that I have any evidence that it will. I’m simply saying that we can’t know.) Unfortunately, you seem to have interpreted this as a need for a “point zero” reference point. Even if we could know what such a thing is, it could tell us nothing about whether theoretical progress is real.

  32. Paul Ivor says

    Interesting perspective but there are some glaring errors:

    1. Your axiom is wrong. There was no human “advent of consciousness” and there never was a “point zero”. We aren’t outrunning evolution with a late-stage adaptation. The environment is always changing. Human brains evolved in reaction to dangerous and unpredictable conditions (including other humans) which required ever greater flexibility and anticipatory and strategic foresight. Other animals have core consciousness, just not as sophisticated and adaptable survival and propagation strategies as us. Human ability exists on a continuum with the ability of other animals, eg. many animals can anticipate somewhat into the future and monitor relationships within groups, but we are much better at it. Our higher strategic “idea producing” abilities exist along a continuum with more “myopic” instincts and them being generated at a purely conscious level is unlikely.

    2. This higher strategizing ability is part and parcel of the “complete knowledge” of the evolutionary process. Your analogy doesn’t work because when other animals make decisions, however instinctual, they also don’t possess “complete knowledge”, no matter how closely they appear to be operating within raw evolutionary laws in comparison to us. Our higher strategizing ability just means we have greater potential than they do to make better, more adapted, and foresighted decisions. This difference in adaptability makes it appear to us that much of what we do is “supplementary” to evolution, but it isn’t. We aren’t hijacking evolution with something stupider in that regard.

    3. Most of our ideas are not “competing agencies” but rationalizations and promotions of old, deep, pre-existing instincts evolved within a social dynamic, such as our sense of fair play and our desire to maintain group stability. Other social animals also possess those instincts, but we are able to extend, codify and experiment with them at a higher level. In other words, on average our ideas are less, not more, short-sighted than the instinctual strategies of other animals, because they are built on similar foundations of “long-sighted” unconscious strategy but with a less myopic and wider net and scope of possibilities added. No other animals are able to co-exist and cooperate in such massive, powerful, changeable, unrelated populations with minimal threat from competing nature as we do.

    4. What makes you assume previously “everyone had equal access to X”? Increasing knowledge does move us along functionally in absolute terms by an increase in power and navigational ability in relation to the rest of the environment. Innovations such as shelter and house building happen in response to problems not caused by previous human innovations but by nature. Sure, now I have a floor to clean but at least I’m not outside shivering in the rain. Innovations related to our exploratory instincts create relative problems but as these instincts entail the “long view” of evolution presumably they must solve more problems for our genes than they create. Insert “what have the Roman’s ever done for us” list *here*.

  33. “Before literacy everyone had equal access to X”. If by everyone, the author is referring to the toughest, strongest bully, then ok. Literacy evened the competion field to not just immutable characteristics that one was born with and had no chance to alter. Literacy allowed a physically weaker person to yield more power through hard work. If not for literacy and the social power it weilds, cavemen would still be clubbing women and dragging them into caves.

  34. This article is so ill-informed that I am thinking of canceling my Patreon support of Quillette for publishing it. The problems start with its arbitrary, and silly definitions of progress. Why don’t we define progress simply as giving more people more options? Then we get an imaginary point in time, Point Zero with imaginary conditions.  Why don’t we talk about time periods about which we have good information instead?  Then try to make the same case. To start the ball rolling, I will offer a fact: world extreme poverty, defined as living on less than a $1 a day, has been reduced in the last 30 years from over 30% of the world’s population to less than 10%. Doesn’t that mean that hundreds of millions of people have more choice than they did before? How is that not progress? 

  35. dirk says

    The Maya case

    Ruminating on progress the last days (thanx to Quillette), the Maya culture struck my mind. I visited their temples with subterraneaous sculptures and paintings in Southern Mexico and Guatemala, absolutely fantastic, at a par with the best culture, arithmetics (invention of the zero and counting in millions of years to come), architecture and art of the West. But, it had all disappeared even when the Spanish conquered these areas in the 1500s. Gone. Crumbled.Overgrown. And their descendants living around, uptil now, have no knowledge or connection with that great past whatsoever, they are selfsupporting small peasants, growing maize, beans and pumpkis, preparing tortillas in simple mud houses with a palmleaf thatch.

    Now, nobody will deny that these people had a great past, a miraculous progress in a difficult tropical ambience, and a complete regression into oblivion. But what about happines of the average Maya then and now? Equality is probably improved, because no more class of priests and rich rulers. Less literacy, art, theater, ritual cults, ceremony,but also less cruelty and taxes, forced labor to erect those crazy high buildings just for religion and rituals, and bloody wars (asking its toll of the young men).
    The progress was one of specialisation, of the community,the civilisation- but maybe at the cost of the average individual?
    What about the consciousness of the Mayas then and now?

  36. edt says

    As other commentators have suggested, the problem with the argument is a kind of pre-lapsarian notion of the perfect product of evolution. To take the case of literacy, to suppose that people pre-literature had equal access to knowledge or communication channels. On the contrary, the absence of written forms put immense strain on the memory so that oral poets and oral traditions represented a specialised and hallowed group that dined with kings as they represented their reputations to the outside world. The circle of influence was thus very limited and the discrepancy between insiders and outsiders was immense. Literacy is basically an equaliser, which is why on utilitarian grounds it can be considered a sign of progress.

    • dirk says

      That’s exactly the opposite of what I said about the Maya, edt, but for the translation and first book prints of the Bible, since and by Luther, you might be right.

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