Can human beings ever make any progress? Have things gotten better over the centuries and millennia or are we all consigned to lives of misery and doom?
Many people would readily admit that things have gotten better. Some demur. Among them the cranky but always engaging British philosopher John Gray. As a post-Freudian, Gray believes that things never get better, but that we are living out a script that always ends badly.
Among those who believe that things do get better are the evolutionists. If the fittest survive, then that means that different species naturally evolve in a positive direction, toward more fit members. One notes that this process takes place over exceptionally long periods of time, so, comparing yesterday to today will not provide the evidence for or against the argument.
Harvard professor Steven Pinker counts among the leading evolutionists. In his book The Better Angels of Our Nature he offered something like a teleological argument, to the effect that the human species learns from its errors and improves its condition.
Here is a summary of the book’s conclusions:
In this startling new book, the bestselling cognitive scientist Steven Pinker shows that the world of the past was much worse. With the help of more than a hundred graphs and maps, Pinker presents some astonishing numbers. Tribal warfare was nine times as deadly as war and genocide in the 20th century. The murder rate of Medieval Europe was more than thirty times what it is today. Slavery, sadistic punishments, and frivolous executions were unexceptionable features of life for millennia, then suddenly were targeted for abolition. Wars between developed countries have vanished, and even in the developing world, wars kill a fraction of the people they did a few decades ago. Rape, battering, hate crimes, deadly riots, child abuse, cruelty to animals—all substantially down.
How could this have happened, if human nature has not changed? What led people to stop sacrificing children, stabbing each other at the dinner table, or burning cats and disemboweling criminals as forms of popular entertainment? The key to explaining the decline of violence, Pinker argues, is to understand the inner demons that incline us toward violence (such as revenge, sadism, and tribalism) and the better angels that steer us away. Thanks to the spread of government, literacy, trade, and cosmopolitanism, we increasingly control our impulses, empathize with others, bargain rather than plunder, debunk toxic ideologies, and deploy our powers of reason to reduce the temptations of violence.
Since Pinker believes that he is an atheist, it is certainly interesting to see him using a narrative that suggests the guiding hand of a benevolent deity.
You might know that Pinker has faced considerable blowback about his thesis. After all, the human species is one nuclear war away from extinction, so perhaps he should not be so optimistic. And, the twentieth century was not exactly short on horrific violence, mass murder and famines which killed well over 100,000,000 people. It wasn't the Hundred Years War, but in some ways it was worse. The course of progress does not seem to be running smoothly.
Pinker might argue that, thanks to the Industrial Revolution, the average lifespan in developed nations like America has been increasing significantly. From around 46 at the turn of the twentieth century to around 63 in the mid 1903s to today, when it is over 80. Clearly we live better and longer than do our ancestors. The case for human progress, for the impulse to improve the human condition has some grounding.
A libertarian evolutionist like Matt Ridley has suggested that it’s not just biological organisms that evolve; human institutions do too. Bad and dysfunctional institutions tend to die out while successful forms of community tend to prosper and to take them over.
One might say that Ridley has applied the concept of evolution too broadly and thus has opened himself up to attack from those who, like Gray, do not believe in progress at all.
Reviewing Ridley’s last book, The Evolution of Everything, Gray disputes Ridley’s claim. He opens his review:
As he [Ridley] tells us at the start of this book, Darwinism is “the special theory of evolution”. But there is a general theory of evolution, too, and it applies to society, money, technology, language, law, culture, music, violence, history, education, politics, God, morality. The general theory says that things do not stay the same; they change gradually but inexorably; they show “path dependence”; they show descent with modification; they show selective persistence.
… Ridley repeats this mantra many times: Darwin’s mechanism of selective survival resulting in cumulative complexity applies to human culture in all its aspects, too. Our habits and institutions, from language to cities, are constantly changing, and the mechanism of change turns out to be surprisingly Darwinian: it is gradual, undirected, mutational, inexorable, combinatorial, selective and “in some sense vaguely progressive”.
Gray denies human progress. But, if we accept human progress, perhaps not as inevitable but as possible and desirable, do we need to present it as a scientific fact. Since Ridley wants to make it scientific, he opens himself up to criticism to the effect that his ideas cannot be disproved, and thus, are not science.
I would underscore this distinction. It is one thing to say that it is inevitable, no matter what. It is quite another to say that it is possible if human beings embrace it.
Gray continues that the notion of social evolution is not new. Friedrich Hayak proposed it many years ago:
I have a vivid memory of listening to the late FA Hayek, some 30 years ago, lecturing on what he called “the natural selection of religions” – a supposedly Darwinian process in which the religions that survive and spread are those that promote private property and market exchange and thereby support growing numbers of believers. I recall wondering how this account squared with the actual history of religion. The polytheistic cults of Greece and Rome didn’t die out in an incremental process of evolutionary decline; they were stamped out when the emperor Constantine converted to Christianity. If Tibet’s brand of Buddhism disappears from the country, or the Baha’i faith vanishes from Iran, the reason won’t be that these faiths suffer from any evolutionary disadvantage. It will be because state power has been used to destroy them.
Hayak’s idea still seems plausible, providing we look at the big picture. Why did Communism die out, if not because it failed to provide for its people. The track record of Communism was a horror. In China, for example, Communist economic policy was replaced by capitalist economic policy. The former had failed and produced misery. The latter succeeded and has provided sustenance and a better life for many more people.
One might say that the transformation took place through the exercise of power, when the Gang of Four, the leaders of the Cultural Revolution, were arrested in 1976. Still, the Chinese example shows that one economic system is significantly and substantially better than another and that people would, given the choice, choose it.
On the other hand, the leaders of the new capitalist China had tried to lead the country in the same direction in the early 1960s. They were thwarted by the exercise of power, by Mao’s cultural revolution. Since that policy produced only misery, it later yielded to a free enterprise system.
Clearly, these advances demonstrate that some cultures are distinctly better than others. Christian cultures did produce many of the horrors that Pinker lists, but they also produced free enterprise, human rights, liberal democracy and the Industrial Revolution. These cultures contained the ability to learn from and to correct errors. Perhaps it did so because it believed in the invisible hand of a benevolent deity.
Evidently, the changes in Christian cultures took place over long periods of time. Yet, they did occur and have taken root. Other cultures have rejected the products of Christian culture, and have often suffered for as much.
Gray’s invocation of the concept of power is not persuasive… to this reader. Surely, pagan cultures had been in decline before the time of the Emperor Constantine. If he, in particular, disempowered them, he still had to show that the new Christian culture was better, not merely in its ability to provide for people, but its ability to conquer other cultures. As we recall: In hoc signe vinces…. A army organized around that concept had to win.
And those who believe in pagan cultures have continued to dispute the results of the competition. After all, Nazi and fascist cultures were efforts to restore paganism. Even some of today’s atheists sound like they would be willing to adopt certain cults to various pagan deities, the gods of Reason, Justice, the Earth, Sensuality and so on.
Yet, if Gray is suggesting that sociocultural evolution is not a gradual process, then he is closer to the truth. The everyday understanding of the concept of evolution suggests a gradual, incremental advance. I will leave it to the biologists to sort it out, but I suspect that that is an oversimplification. Survival of the fittest is not always a pretty picture. Often it involves the exercise of power and even significant disruptions.Human beings did not acquire language gradually, but at a specific time, perhaps as a response to a genetic mutation.
If we judge cultures by their ability, not only to provide for their people, but for their ability to protect them, then clearly cultures must defend themselves… at times, by force of arms. Also, cultures that have been defeated in economic competition might be unwilling to accept the results. Rather than change their ways, they might decide to make it their mission to deconstruct the dominant cultures.
As for Gray’s question of what drives change in society, what drives societies to improve, the answer must lie in the competition or the conflict between civilizations. Some do better than others; some do worse. And this can be measured in empirical terms: some cultures provide better for their people and some cultures protect their people better.
Of course, some cultures do not believe in reality. The do not trust objective facts. They will die out, but they will not “go gentle into that good night.”
For a further discussion of some of these concepts, see my book: The Last Psychoanalyst.