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.’

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