A Short History of Progress

easterislandThe Idea:  Archaeologist-historian-novelist Ronald Wright summarizes and analyzes six spectacular civilizational collapses from throughout our history, and reads us the riot act about what we need to do now to avoid another collapse, this time a global one.

It is impossible to avoid comparisons between Ronald Wright’s A Short History of Progress, which was broadcast by CBC last November as the 1994 Massey Lecture series, and Jared Diamond’s Collapse, which came out only a few weeks later. Both books describe incidents of civilizational collapse from human history (Wright covers Easter Island, Sumeria, Rome, Maya, Egypt and China), both draw lessons from those stories, and both point out how similar our 21st century global civilization is to these examples just prior to their collapse. Both stress that, for the first time since we arrived on this planet three million years ago, a single culture is so ubiquitous on the planet that its collapse could bring not only the end of a dynasty, but species extinction. Both identify the factors that presage civilizational collapse.

The difference (besides brevity — Wright’s book is a mere 132 pages, excluding the 70 pages of exhaustive notes and references, with 90% fewer words than Diamond’s) is one of tone. As I reported in my review of Collapse, Diamond lays the responsibility for preventing collapse clearly at the feet of the masses, and asserts it can be done. Wright’s tone is considerably darker, and he sees the challenge as considerably greater.

While Diamond suggests the errors of excess and foolishness that led to previous collapses were unwitting, and well-intentioned, Wright describes human society-building as steeped in violence, genocide and savagery, and demonstrates that evolutionary success of human cultures has been proportional to their readiness and willingness to exterminate or subjugate ‘competitors’ (plants, animals, other human cultures and members of their own culture) with deliberate, zealous and ruthless barbarity. The consequence is that human evolution has self-selected for savagery and bred compassion out of the gene pool, and has consistently provided the most ruthless members of our society (psychopaths, megalomaniacs, war-mongers and power-crazies) the method, the motive and the opportunity to seize control and establish rigid and vicious hierarchies that entrench and reinforce extreme inequality, hold power by the threat of violence (sacrificing subordinates in wars and in prisons to keep others in line) and anchoring their authority by claims of divine right.

This does not bode well for our ability to think, invent, or collaborate our way out of the crises that threaten to topple today’s civilization. We have repeatedly fallen victim to what Wright calls “progress traps” — collective judgement errors that lead us to believe that if a small amount of X is a good thing, a larger amount must be even better. Paleolithic hunters who killed two mammoths instead of one had made progress, but when they drove 200 over a cliff “they lived high for awhile, then starved”. The taming of fire, the perfection of hunting, the agricultural revolution, each have been major lurches forward in human progress, and each has brought with it progress traps.

Since the early 1900s, world population has multiplied by 4 and the economy — human load on nature — by more than 40. We have reached the stage at which we must bring the experiment [that of a species shaped more by its own culture than by nature] under rational control, and guard against present and potential dangers. It’s entirely up to us. If we fail — if we blow up or degrade the biosphere so it can no longer sustain us — nature will merely shrug and conclude that letting apes run the laboratory was fun for a while but in the end a bad idea.

Wright explains the extraordinary similarities between the culture of Spain and the culture of Mexico when they clashed 500 years ago, after being completely out of touch for at least a millennium, as an indication of the inherent and perhaps inevitable human drive for a very similar and unsustainable vision of progress. He explains that agriculture and civilization were precluded from happening even earlier in our evolution only by the unimaginable instability of climate — fluctuating wildly from decade to decade — for a period of half a million years that lasted until the retreat of the last ice age just 12,000 years ago and brought a period of unprecedented climate stability — which of course we are now threatening.

He quotes this extraordinary poem written by Ovid in 60 B.C.:

earth…had better things to offer — crops without cultivation,
fruit on the bough, honey in the hollow oak.

no one tore the ground with ploughshares
or parcelled out the land
or swept the sea with dipping oars —

the shore was the world’s end.
clever human nature, victim of your inventions,
disastrously creative,
why cordon cities with towered walls?
why arm for war?

He describes the “unsavoury truth that until the mid-19th century most cities were death traps, seething with disease, vermin and parasites. Average life expectancy in ancient Rome was only 19 years”,  This is consistent with Richard Manning’s research findings in Against the Grain.  He explains:

Each time history repeats itself, the price goes up…In civilizations, population always grows until it hits the bounds of the food supply, and all civilizations become hierarchical — the upward concentration of wealth ensures that there can never be enough to go around…Human inability to foresee or watch out for long-range consequences may be inherent to our kind, shaped by the millions of years when we lived from hand to mouth by hunting and gathering. It may also be little more than a mix of inertia, greed and foolishness encouraged by the shape of the evolutionary social pyramid. The concentration of power at the top of large-scale societies gives the elite a vested interest in the status quo; they continue to prosper in darkening times long after the environment and general populace begin to suffer.

Another revelation of the book is the state of the Americas when they were pillaged by Europeans 500 years ago. At that time, civilization was as advanced in the new world as in the old, and the ‘conquering’ of the Europeans was only possible because of the devastation caused by smallpox and other diseases to which Native Americans had no immunity. “[By 1500] all temperate zones of the US were thickly settled by farming peoples. When the Pilgrims arrived in Massachusetts, the Indians had died out so recently that the whites found empty cabins, winter corn, and cleared fields — ‘widowed acres’ — waiting for their use: a foretoken of the colonists’ parasitic advance across the continent. “Europeans did not find a wilderness here”, US historian Francis Jennings has written, “they made one”.

At the end of the book, Wright quotes from Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake:

One of her characters asks, “As a species we’re doomed by hope, then?” By hope? Well, yes. Hope drives us to invent new fixes for old messes, which in turn create ever more dangerous messes. Hope elects the politician with the biggest empty promise; and as any stockbroker or lottery seller knows, most of us will take a slim hope over prudent and predictable frugality. Hope, like greed, fuels the engine of capitalism.

That takes us to the present day, where the “concentration of power at the top” continues to hoard resources, steal from everyone else, ruthlessly suppress opposition, and prospers as the environment and the general populace suffer. And we, strange creatures of our disconnected and self-made culture, cling desperately to the hope and false assurances that we will be saved by our gods, or our ingenuity, that what we are doing to our world is beyond our control, is not our fault, not our responsibility, and is not so bad in the global scheme of things anyway.

The idea that the human race has, under the harsh rules of Darwin, bred compassion out of the gene pool in favour of more ‘successful’ savagery, and that it is this ruthless and relentless violence, rather than our ‘superior’ intelligence, that has led to our staggering numbers, is not new. But it casts the lessons of our history in a different, and darker, light. It is serious enough trying to deal with one fatal character flaw — our propensity to hope things will get better without the need for radical change or the learning of lessons from history. Add a second fatal character flaw — a preference for murder and genocide over more peaceful and compassionate solutions — and the outlook gets much bleaker. Perhaps this explains the finding that the best informed people in modern society tend to be the least optimistic. Fortunately, they also tend to be the most determined to make things better. Power struggle, anyone?

Postscript: There are two interesting on-line interviews with Wright here and here.

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7 Responses to A Short History of Progress

  1. KevinG says:

    I read both of these books recently. When I finished this one I thought briefly: maybe the neocons are right — in a world with too many people and too few resources maybe ensuring your spot at the top of the heap is a more appropriate response than equitable distribution and reduced consumption.There appears to be no precedent in western society of large communities making long term strategic decisions in preference to material accumulation. With China and India apparently intent on emulating the wealth and consumption patterns of the West what possible societal force can change the inevitable conclusion?Sorry, just not very optimistic today.

  2. I heard Father John Dominic Crossan, author of “In Search of Paul : How Jesus’ Apostle Opposed Rome’s Empire with God’s Kingdom”, interviewed on the radio a few months ago. I haven’t read the book, but Father Crossan made a remark that’s stuck with me. He said that, as a species, we are addicted to violence. This rang so true for me. I was driving the car at the time and practically had to pull over.So there’s serious work to do, and, as many others have said, my work needs to start with me.Dave, I appreciate you presenting the reviews. That in itself is helpful.

  3. Life Tenant says:

    As you describe it, Wright’s thesis that evolution has favored human ‘savagery’ and eliminated compassion is absurd. You could just as easily say the opposite, that human cultures have competed successfully through cooperation and nurturing, particularly with respect to other species. Sure, the expansion of our population and economy has extinguished some other species. But most human cultures, including those most dominant today, have succeeded by cooperation and nurturing with domesticated symbiotic species, most prominently grains and ungulates but including a diversity of other leaf-bearing plants, mammals, birds, microorganisms (wine, brewer’s and baker’s yeast) and even insects insects (e.g. silkworms). These symbiotes depend heavily, in some cases completely, on humans for their reproduction and growth – and we give them what they need, whereupon they have flourished and spread around the globe. The growth of human population and continued survival of the species – which is how biology defines ‘success’ for a species – has depended utterly on the propagation and expression in the human population of the inclination and skills involved in caring for and nurturing other species. It may be that no animal has destroyed more of its fellow Terrans than have humans, if you leave out the aerobic microorganisms who injected poisonous oxygen into Earth’s Archaen atmosphere, but it is also true that few animals have so assiduously nurtured, multiplied, evolved and distributed other plant and animal species, from amaranth to zucchini. The only other creatures that come close are ants, which ‘farm’ leaves, fungus and insects on a global scale, but we, unlike them, have nurturing intent as well as behavior. But query who has manipulated who more effectively in the human-wheat relationship – look at the lengths we go to to take care of that plant. Look at how many family routines are organized around the needs and wants of dogs and cats. To reduce all these relationships to the concept of ‘subjugation’ would be neither imaginative nor humble. The fantasy that the ‘harsh rules of Darwin’ favor savagery and breed out compassion is just that, a fantasy, like the social Darwinism of the 19th century which still imbues right-wing ‘thinking’ today. The current biological understanding is, however, that organisms can and do thrive and evolve through mutually beneficial exchange. Humans are no exception to this principle.

  4. Dave Pollard says:

    Kevin: Me neither. But the more informed and more pessimistic I get, the more determined I get to do something about it.Bill: I’m increasingly concluding also that my work needs to start with me. It’s apparent I don’t have the critical skills (and, as I describe in my post today on Appreciative Inquiry etc. the knowledge of practices) to be of much use in the trenches.Subdude: Er…I guess that would be the “glass half full” way of looking at it. You’re right, “The current biological understanding is that organisms can and do thrive and evolve through mutually beneficial exchange”. But we are very notable exceptions to this principle. There is no interest in mutuality in our exploitation of farmed animals, our poisoning of the water and air, our razing of forests to plant chemical-soaked starches, our paving and otherwise using up so much land that only humans and a dozen domesticated animal species and a few dozen domesticated plant species, and the weeds, insects and rodents that feed on them, can be said to be ‘thriving’ while every other species, and the entire global ecosystem, is threatened with extinction. This is ‘mutually beneficial’?

  5. Jon Husband says:

    remarkable book, imo

  6. Life Tenant says:

    Dave, it’s not a question of whether the glass is half full or half empty, my point is that Wright is peering through a cloudy glass, darkly. He’s dressing up moralizing as science. The social Darwinists of the 19th century misinterpreted evolutionary biology to justify the existing social order; Wright misinterprets it in order to criticize the established order. In both cases, it is a fundamentally dishonest and misleading exercise. Wright’s moralizing in scientific clothing is no more science than is the story of Noah and the flood. If you think that human expansion and appropriation of the world’s ecosystem is a bad thing, just say so. Don’t be embarrassed to hold a moral or an aesthetic judgment. But don’t pretend that you are making a scientific claim about what is natural or unnatural. And don’t pretend that the so-called ‘harsh rules of Darwin’ somehow force all humans to be brutal all the time, when the empirical evidence is right before our eyes that most people are nurturing and helpful, even altruistic, toward others, including other species, much of the time. My point was that you can talk biology, and you can talk morality – personally I think we should talk about both, and both are important – but don’t muddle the two together. In biological terms, human relationships with domesticated animals and plants are obviously to mutual benefit, any way you look at it – as a species, over time, we have enhanced these species’ biomass, the number of individuals, and the genetic diversity (though on that latter score we’ve backslid in recent times). Yes, some farm animals suffer, but they are only some of the animals we nurture, and suffering is not unnatural – nature is chock full of suffering, of what we would call cruelty, of uncaringness; nature is all about mass death, indeed mass death factors into one of the classic ecological strategies for reproduction. In biological terms there’s nothing special about the pain we cause other species – Gaia is full ofparasitism, predation, and disease, which causes ‘higher’ animals pain, sometimes severe pain. We just manage to do it on a large scale because we are a numerous species – a successful species, in ecological terms. Yes, our growing population and consumption may cause our population to crash, and may disrupt ecosystems, even at the global level – but that is not ‘unnatural’ – it is merely unusual. The planetary ecosystem – let’s call her Gaia for short – will survive; diversity will rebound; it may take a few millions years, but that is not long for Gaia. Other species have surged and extinguished fellow species, as in the aerobic revolution in the Archaean Era. Life on Earrth goes on. We are special because we can make moral and aesthetic judgments of a refinement no other life-form on this planet can manage, but in biological terms we are just another animal. That duality is our struggle – we should embrace it, not obscure it through dissembling.David aka Subdude aka LifeTenant

  7. Paris says:

    Life Tenant:On a moral scale is it really more important to you than some rich humans are nice to yeast, foxes, dogs and rats, while enslaving billions of starving other humans??The humans are more dangerous their own specie than to the crops, and animal they thrive on, for obvious reasons: pigs are no competitors unlike any other homo sapiens.On the same note haven’t you realised how people are nicer to travellers than to their neighbors? the warmfully welcome, feed and house the former, while leaving the latter homeless, foodless, and sometimes even insulted ??Same result, for a same reason: a traveller is no competitor, he won’t take their land, or daughters, cause tomorrow he’ll be gone some other place, but their poor neighbors are competitors, and the poorer they stay, the less threatening they appear…That’s this logic of competition, based on individual property and hirerachical societies that’s threatening our human survival in the next decades, but maybe y’oure too old to bother about that Life Tenant?

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