Historical progress is the advancement in science, technology, economics, politics, and quality of life over years, decades, and centuries. If human well-being has increased along with such improvement, that is moral progress1 and as such good for humanity.
Part 1 of this article argues that historical progress is real. Humans have substantially improved their lives over the course of history.
Part 2 investigates whether historical progress coincides with moral progress. Have people become happier, or have they lost meaning in life and become more depressed?
Part 3 discusses concerns about civilization itself. What if historical progress is unpreferable to prehistoric life? Could all of human history since the Neolithic Revolution have been petty tinkering with a fundamentally flawed system that should be abandoned altogether?
1. Historical Progress
The progress humans have made in science and technology is obvious, but what about economics, politics, and human life? The following sections (1.1-1.6) demonstrate how much human life has improved on multiple objectively measurable dimensions. All numbers are drawn from figures in Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now (2018).
1.1. Life & Health
On average, people live longer and healthier lives:
|↑ life expectancy||30 → 70 years||World (1770-2015)|
|↑ healthy life||56.8 → 60.6 years||World (1990-2010)|
|↓ dementia||¼ less diagnoses, 1.7 years later in life||US (2000-2012)|
|↓ child mortality||30+% → <1%; 25% → 10% of children under 5 years||Europe (1750-2010); sub-Saharan Africa (1960-2015)|
|↓ maternal mortality||1.2% → 0.004%; 1.25% → 0.3% of births||Europe (1750-2010); Ethiopia (1990-2010)|
|↓ lethal infections||250-1,700 → 200-1,100 yearly child deaths from various infectious diseases||World (2000-2013)|
Vitality has improved as well. Due to advances in health and medicine, the additional years people live today are not dormant years of infirmity.
1.2. Sustenance & Wealth
The global citizen has more to eat and more material wealth than ever before in human history:
|↑ calories per person||2,200 → 2,700 per day||World (1960-2010)|
|↓ childhood stunting||38% → 12%; 38% → 8% of children||Colombia (1965-2010); China (1987-2010)|
|↓ malnourishment||35% → 13% of people||Developing world (1970-2015)|
|↑ wealth||<1 → <1 → 1 → 100+ trillion international dollars||World (1-1600-1800-2000)|
|↑ GDP per capita||1,000 → 15,000 international dollars||World (1820-2015)|
|↓ extreme poverty||89% → 8% of people||World (1820-2015)|
|↑ social spending||<1% → 17-32% of GDP||OECD countries (1900-2010)|
But don’t the rich get richer while the poor get poorer? Beyond poverty, inequality is only a problem for people with a scarcity mindset incapable of thinking beyond zero-sum games. How the pie is sliced doesn’t matter so much if it’s constantly getting bigger. Economic growth might benefit some people more than others, but if everybody benefits, we’re in a positive-sum game. In reality, the rich get richer and the poor get richer, too—just not as much; but still enough to make it a win-win situation, because the past was definitely harsher for poor people.
What about relative deprivation—the idea that poor people suffer stress, envy, and status anxiety from comparing themselves to others who are better off? On a societal scale, people’s happiness is barely influenced by social comparisons. As long as there isn’t unfairness or extreme poverty, inequality doesn’t matter for human well-being.2
1.3. Peace & Safety
The world has become a safer, less violent place:
|↓ great power war||75-100% → 0% of years||World (1500-2000)|
|↓ battle deaths||20+ → <1 per 100k people per year||World (1950-2010)|
|↓ homicide deaths||8.8 → 6.2 per 100k people per year||World (2000-2012)|
|↓ motor vehicle accidents||24 → 1 deaths per 100 million vehicle miles||US (1921-2015)|
|↓ pedestrian deaths||12 → 2 per 100k people per year||US (1937-2015)|
|↓ plane crash deaths||4.8 → 0.05 per million passengers per year||World (1970-2015)|
|↓ fire & drowning deaths||8 → 1 per 100k people per year||US (1915-2015)|
|↓ occupational accidents||60 → 4 deaths per 100k workers per year||US (1915-2015)|
|↓ natural disaster deaths||20 → 2 per 100k people per year||World (1915-2015)|
|↓ lightning deaths||5-6 → 0.1 per million people per year||US (1900-2015)|
Terrorism, by the way, is mostly a media phenomenon:
- In Western countries, lighting, bathtubs, hot tap water, and apocrita (wasps & bees) separately kill more people than terrorists.
- Globally, for every one person who dies in a terrorist attack, 11 people die in a homicide and 30 in a car crash.
- Western Europeans, despite their problems with radical Islam, are 723 times more likely to die in an accident than from terrorism.
Steven Pinker has been criticized for his chapter on environmental progress,3 but some of his data are still notable:
|↓ population growth rate||0.6% → 2.1% → 1.2% (→ 0.4%)||World (1750-1960-2010(-2050))|
|↓ pollution||-60% change (despite increase in population and vehicle miles)||US (1970-2015)|
|↓ deforestation||400 → 0 million hectares of temperate forest||World (1700-2010)|
|↓ number of oil spills||100+ → 5 (despite increase in oil shipped by sea)||World (1973-2016)|
|↑ protected areas||5/8% → 12/14% of water/land||World (1990-2014)|
|↓ carbon intensity||0 → 0.6 → 0.3 CO2 emissions per dollar of GDP||World (1820-2014)|
For Pinker, resource sustainability is not a major problem because humans have so far always managed to find new and better resources before the old ones were depleted.
Climate change, by contrast, is a serious issue, though not one that disproves the idea of progress; instead, it demands that we work hard and creatively to achieve progress in that area, too.
1.5. Democracy & Liberal Values
Freedom and political equality have radically improved, and they are progressing even in the most backward cultures on earth:
|↑ democracy score||-7 → 3.5||World (1800-2015)|
|↑ death penalty abolitions||0 → 103 countries||World (1863-2016)|
|↓ executions||0.85 → <0.1 per 100k people||US (1780-2016)|
|↓ racist, sexist, and homophobic opinions||30-50% → 10-25% of people||US (1987-2012)|
|↓ racist, sexist, and homophobic Google searches||50-80 → 5-15 relative frequency of searches for “nigger jokes,” “bitch jokes,” and “fag jokes”||US (2004-2017)|
|↓ anti-black hate crimes||3,700 → 1,700 incidents||US (1996-2015)|
|↓ rape & sexual assault||750 → 200 victims per 100k women per year||US (1993-2014)|
|↓ domestic violence||1,500 → 350 victims per 100k women per year||US (1993-2014)|
|↑ decriminalization of homosexuality||0 → 100+ countries||World (1790-2016)|
|↑ liberal values (Emancipative Values Index)||0.22 → 0.6; 0.05 → 0.27||Protestant Western Europe; Islamic Middle East & North Africa (1960-2006)|
|↓ child abuse||210 → 90 victims of sexual; 350 → 130 victims of physical abuse per 100k children per year||US (1993-2012)|
|↓ violence at school||900 → 100 victims per 100k children per year||US (1993-2010)|
|↓ child labor||27% → 10% of 5-17-year-olds||World (1950-2010)|
Liberalism is thus not a leftist ideology, but a general civilizational tendency.
1.6. Knowledge & Quality of Life
As people are getting smarter and more educated, they also become freer to spend their time and resources on things they actually enjoy:
|↑ basic education||18% → 80% of adults||World (1820-2010)|
|↑ schooling duration||4 → 13; 0 → 6.5 years||US; India (1870-2010)|
|↑ intelligence||1 → 27 additional IQ points relative to 1909||World (1920-2015)|
|↓ time spent working||60 → 40 hours; 65 → 35 hours per week||US; Western Europe (1870-2000)|
|↑ retirement||25% → 75% of men over 65 years||US (1880-2010)|
|↓ household chores||60 → 15 hours of housework per week||US (1900-2015)|
|↓ spending on necessities||60% → 33% of income||US (1930-2016)|
|↑ leisure time||30 → 36 hours for women; 32 → 41 hours for men per week||US (1965-2015)|
|↑ international tourism||0.55 → 1.2 billion arrivals||World (1995-2015)|
Does the increase in leisure and disposable income not lead to consumerism? Yes, but consumerism is not necessarily as shallow and soul-deadening as it is usually presented.4 With freedom and self-discipline, people can choose what they consume. Sure, they might choose to consume junk food, social media, and mindless entertainment, but they might also choose to consume books, good food, performance coaching, family events, and novel experiences. What they choose is secondary. That they can choose is what matters.
Now the skeptic will ask, “Do greater freedom and objective progress in quality of life translate into actual happiness and subjective well-being? Is our hard-won freedom not empty? Are our liberal opportunities not hollow, meaningless, or even depressing?”
2. Moral Progress
Historical progress is only good for us if it coincides with moral progress, improving human flourishing and maximizing our psychological well-being. For example, if wealth made people lonely, if peace impoverished people’s spirits with dull materialism, if modernity made people suicidal, or if liberal values turned out to oppose meaning, then historical progress would deviate from moral progress and thus be bad for humanity. Is that the case? Does historical progress lead to unhappiness, depression, suicide, and meaninglessness?
We have already seen that quality of life, which is crucial for happiness, has improved (more health, knowledge, freedom, leisure, etc.). So objectively, our psychological well-being cannot be catastrophic. Moreover, life satisfaction increases with income and, as shown in 1.2., the world population is getting richer. As a result, humanity is getting happier.
Subjectively, we could still feel pretty sad, but do we?5 According to World Values Survey, 86% of people say they are “rather happy” or “very happy.” Americans haven’t gotten systematically happier over the years, but they are outliers from a positive global trend, and no more than 10% of them rate themselves as less than “pretty happy.”
Are modern people constantly harried? Between 1965 and 2010, there have been ups and downs in how rushed people feel without there being a consistent trend.6 Even social media use does not per se elevate levels of stress.7
Have individualism and the Internet generated an epidemic of loneliness? Objectively, “Americans today spend as much time with relatives, have the same median number of friends and see them about as often, report as much emotional support, and remain as satisfied with the number and quality of their friendships as their counterparts in [the 1970s].”8 Subjectively, American college and high school students report less feelings of loneliness than in earlier decades.9
Why would we even assume that we are becoming more miserable? That’s because we are subject to a host of cognitive biases like the Optimism Gap, the human tendency to think, “I’m happy, they’re not,” which leads people to reliably judge their fellow countrymen as less happy than they actually are.
Importantly, we must not forget that happiness as a feeling of pleasure is a biochemical process. We cannot expect this process to be affected greatly by historical developments, because they do not substantially alter the human genome. Conversely, we should expect that there is a ceiling to how happy people can get without having their brains manipulated. This would explain why the relatively rich citizens of developed countries aren’t getting happier and happier. Barring neurotechnological developments, historical progress cannot make humans happier indefinitely.
Nonetheless, critics will argue that, far from having reached a peak in human happiness, citizens of developed countries are becoming mentally ill, particularly depressed, in increasingly larger numbers. Is that true?
- Older generations reporting less depressive episodes might just remember them less, and the most depressed among them may be biasing samples by killing themselves off.
- The data is skewed by intense efforts to raise awareness and destigmatize depression.
- Some therapies and government services require beneficiaries to be diagnosed with depression, which inflates the number of diagnoses.
- The pharmaceutical industry has a stake in making people doubt their mental health, which boosts antidepressant sales.
- The threshold for what officially counts as a mental illness gets lower and lower.
- Our emotional vocabulary has moved steadily towards pathology: in earlier times, people experienced sadness, melancholy, sorrow, and grief; today, it’s all called depression.
According to a comprehensive systematic review, there is “no evidence for an increased prevalence of anxiety disorders or MDD [major depression disorder]” from 1990 to 2010.12
Suicide rates are another objective indicator of psychological well-being. If they have risen over the decades, the reality moral progress would be dubious. But they have not risen:
- We do not have much historical data, but the data we do have show small declines in suicide in England, Switzerland, and the US from 1860 to 2014.13
- No developed Western country is among the world top ten for suicide rates, so progress does not seem to be positively associated with suicide.14
More recent trends from 1999 through 2014, however, show that suicides in the US increased from 10.5 to 13.0 deaths per 100.000 people.15
It is also worth noting that suicide rates plunge during periods of war, presumably because war gives people a strong sense of purpose and belonging, the essential ingredients to create meaning in life. This raises two further questions: Could suffering, as in war, be vital for happiness insofar as it forestalls meaning deprivation? Is historical progress not ultimately heading for total meaninglessness?
Meaning (feeling fulfilled), in contrast to pleasure (feeling good), is the long-term aspect of happiness that comes from purpose and belonging. This form of happiness is independent of historical progress because health, wealth, peace, safety, material comfort, freedom from oppression, and leisure do not automatically improve people’s meaning in life. In fact, we can easily imagine scenarios where the fruits of modernity impair meaning; for example, people with most comfortable lives who are notoriously drawn to nihilism and into existential crises.
Since social belonging—maybe even tribalism—is vital to meaning in life, we can expect the individualistic nature of liberal progress to deprive us of meaning. This is the essence of Andrew Sullivan’s critique of Steven Pinker:
As we have slowly and surely attained more progress, we have lost something that undergirds all of it: meaning, cohesion, and a different, deeper kind of happiness than the satiation of all our earthly needs. […] We are species built on tribe; yet we live increasingly alone in societies so vast and populous our ancestors would not recognize them; we are a species designed for scarcity and now live with unimaginable plenty; we are a species built on religious ritual to appease our existential angst, and yet we now live in a world where every individual has to create her own meaning from scratch; we are a species built for small-scale monocultural community and now live increasingly in multiracial, multicultural megacities.
I have written about this problem before on this blog:
- Why Freedom Isn’t What You Think It Is (Modernity Vs. Tradition)
- How to Maximize Happiness in Society
- On Goodness, Happiness, and Meaning in Life
In Steven Pinker’s view, meaning allows liberals to keep pursuing progress for even greater well-being in a developed world where we have already reached peak pleasure. While there might be an upper limit to happiness as a feeling, there is no upper limit to happiness as meaning and fulfillment. He believes that progress does not tarnish, but reinforces meaning. Here is his rationale:
Since 1973 the General Social Survey has asked Americans whether they find life “exciting,” “routine,” or “dull” [and found that] over the decades in which fewer Americans said they were “very happy,” more of them said that “life is exciting.” […] Recall that people who feel they lead meaningful lives are more susceptible to stress, struggle, and worry. Consider as well that anxiety has always been a perquisite of adulthood: it rises steeply from the school-age years to the early twenties as people take on adult responsibilities, and then falls steadily over the rest of the life course as they learn to cope with them. Perhaps that is emblematic of the challenges of modernity. Though people today are happier, they are not as happy as one might expect, perhaps because they have an adult’s appreciation of life, with all its worry and all its excitement. (Steven Pinker, 2018, Enlightenment Now, pp. 288f.)
For Pinker, an increase in excitement indicates an increase in meaning and therefore an increase in well-being. Accordingly, a liberal plan for moral progress could be to, first, help developing countries become developed and, second, make life in developed countries more exciting. If excitement is an indicator of meaning, liberal progressivism seems like good idea, also because:
- It aims at win-win scenarios that make everybody better off.
- It has freedom at its foundation, including the freedom to live a more traditional life.
- It has an inbuilt purpose, namely the heroic quest for human flourishing, which creates meaning for all humanists.
Personally, I doubt that excitement can constitute meaning because I see it tied to the hedonistic, short-term aspect of happiness. Meaning, however, is eudaimonic, long-term happiness. It may well come from a humanistic purpose, but it also comes from traditional and identitarian purposes. And humanists who condemn, deny, or belittle these sources of meaning will ultimately work against their own agenda.
In my opinion, historical qua moral progress should focus less on overcoming traditions and more on reinventing traditions so that we can benefit from their meaningfulness without suffering from their oppressive structures. This is what I call Neotraditionalism: using the wisdom of seasoned traditions (religions, gender roles, hero archetypes, ethnic tribalism, etc.) to inform rational, evidence-based humanistic pursuits.16 But… what if all progress, all history, all civilization has been a foundational error, has been the Original Mistake?
3. Beyond Civilization
Even if both historical and moral progress are real, this doesn’t imply that history itself has been a progress over prehistory. Is a civilized life really better than the primordial life of a hunter-gatherer? Is farming (or letting others farm for you) better than foraging? What if civilization is one gigantic scam, betraying human nature since 10,000 BC?
It almost seems as if, rather than improving the original human condition, much of our historical progress has merely rectified the ills caused by the Agricultural Revolution. Most diseases, for example, are diseases of civilization, of living penned up in buildings that primarily promote bacterial, not human flourishing.17 Progress in medicine helps us to better deal with diseases, but without sedentarization we would not need that much medicine in the first place.
But aren’t sustenance and quality of life the main advantages of civilization? No, they are not:
Rather than heralding a new era of easy living, the Agricultural Revolution left farmers with lives generally more difficult and less satisfying than those of foragers. Hunter-gatherers spent their time in more stimulating and varied ways, and were less in danger of starvation and disease. The Agricultural Revolution certainly enlarged the sum total of food at the disposal of humankind, but the extra food did not translate into a better diet or more leisure. Rather, it translated into population explosions and pampered elites. The average farmer worked harder than the average forager, and got a worse diet in return. The Agricultural Revolution was history’s biggest fraud. (Yuval Noah Harari, 2015, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, p. 79)
Consider further the numerous examples of Westerners who left civilization to join a hunter-gatherer tribe, while hardly any hunter-gatherers ever chose to leave their tribe for a modern lifestyle:
It may say something about human nature that a surprising number of Americans—mostly men—wound up joining Indian society rather than staying in their own. They emulated Indians, married them, were adopted by them, and on some occasions even fought alongside them. And the opposite almost never happened: Indians almost never ran away to join white society. Emigration always seemed to go from the civilized to the tribal, and it left Western thinkers flummoxed about how to explain such an apparent rejection of their society. (Sebastian Junger, 2016, Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, p. 2)
A simple life beyond civilization is naturally in line with evolved reward mechanisms. It organically promotes human flourishing across all major dimensions: social belonging through deep attachment to a tribe, living in harmony with nature, moving as humans evolved to move, and eating foods the body evolved to nourish itself on.
Evolution moulded our minds and bodies to the life of hunter-gatherers. The transition first to agriculture and then to industry has condemned us to living unnatural lives that cannot give full expression to our inherent inclinations and instincts, and therefore cannot satisfy our deepest yearnings. Nothing in the comfortable lives of the urban middle class can approach the wild excitement and sheer joy experienced by a forager band on a successful mammoth hunt. (Yuval Noah Harari, 2015, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, p. 378)
In addition, primal living keeps artificial stress and anxiety at a minimum because foragers’ inability to prepare for the future makes them be more present to the moment. Unlike farmers who must plan anxiously to survive harsh winters, hunter-gatherers don’t have to worry about things they can’t control anyway.
There is only one big problem with all this. The romantic retour à la nature is not an option for modern societies. Here’s why:
- Modern people lack the instincts and primal expertise needed to survive, let alone flourish in pristine natural environments. For example, instead of learning how to use bow and arrow and escape dangers in the wild, we grow up learning how to use smartphones and prevent accidents in traffic.
- Untouched natural environments, if they exist, are rare in the developed world. Going back to nature would not reverse urbanization, but create ghost towns. It would fail to supply modern populations and their enormous sizes with enough wild lands for roaming and hunting.
- It is not a coincidence that humans settled down, developed agriculture, and built civilizations. Humans are driven to grow and progress, to innovate and improve. If civilization collapsed tomorrow, what could prevent us from rebuilding it the day after? Although a simple life has its merits, the very existence of civilizations proves that the trade-off between a simple life and an easy life cannot be that bad, or that the evolutionary pressure to create more copies of one’s genes is too strong for humans to resist.
Still, even though going back to nature is not an option for us modern humans, we can learn a lot from primal lifestyles about how to improve our well-being in civilized environments: move in nature, connect with people in local communities, sleep and wake in biological rhythms, eat natural foods, and seek temporary physical struggle through fasting and high-intensity exercise.
While we need not forgo all technology and all the comforts of modernity, nothing will promote our well-being better than doing what the human body evolved to do. Such is the Neotraditional approach to human flourishing. Apply the science, respect the tradition, and honor the ancestors!
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- Morality here is defined humanistically: good is what promotes human flourishing (maximizes the well-being of humans), which is a somewhat restrictive form of utilitarianism (good is what maximizes the well-being of sentient creatures).
- Steven Pinker, 2018, Enlightenment Now, pp. 100ff.
- See George Monbiot, 2018, Contrary to Reason.
shallowconsumerism even a word?
- Feelings, though subjective, can be measured objectively. In philosophical terms, we can investigate ontologically subjective phenomena with epistemic objectivity (see John R. Searle, 1990, The Mystery of Consciousness). Scientifically, we know that self-reports on happiness reliably correlate with objective indexes of happiness like smiling, buoyant demeanor, activity in brain areas that also respond to cuteness, and judgments by other people. Therefore, we can use studies based on subjective self-ratings to objectively measure population well-being.
- John P. Robinson, 2013, Americans Less Rushed But No Happier: 1965–2010 Trends in Subjective Time and Happiness, Social Indicators Research 111 (3), pp. 1091–1104
- Keith Hampton et al., 2015, Social Media and the Cost of Caring, Pew Research Center
- Steven Pinker, 2018, Enlightenment Now, p. 275
- D. Matthew T. Clark et al., 2014, Declining Loneliness Over Time, Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 41 (1), pp. 78-89
- E.g., World Health Organization, 2017, Depression and Other Common Mental Disorders: Global Health Estimates
- Steven Pinker, 2018, Enlightenment Now, p. 280-283
- Amanda J. Baxter et al., 2014, Challenging the myth of an “epidemic” of common mental disorders: trends in the global prevalence of anxiety and depression between 1990 and 2010, Depression and Anxiety 31 (6), pp. 506-516
- Steven Pinker, 2018, Enlightenment Now, fig. 18-3
- Wikipedia, List of countries by suicide rate
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Health Statistics, Increase in Suicide in the United States, 1999–2014
- For more on Neotraditionalism, read How to Maximize Happiness in Society and On Goodness, Happiness, and Meaning in Life.
- On the other hand, rates of violence and child mortality are higher in nomadic societies than in modern ones.