For most of my life as a thinking individual I’ve struggled with two opposing ideas: On the one hand, humans are horrible–taken as a species–both self-serving and self-destructive, weirdly.   And yet they are at the same time extraordinary, overcoming obstacles over and over–from way, way back into prehistory, when we (I use the term loosely) avoided extinction against all the odds, repeatedly, proving ourselves to be, in Richard Dawkins’ term, “survival machines.”  Given our evolutionary history what is progress and have we experienced it in a meaningful manner?  Now, surging into the twenty-first century, there are truly staggering glimmers of what the future might look like–both dreadful (what some have referred to as “Nightfall”) and glorious–if scary– (“the Singularity;” see Ian Morris or Ray Kurtzweiler for more on these).

Are we, then, a selfish, stupid ape bent on destruction, or a demi-god bound for glory?

The question overlaps with another huge historical question about progress: To what, if any, extent can we see it in History? Have we made things better for ourselves, for the planet? (certainly not the latter–although the planet as far as we know has no consciousness, so what does it matter?). Or have we bankrupted our environment and cursed our progeny to a life in the Stone-Age?

The trouble is that there is ample evidence for both arguments. A good place to see both sides is in historians’ assessments of imperialism. In the nineteenth century, several European powers expanded their sphere of influence dramatically; what ensued once Europe went global were bloodbaths and progressive revolutions in equal measure–the making of the modern world in all its guts and glory, with all its soaring triumphs and squalid realities.

Britain, for example, having originally made inroads into India in the eighteenth century in a private way, via the East India Company, ended up controlling the entire sub-continent of 300 million people with a force of under 100,000, many of whom were civilians–bureaucrats, servants, and women and children.  And the British empire is a great example for our debate: there is plenty of evidence that Brits were responsible for the killing–actively or passively–of millions of native peoples (British economic policies in Bengal, which they conquered in 1764, were responsible for some 10 million deaths through starvation). Their racist administration oppressed those with darker skin, and their businesses carted off millions of tons of raw materials out of which to squeeze a profit for their investors in London. Profit drove expansion, but science was a willing handmaiden, and oftentimes an enabler, as much of the profits derived from the advances in transportation and weaponry. Meanwhile an ideology of white, Christian, British, superiority rendered it all perfectly acceptable.

And yet there is also plenty of evidence that the British, along with other European empires, created the modern world as we know it, and saved millions of lives into the bargain, through medicine, technology and law. Edward Jenner, the inventor of vaccines, comes to mind here–one of the early breakthroughs of the scientific revolution. They pushed the limits of human knowledge via their pursuit of a uniquely European approach to science, or rather a uniquely European approach to the world, that of “Science”–a new methodology born of the seventeenth century. (Yes there were glimmers of science before, ancient Greeks, Arabs,etc.,  but this was usually astronomy in place of astrology, philosophy in place of physics, alchemy in place of chemistry, and mythology in place of biology–Aristotle ranked women  just above slaves in the natural hierarchy of beings). Scientific thinking  de-coupled knowledge from religion, and allowed people to ask questions without reference to any sacred compendium of answers.

While Brits were busy conquering and controlling, they were also cataloguing–languages, geographies, ethnologies, flora and fauna. It was the British (not the Mughals, Sikhs, or Delhi Sultans who preceded them as conquerors–and who were equally horrible to their underlings) who, stumbling across the ruins of Mohenjo-Daro, India’s first great civilization, thought to dig it up, analyze it and document it for posterity–just as other Europeans were doing in Africa, the Middle East and Asia.

No one, anywhere in the world, had hitherto deemed it useful or interesting to ask where these gargantuan ruins all came from. William Jones, who served as a judge in Bengal in the eighteenth century, set up the Asiatic Society to study cultures, histories and languages of Asia. Noting the multiple similarities between different languages, his studies led to him identifying the Indo-European family of languages, thus founding the modern science of linguistics. In Persia, a British army officer named Henry Rawlinson deciphered the cuneiform script of the Achemaenid empire (working in his spare time) opening a door onto the ancient Middle Eastern world, which had been firmly closed as contemporary Persians moved around the ruins and inscriptions in their midst without probing them.  In the same cultural-scientific tradition, nineteenth-century Americans uncovered the Maya homeland, hacking behemoths such as Tikal and Chichen Itza out of their jungly graves and deciphering their scripts (eventually).

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Don’t misunderstand me; this is not to say that Euros, and their American descendants/cousins, are smarter or superior. It is to say that the scientific thinking originating in Europe in the seventeenth century gave rise to this kind of curiosity, which is now, I should point out, a global possession. While it may have been Europeans who pioneered such works of global heritage, such disciplines as they founded have all been adopted, and honed by non-Europeans today.

And here I will give the nod to the scientific traditions which preceded that of Europe–in particular the Arab/Islamic. Science, kind of; mathematical, certainly–Al Farabi, Ibn Sina, etc.

The Europeans did not invent or originate all of this, in other words, sui generis. They were, like most people and ideas, influenced by all the global interactions that we increasingly understand to have been happening, since way before the golden age of the Silk Road. Trade, we now know, has very ancient origins, and trade is what brought peoples together. (Herodotus writes about Carthaginian trade expeditions down the west coast of Africa, to places like Mali, in particular where they engaged in” dumb barter” we will talk about this on this blog at some point).

And don’t misunderstand me on this count either: I have read Edward Said’s Orientalism, and consider  it a valid critique: to a certain extent nineteenth century European scholars did not so much describe the “Orient” as invent it. Kind of. The British in India made assumptions about Mohenjo-Daro and the Harappan civilization–namely that they were military aristocracies, only because, well, British India was ruled by a military aristocracy, so they interpreted the world from their own perspective. As the current state of ancient Indian archaeology stands, it looks like the British were wrong, and there was more to Harappa than we thought. It is possible that it was far more egalitarian than assumed, and not the standard top-down system that the Brits were familiar with. But archaeologists still debate the nature of this particular civilization, since we have not deciphered the script.

There are those who will maintain that the “scientific paradigm” is and was always wholly imperialistic–knowledge is power, etc.  Scientific knowledge made possible, perhaps even necessitated European expansion. There is no doubt that the European project of “getting to know” the non-European world put them in a massively powerful position vis-a-vis the people they occupied. European expansion, from the fifteenth century onward was, afterall, prompted by economic and military competition, of one state against  another. Portuguese antics in the Indian Ocean in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries is a case in point. Profit fueled their exploration, underwrote their systematic approach to navigation, map-making and “trade.” Behind it all was the figure of the priest sanctifying the bloodletting.

The goal was initially China, the “Indies” and the riches that lay there. Exploration was undertaken with the full expectation of military action, it was a meme, part of the European modus operandi (these things change: once known for Vikings, the Scandinavians now give us Volvos and progressive politics). 

Even before the full unfolding of the Scientific Revolution, the Spanish conquistadores pursued enough knowledge to figure out the political lay of the land in the Valley of Mexico, sufficient to side with the Aztec’s enemies in order to defeat them. The Aztecs, had they had more information about their own backyard, might have been better prepared for the arrival of the Spanish on the mainland, given that they had been terrorizing the Caribbean for years before setting their sights on Veracruz. Knowledge, Montezuma had none when it came to what the weird palefaces wanted, or who on earth they were. And when Pizarro showed up in Peru, the Incas had never heard of the Aztecs, nor their fate, so were equally unprepared for Spanish deceit.

So far I’ve argued that even in historical eras and episodes that seem ugly, there are glimmers of something that looks like progress. These, we should point out, are not necessarily intentional; neither the British empire, nor the Han, Roman, Mongol, or any other, existed to better the conquered people. Empires resulted from expansionist and usually greedy policies of certain people–history itself in Ambrose Bierce’s words being made by knaves, fools and scoundrels. The results, however, were often positive in the long run–not for all individuals equally, but in the larger context of human welfare.  Larger polities often create peace, and warfare usually created larger polities, as the strong absorbed the weak.

Understand, here, that I am saying that regardless of your disdain, moral outrage, or disapproval of imperialism, ancient or modern, British or American, etc.,  imperial polities historically appear to have had considerable upsides if one dispassionately looks at the numbers. The ultimate example of this is Warring States China (450-221 bce). Roughly eight different polities battled with each other until there was one left (the Qin). This became the China of today. Now, some may argue that China as a polity has always been coercive, oppressive and detrimental to human welfare–in the aggregate. But there is also a substantial argument that, well, it hasn’t, that the unity of polity achieved by the chinese did, actually lift all boats–in the rising tide metaphor. State granaries opened up and fed thousands in times of drought and famine, repeatedly. Its markets created an economic unit far bigger than any regional state could have operated.   It is possible, then, to say that warfare has, over the long haul of human history, had a unifying effect, and to ask whether it is not possible that we will ultimately end up (50 years from now, 200?) with the kind of world government that Albert Einstein fervently believed was necessary, the nation-state, is after all, only the most recent iteration of a polity.


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But arguing the case against progress, or against the human-genius-position, one has to look long and hard at war, which has been incessant and widespread, despite its potential to bring peace.  Add to war the human penchant for inequality and the tendency of human societies to create environmental degradation, both stemming from human greed and avarice, and you have a perfect storm of horribleness.  This was the gist of my post from a few months ago talking about Jared Diamond’s idea that agriculture was a “mistake.” The mistake being that agriculture exiled us from the Eden that was the hunter-gatherer lifestyle, into the “Land of Nod” that was sedentary state society with its attendant conflicts and struggles and inequality–the “descent” of Man.

This goes way, way beyond imperialism. The exploits of Europeans around the world are simply another example of conquer and control, a human habit carried out by whomever had the wherewithal to do it. The Mongols, the Chinese, the Persians, the Arabs, the Ottomans, the Vikings, the Romans, the Vandals. You get the picture. The difference with the nineteenth-century Europeans was that they had revolutionary new technology and science which gave them an unprecedented edge, making their exploits much more extensive than previous conquerors.

Lets narrow the lens a little: We should make a distinction here, between pre-agricultural, agrarian and post-industrial societies. The Agriculture-as-mistake argument suggests that agriculture caused multiple downstream problems–in the Agrarian era (roughly 5000 BCE to the 1800s). After that Industrialization solved some (reductions in slavery–eventually medicine, transport, etc), but caused wholly new ones–or massively expanded existing ones (population explosion, environmental degradation, lifestyle diseases, rampant global inequality).

If the Industrial Revolution caused new problems or aggravated old ones, make no mistake, there was suffering aplenty in the agrarian period which preceded it.  Until very, very recently, few except the very rich had any “rights;” individuality, whatever that is, scarcely registered as a thing, as most humans on earth struggled to get the bare necessities for survival, let alone “self actualization.”  Security from hunger, rape, murder, war, etc., was very thin on the ground in pre-industrial societies. The state, in places where it existed, was usually run by a greedy oligarchy bent on preserving its own power at all costs. “Civil Society” did not exist–was not to be invented until the nineteenth century, although the Ancient Greeks for a short while had a few similar ideas–extended only to their citizens, who were only free-born men, no women, no slaves, please.   In Rome alone in the first century CE slaves comprised 30-40% of the population, and were largely denied membership in the human race. Women the world over were largely the property of their husbands and fathers with few or no rights whatever. This has only begun to very change recently, with many societies barely registering change at all.

If there was any benefit to living in a state (whose primary function was to tax and control you) it was accidental. This, however, may have been considerable. Steven Pinker, who has put forward the argument that states reduced violence, is probably right: You have to understand Hobbes to get this idea. Pre-state societies had no monopoly on violence. This meant that society existed usually as a series of tribal arrangements. Scholars differ (amazingly!) on the efficacy of tribal systems, but to say that pre-state societies were a free-for-all is manifestly not the case–as studies of any number of Native American pre-contact tribes will show.  But pre-state hunter-gatherer violence was a constant trickle, and tit-for-tat reprisals in many bands represented a considerable loss of overall population. States on the other hand had occasional all-out wars, but in-between lived in conditions of relative security (Pax Romana, for example, the first 100 years or so the the empire).

States concentrated violence in the agents of the state–police, army, etc. This created a major disincentive to violence. However, pre-modern states lacked the kind of power and reach that modern ones have, and so crimes often went un-punished. This is also why criminal gangs existed, and still do today, especially in states which are weak or failed.

One benefit of a strong state was indeed peace. As Monty Python made clear (What Have the Romans Ever Done for Us?), peace usually accompanied the accession of a strong-man to power. Just look at the Middle East which, absent several Arab-Israeli wars, sported multiple countries since 1918, most of them considerably peaceful, even if they did have vast security apparatuses to keep the regime in power.  Take out the Big Man, and Whamm! Lybia, Egypt, Syria, Iraq!

I mentioned the word accidental. If states exist to extract money from you and force you to fight for them, they usually conceded that they needed to give something back, and this has traditionally been security. If the Romans of Monty Python’s Palestine gave back roads, aqueducts, health care, and ultimately peace, others looked out for society’s weaker members: The Arthashastra of India’s Mauryan empire circa 300 BCE tells its people this: “No man shall have sexual intercourse with a woman against her will.” That is pretty progressive for the time period. Even the Romans couldn’t touch that for hundreds more years (ever, in fact).  Of course, owing to the aforementioned lack of state power in the ancient world, this was more of a guideline than a law, but it was at least put out there as a standard with state authorization. Similar injunctions were included in this book, along with specific punishments for men who abandoned wives, as well as laws allowing wives to abandon husbands in case of abuse. Here, then, are some very early glimmers of progressive light ushering from ancient states which otherwise seem like massive systems of oppression.

Talking of glimmers of light: Back again when “the state” was young, the “accidental” good it did its citizens came from the rational recognition that people who are un-molested are better tax payers.  What often seems like an ancient and medieval fact of life (unrelenting tax burdens) was not quite so cut-and-dried. A sensible ruler would find a happy medium–a tax burden that could be met without starving peasants to death, in other words.  This is an important point; until early modern times (maybe even modern times) money was made by taking it from other people. Sure, traders sold stuff and some amassed fortunes, but for rulers, the choice was between conquering and taxing (most chose both). When one had taxed to the max, it was time to conquer. This largely explains massive expansions by various peoples—the Mongols, the Muslims, and the Iberians of the fifteenth/sixteenth centuries.

Ultimately–even under the dastardly Mongols–when the conquering was over, peace ensued (pax Mongolica) and then those left standing had to be incorporated into the new body politic. Even the scions of Genghis Khan, such as Kubilai Khan, his grandson who ruled China, rejected the opinions of some of his advisors, who wanted to turn China into grazing land for Mongol ponies, and instead saw the benefits of a functioning society and a lucrative tax base–which was what China had always been for its rulers.

So the state, which was often repressive, had some benefits. It was also the birthplace of writing. Sumer and Egypt in particular pioneered writing systems first of all to keep track of stuff, as in accounting. Only later did people develop full alphabets to get poetic and start actually writing about their lives, or politics, myths, etc. (see Gilgamesh, written some 2000 years BCE). Of particular importance when it comes to writing is its ability to transfer knowledge–hence power–from generation to generation, vastly enhancing the scope and potential of learning, as the internet does today. Writing then, represents a kind of “J curve” moment, when things changed rapidly and momentously for the human species.

Alongside writing came mathematics. Arguably, this did not achieve anything really earth-shattering until the Scientific Revolution of the eighteenth century, when mathematicians like Newton began describing the world in mathematical as opposed to religious terms. Until that revolution most people looked to the religious traditions for all answers. If there was a question that was not answered by the religious texts then it was not worth asking.

But before the full-blown scientific revolution, math did produce engineering: Most mega-structures which resulted (Egyptian and Mayan pyramids, the temple compound at Angor Watt, etc), were largely put at the service of megalomaniacal rulers, warrior-kings, and ruling elites, so arguably they didn’t benefit the 99% of the population who built them and lived in their shadows.  This practice probably started with the tower of Jericho, believed to be some 9000 years old. Whether military or religious or both, the tower begs the question of who built it, and under what conditions (slavery? forced labor, service to a “lord?”), and what was it for?

Beyond burial chambers such as pyramids, or the mounds at Cahokia on the Mississippi, or Anasazi Great Houses, another case-in-point was Rome’s Coliseum, commissioned by Vespasian in 72 CE. Seen by millions as an icon of human progress, it was an engineering feat as well as an historical legacy. Yet the purpose of such an edifice was to host grizzly spectacles in which humans killed each other, killed wild animals, and were in turn killed by them. The purpose of this “entertainment” was largely to distract people from their poverty and the callousness of their rulers. Eleven thousand wild animals were killed there to celebrate Trajan’s conquest of Dacia in 106 CE. By the early centuries of the second millennium, elephant, rhino and zebra were extinct in North Africa and the Hippo entirely removed from the lower Nile. So much for Progress.

Other ancient mega structures were laid out according to solar or lunar sight lines, serving as calendars with additional supernatural relevance. For many amateur historians, these practices for some reason made them think aliens must have been involved, but the sun and moon–which were not understood in any but a mythical/religious sense in the pre-modern imagination–were always put in the service of the ruling elites and priestly classes, from Egypt to Tenochtitlan, to enhance their prestige (these two cultures in particular erecting pyramids with reference to celestial bodies).

But in the ancient world astrology stood in for astronomy–the modern science of studying the heavens. Ancient astrologers used their observations of celestial bodies to predict events for rulers. Commencing a military campaign or entering into a dynastic marriage alliance, from China to the Valley of Mexico, were best undertaken under auspicious conditions. Atop a variety of astrologically-aligned mega-structures, then, leaders strutted their stuff, awed their subjects, cut the hearts out of orphaned or captive children and offered their blood to the gods.  Religion (not Monotheisms in this case) and “Science” came together in a perfect storm of oppression–even if that oppression was dressed up as a way of keeping the cosmos ordered–literally preventing the sky from falling on one’s head.

After nearly a millennium of such mega-architecture, and endless astrologically-designed buildings, the Scientific Revolution  gave us the Industrial Revolution. The same spirit of inquiry which drove Newton (and Copernicus, Galileo, etc.), also drove industrialists to figure out better ways of producing products. I’m not going to talk about the role of Europe here-which was large–but instead I want to see the IR as a human legacy since ultimately it affected us all. Again, the IR will be seen by optimists as a Great Leap Forward. It enabled us to multiply the amount of energy we squeezed from the earth, exponentially. Arguably it allowed us to dispense with slave labor–as we needed to rely less on human–and animal–power and more on steam, and led to the modern life–and amenities– we all (well, many of us) enjoy today.

But here, again, there were distinct downsides. In perhaps the mother of all progress traps, the gains from the IR (which were preceded in the period between 1400 and 1800 by many developments in agriculture) included history’s biggest J curve, a dramatic population increase. The world population doubled in the five centuries between 1000 and 1500, to reach a little under half a billion. By 1800 it had doubled again, reaching one billion. The forces unleashed by the Industrial Revolution would see global population rise to over six billion by the end of the twentieth, and still keep climbing. In the twentieth century alone, world population increased over 400%.

The IR is hugely controversial; many people  swear it was the best thing to happen to humanity, while for others it spawned a new round of slavery–in factories, and the creation of unprecedented urban crowding, poverty and environmental degradation.  And for non-Europeans it meant colonization, occupation, and conquest at the hands of technologically advanced, greedy white Christian men (who often preached that the pen was mightier than the sword, while ruling by the sword).

This had already happened in the New World in the sixteenth century, but to the Guns Germs and Steel of the sixteenth century  you could now add locomotion, machine guns, telegraphs, and high explosives, in addition to the kind of uber-rational organization that accompanied western industrialization–exhibited for example by the British Army’s stand at Rorke’s Drift in Natal against a force of 4000 Zulu warriors in 1879 (made famous by the movie version of events which starred a young Michael Caine).

With the Industrial Revolution we come nearly up to date. Since the 1800’s we have overturned almost everything we understood from the dawn of agriculture: gender roles, food, sexuality, individuality, geography, space itself, all have been transformed in our imaginations through our technological achievements.

What about human welfare?

As you can see, there is material here for decades of debate. The pendulum swings back and forth. Massive advances in quality of life and longevity are undeniable (see the Gap Minder Institute for more data on this). And yet there are terrible threats that face the species and our planet, and millions living in a new kind of poverty and violence.  Ultimately, perhaps, we have gained in knowledge and power, and while we have in some quarters developed ideologies of peace and equality, these have been unevenly applied and as yet have failed to become an enduring global standard, displacing forever the older human default, that of power.


About the Author
Adrian Cole studied Arabic at Exeter University in the UK, Alexandria, Egypt and Harvard University. He is now a freelance writer, living on an island in Casco Bay, Maine, with his wife and children. His book The Thinking Past was published by Oxford University Press in 2014.
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