Humanity and Progress
Humans. Love us. Hate us. Wonderful. Horrid.
In this column, I am not trying to change anyone’s mind, in contrast to my two-part column of April wherein I was attacking capitalism and hoping to make converts to my opinion. Capitalism is still much on my mind, but I am not going to continue to analyse its effects, merely observe them.
Here I am only essaying some suggestions, by putting interesting content before readers and letting them experience whatever reaction arises. I assume the role of laying out a buffet on the intellectual table; let the reader pick and choose what to take away on their plates. Opinions are like mouths, everybody has one.
Progress is an idea ruling the West, and from the dominance of the West over the globe, has infiltrated every culture in the world in some form. It has many adherents still, loyal to the hypothesis that humanity is making forward strides in its knowledge of the universe and toward the betterment of the human condition. No one would argue life is not easier with the medical and technological inventions of the last hundred years.
John N. Gray aptly says that this magnificent achievement by humanity is material only, not moral:
In science, the growth of knowledge is cumulative. But human life as a whole is not a cumulative activity; what is gained in one generation may be lost in the next. In science, knowledge is an unmixed good; in ethics and politics it is bad as well as good. Science increases human power — and magnifies the flaws in human nature. It enables us to live longer and have higher living standards than in the past. At the same time it allows us to wreak destruction — on each other and the Earth — on a larger scale than ever before. The idea of progress rests on the belief that the growth of knowledge and the advance of the species go together—if not now, then in the long run. The biblical myth of the Fall of Man contains the forbidden truth. Knowledge does not make us free. It leaves us as we have always been, prey to every kind of folly. Those who ignore the destructive potential of future technologies can do so only because they ignore history. Pogroms are as old as Christendom; but without railways, the telegraph and poison gas there could have been no Holocaust. [–] Humanity’s worst crimes were made possible only by modern technology.
So do not expect that because we can conquer space and disease, humans are in any fundamental way different than we were at the time of Jesus, or when Stonehenge was built, Gray tells us.
Capitalism and Progress
“The beauty of capitalism, aside from the fact that it works, is that it is purely voluntary in nature. In a purely capitalistic system, coercion is a non-factor, and every single dollar is a voice and a vote. Target, in response to NC Session Law 2016-3 HB2 (the so-called “bathroom bill” which required people to use public bathrooms in accordance to what is on their birth certificate,) made it an open practice to allow anyone to use whichever bathroom they wanted, in any Target store. Target has every right to do this, as it is a privately owned company. We as consumers, though, are equally within our rights to voice either displeasure or celebration of this practice, by either spending money at Target, or choosing to shop elsewhere. Every dollar carries with it an opinion, a vote, and a voice. The consumers determine success and failure in capitalism, rather than the government propping up a failing venture.”
Alex Haney, The Millennial Review
The observable fact that our advances in science and technology and democracy have been simultaneous with the advent of the economic dominance of capital cannot be ignored. Did capitalism cause our advances? Many think it did. If you think so, you are not tolerant of the critics:
“[–] we are actually entertaining the idea that capitalism somehow or another is flawed. You know what? Go back to your fireplace to cook your popcorn in a wire basket. I’ll have mine done in 2 ½ minutes with capitalism.”
Glenn Beck, Thank-you capitalism!
Clearly, capitalism has defenders. Their perspective is not irrational. Humanity has benefitted from the progressive march of capitalism and science, many argue with passion and a wealth of material evidence.
I am not a supporter of the idea that capitalist progress, real as it is in material terms, is an essential improvement of human life. I doubt that constant improvement awaits us in the future, never regress or decline. Backward movement from ages of high civilization is as probable now as it ever was.
For me Progress is an idea whose time of obsolescence has arrived, and it must be superseded by better ideas. Readers of Charles Eisenstein will surely understand this line of thinking.
Art and Progress
Poets have attacked the idea of progress quite articulately, even in simple pop songs. Presently I will offer my own artistic production, a poem, concerning how we each try to “be the change we want to see.” Here are a couple of others.
“Who will provide the grand design,
What is yours and what is mine
We satisfy our endless greed
And justify our bloody deeds,
In the name of Destiny
And in the name of God.”
The Eagles, The Last Resort
“The coal company came
With the world’s largest shovel,
They tortured the timber
And stripped all the land
And they wrote it all down
As the Progress of Man.”
John Prine, Muhlenberg County
These songs’ harsh perspectives on capitalist material Progress are rejected by many who believe in the power of the human imagination to solve all problems our technology has unleashed upon Nature.
Humanity: crown of Creation, bane of the Cosmos, slave to technology
Here is an example of the dialogue between those who love human material progress and those who doubt humanity has the right to dominate all:
“ ‘The lack of life here, and the lack of any finding in fifty years of the SETI program, indicates that life is rare, and intelligent life even rarer. And yet the whole meaning of the universe, its beauty, is contained in the consciousness of intelligent life. We are the consciousness of the universe, and our job is to spread that around, to go look at things, to live everywhere we can. It’s too dangerous to keep the consciousness of the universe on only one planet. It could be wiped out” [Sax said.] “Mars will always remain Mars, different from Earth, wilder and colder. But it can be Mars and ours at the same time. And it will be. This is about the human mind: if it can be done, it will be done. We can transform Mars [–]’
“ In the flat dead tone she usually used when she was upset, [Ann] said, ‘I think you value consciousness too much, and rock too little. We’re not lords of the universe, we’re one small part of it. We may be its consciousness , but being the consciousness of the universe does not mean turning it all into a mirror image of us. It means fitting into it, and worshipping it with our attention…”
Kim Stanley Robinson, Red Mars
Robinson thinks humanity can save the Earth from the worst effects of our own ruination of global ecology, though there will be an “ugly” century now. He simply believes in civilization’s capacity for solving the problems: “There are things we can do… they’re not outside civilization’s industrial ability.”
Humans are so good at invention of new tools and technologies, we seem at times unable to improve our minds to keep pace with our instruments.
Albert Einstein said our technology outruns our humanity, referring to weapons. It is not only weapons that are too powerful for us, as the impact of the internet is making clear. We throw ourselves into new playthings without the slightest idea how using them will alter our minds and behaviours.
“What business has science and capitalism got, bringing all these new inventions into the works, before society has produced a generation educated up to using them!”
Henrik Ibsen, playwright
“Once a technology enters human life — whether it be fire, the wheel, the automobile, radio, television, or the internet — it changes it in ways we can never fully understand. There is a deeper reason why “humanity” will never control technology. Technology is not something that humankind can control. It is an event that has befallen the world.”
I am quite persuaded by the truth of Gray’s observation; we do not know what we are doing to ourselves with each new invention we use habitually, even addictively. Our “freedom” — to use our tools or not — is more belief than fact.
How to define what is the essential quality of being human calls forth answers almost playful in their variety. Our tool-making, our meaning-making, our capacity for consciousness, our talent for living in our imaginations, are some of the more common answers to the question. Our religious traditions have a fascinating hypothesis: we are divinely-designed beings.
“Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, in our likeness’ …”
Genesis c.1, v. 26, first book of the Old Testament and Torah
A current book about being human, entitled Sapiens, has drawn attention precisely because the author engages the question of being human with a wealth of up-to-date science and selective history to underpin his assertions. This and another book by Yuval Harari, Homo Deus, are popular widely-selling works of science and philosophy, probing what it means to be human. The more-recent book is his attempt to project the future path of human development. He uses the word “divine” to describe our powers.
To read more of Harari’s insights, visit
Religion and meaning
Humans derive meaning out of their experiences. Religion is one of the great creations of human societies seeking meaning. Is capitalism a religion? Here is one argument for that perspective:
“The capitalist and consumerist ethics are two sides of the same coin, a merger of two commandments. The supreme commandment of the rich is ‘Invest!’ The supreme commandment of the rest of us is ‘Buy!’
The capitalist–consumerist ethic is revolutionary in another respect. Most previous ethical systems presented people with a pretty tough deal. They were promised paradise, but only if they cultivated compassion and tolerance, overcame craving and anger, and restrained their selfish interests. This was too tough for most.
The history of ethics is a sad tale of wonderful ideals that nobody can live up to. Most Christians did not imitate Christ, most Buddhists failed to follow Buddha, and most Confucians would have caused Confucius a temper tantrum. In contrast, most people today successfully live up to the capitalist–consumerist ideal. The new ethic promises paradise on condition that the rich remain greedy and spend their time making more money and that the masses give free reign to their cravings and passions and buy more and more. This is the first religion in history whose followers actually do what they are asked to do. How though do we know that we’ll really get paradise in return? We’ve seen it on television.”
As gods are creative, so are humans. And we are not content to leave things we encounter without exerting our power of change over them. We start with ourselves: we humans strive to change ourselves constantly, and we do that by imagining the changes we can achieve are improvements to ourselves.
“In pursuit of health, happiness, and power, humans will gradually change first one of their features, then another, and another, until they will no longer be humans.”
Yuval Noah Harari, Homo deus
Humans at work for progress
A constant in the human condition apparently arises from our imagination. We can imagine making our world better. We can imagine solving problems until the world has been improved immeasurably. An individual confronting the scope of human difficulties and crises wonders what possible contribution they can make. A scientist imagines inventions to make human life healthier and longer, or labour much easier or even obsolete; a capitalist imagines a business that enriches himself, pays his employees, and gives the market a needed service or product, and makes the world better. Steve Jobs has been hailed as such a one.
In the current film starring Tom Hanks as a Jobs clone, one can see how our culture reveres the genius entrepreneur. But Hank’s character, Eamonn Bailey, is a more-fully realized character than a one-dimensional genius, and the film depicts a dark shadow side to him.
Be the change you want to see
A new phrase is much in vogue these days: “change agent.” It’s a role one would probably wish to play at some point in one’s life. I know I do.
“One in ten thousand of us can make a technological breakthrough capable of supporting all the rest. “
— Buckminster Fuller
Who are the great figures of history? Alexander the Great and a few other leaders of powerful armies and empires have captured the adjective in our history books. Most of us can easily come up with a list of ten giant individuals who shaped human destinies.
I am an historian by profession. I have pondered the mystery of who becomes a change agent remembered by many, and who were the anonymous billions of humans who did not leave their memory in historians’ records. The novelist George Eliot in her major work, Middlemarch, ends the novel with a reflection on the life of Dorothea. She asserts that the “growing good of the world” is due as much to obscure good people as famous ones, as much to those who lived “unhistoric lives and are buried in unvisited tombs” as to the great ones.
My personal reflections led me to write the following poem. I title it “Conundrum”.
I dreamed. I witnessed. I record
A vision within, a learning stored.
A mountain mass, dark, broad, and high —
Rock and stone, ice, wind, and sky.
A voice despairing spoke to me
The meaning of the fearsome scene.
“The mountain is human, a mystery.
All human problems, all human history.
Towering here over stony plains —
Injustice, war, destruction, pain.”
I felt a weight upon me fall.
What is one person, so weak, so small?
To think a life might own some mission,
A legacy for good in the human condition.
How could tiny I make change,
Leave any mark on the mountain range?
To believe I possessed any useful tool
Seemed merely the wish of a hopeful fool.
Revolutionary destiny was my conceit.
My weapon a stick, found there at my feet.
“This is your instrument, now be important.”
Said the voice, “Go move the mountain.”
Those were the last words I heard spoken,
Standing alone, beaten, broken.
The voice departed, then there was light,
Silver thread across the night.
From the mountain root through darkness black
I followed a lucid upward track.
I knew my purpose and intent,
To the good of humanity this way was bent.
And as I walked the path I chanted:
“Reveal, where ought my tool be planted?
“Reveal to me, on this mountain strange,
That perfect point to start massive change.”
Alas, the knowledge was denied.
No earthquake swelled, although I tried.
My wooden pick to splinters worn,
Fingers bleeding, muscles torn.
No change did I see from all my labours,
Exhausted, bewildered, I tasted failure.
I looked for others among the stones —
With help there was hope but not alone.
Here at wit’s end I heard my heart,
With bright certainty I knew where to start.
Into the mountain slid my tool of wood —
In a tiny fracture, and I knew I’d done good.
A pebble moved, a stone, a boulder —
Then an avalanche broke the mountain’s shoulder.
A joke: I had altered humanity’s fate.
Future scriptures would call me “Great.”
Who is a “giant”?
Who dies unremarked?
Until future is past
All is hidden in dark.
You and I
And we and they
Scratching at stones
Till end of days.
So that’s my attempt to make sense of the way we remember the world-shapers and the history makers. It is a matter of mystery, who uses their allotment of talent and skill, knowledge and will, to shift events, alter societies, give humanity new tools with which to transform reality. We all have some capacity to change something. Our tools may be small indeed, a toothpick on a mountain, a thimble in the ocean. Knowing where to make our effort is a huge puzzle for a lot of us. The “serenity prayer” asks for courage to change the things ones can. It may be that trying is the best one manages. Make the effort, and do it with courage. But do not be attached to the result.
Culture and human changeability
I have been addressing myself to ideas about Progress and how humans are changed by their technologies. We also change ourselves by our cultures. Culture is usually considered as the other side of a dialectic with Nature. “Biology enables, culture forbids,” is how Harari sums it up. Is culture an area where progress happens? Where angels fear to tread, I venture now.
Culture takes a biological fact, such as the difference between male and female, and gives that fact a form that is as various as the peoples who make culture. The manner in which we take the fact of sexual dimorphism and create cultural norms is fascinating. It is a challenge humans face daily. Here is a provocative account from fiction, addressing the issue.
‘What about your women?’
They were taken aback. Al Khal shrugged. ‘In Islam, men and women have different roles. It is the same in the West. It is biological in origin.’
‘Yes, but it’s slavery, isn’t it?’
The men around him stiffened, shocked by the word.
‘Isn’t it? Your wives and daughters powerless, and that is slavery. You may keep them well, and they may be slaves with peculiar and intimate powers over their masters, but the master-slave relationship twists everything to it. So that all these relations are twisted, pressured to the bursting-point.’
Zeyk’s nose was wrinkled. ‘This is not the lived experience of it, I can assure you. You should listen to our poetry.’
‘But would your women assure me?’
‘Yes,’ said Zeyk, with perfect confidence.
But look, the most successful women among you are modest and deferent, scrupulous in honouring the system. This is poisonous in its effects. And the cycle repeats itself, generation after generation. Supported by both masters and slaves.’
‘The use of the word slaves,’ Al Khal said slowly, ‘is offensive, because it presumes judgement. Judgement of a culture you do not really know.’
‘True, I can only tell you what it looks like from the outside. This can only be of interest to a progressive Muslim. [–] If any nation in the world were to treat its men this way, the U.N. would ostracize that nation. But because it is a matter of women, the men in power look away. They say it is a cultural matter, a religious matter, not to be interfered with. Or it is not called slavery because it is only an exaggeration of how women are treated elsewhere.’
‘Or a variation, not even an exaggeration,’ Zeyk suggested.
‘No, it is an exaggeration. Western women are free to choose much of what they do, they have their lives to live. Not so among you. But no human submits to being property, they hate it, and subvert it and have what revenge they can against it. That’s how humans are. And in this case it is your mother, your sisters, your wife, your daughters.’
Now the men were glaring at him, still more shocked than offended, but Frank stared at his coffee cup and went on regardless. ‘You must free your women.’
‘How do you suggest we do this?’ asked Zeyk.
‘Change your laws! Educate them in the same schools you educate your sons. Make them equal in rights to any Muslim anywhere of any kind. Remember, there is much in your laws that is not in the Koran, that was added in the time of Mohammed.’
‘Put there by holy men,’ Al Khal said angrily.
‘Certainly, but we choose the ways we enforce our religious beliefs in the behaviour of daily life. This is true of all cultures. We can choose new ways. You must free your women.’
‘I do not like to be given a sermon by anyone but a mullah,’ Al Khal said, his mouth tight under his moustache. ‘Let those who are innocent of crime, preach what is right.’
Youssuf Hawi, a high-spirited young man, leered and cackled. ‘Isn’t it true that, in the home, the power always goes to the strong? I can tell you, in my tent, Iam the slave, I kiss butt daily with my Aziza!’
This imagined dialogue from Kim S. Robinson has stayed with me because of its brief encapsulation of a debate we in the West now face in our democratic public lives. Who knows what is right for people of another culture? Muslim women feminists assert their right to follow their culture. What to do? Must we have statute law to deal with these questions? Are the polygamists of the Mormon sect near Creston to be allowed to practice a cultural peculiarity in the observance of their right to religious freedom?
This issue of culture in Canada, the world’s proudest multicultural society of immigrants, will not be resolved any time soon, in my view.
But the point of this section is not to take a point of view, only to give an example of how human culture and Progress are subjective matters, not measureable in the way material advance by technology is.
This column won’t have conclusions because I did not present any sustained argument. But I can end with a personal recommendation for a movie that touches on so many of the themes in this column. The film is The Circle, with Tom Hanks and Emma Watson. Technology, capitalism, morality culture, and progress are very much the issues in the film, which unfortunately has a narrative of thin substance. See it and think about the questions I have put forward in this column. Hopefully the film will entertain as well as make you think, but the latter is more the reason I would recommend it.
Post Script about Change
Just in time for me to round out this column, I came across this probing observation of human reality by the difficult philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche.
It bears careful reading and re-reading, and thinking about the words he uses – fate, necessity, law. Personally, I find it refreshing for the way he challenges the easy notion that people can change if they try.
“The individual is, in his past and his future, a piece of fate. He is one more law, one more necessity, for everything that is and everything that will be.
To say to him, ‘change yourself’, means to demand that everything should change, even in the past.”
Self-change for self-improvement seems to me to take up about half of all the advice I witness on social media. Unhappy with the world? Change your attitude. Unhappy with yourself? Change what you do not like, etc.
Nietzsche was on to something. Each of us is the person our history has made us into. No amount of therapy can alter what actually happened to a person. Therapy is the West’s typical fix-it orientation toward the “outside world”. To say change your attitude to the past is just too facile. Our inside world, the mind only one person knows, is not a place one can engineer.
There is a lot to respect in the person who tries to change themselves. We must be very gentle, I think, with those who simply try and fail. Failure is always as likely as success.
More sites with nuggets of insight on the topics in this column: