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Does the Narrative of Human Progress Hold Up?

“We’ve become a less violent species because we recognize the futility and the undesirability of violence.”

The extreme violence of the 20th and early 21st centuries would make it easy to question the narrative of progress, i.e., that there is a long arc on which the human species is traveling, bettering itself through scientific discovery, culture, and technological innovation along the way. 

Against the idea of progress is the historical evidence that civilizations rise and fall; improvements are but the boasting of each “modern” generation; and constant errors of poverty, adultery, murder, suicide, etc. betray our best attempts at self-improvement. This is not a list, however, that Big Think expert and Harvard linguistics professor Steven Pinker agrees with: 

“We no longer have human sacrifices. We’ve outlawed slavery in most of the world. We no longer have capital punishment for trivial crimes and misdemeanors. We don’t have routine torture, burning at the stake, disemboweling, crucifixion. The number of wars has gone down in the last 50 years. By many measures, we’ve become a less violent species; not because there is some force in the universe pushing us in that direction, but I think because we recognize the futility and the undesirability of violence.”

There is perhaps a greater sense of progress independent of a given civilization’s scientific or technological achievement. That kind of progress is synonymous with history, or the purposeful recording of humanity’s diverse and collective culture.

As Will and Ariel Durant wrote in their 11-volume, Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Story of Civilization”:

If progress is real despite our whining, it is not because we are born any healthier, better, or wiser than infants were in the past, but because we are born to a richer heritage, born on a higher level of that pedestal which the accumulation of knowledge and art raises as the ground and support of our being. The heritage rises, and man rises in proportion as he receives it.”

Read more at the Christian Science Monitor.

Photo credit: Shutterstock 


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