Has humanity progressed over the centuries?
Regular Network Norwich and Norfolk columnist James Knight continues his series on the history of humanity and questions whether the world is getting better.
Continuing my theme from last time about whether humanity has progressed or not, I have been careful not to judge the West’s advancements as being superior to those found everywhere else, simply because as a Westerner I am most likely to view my own cultural background as being the best. It is hard for some of us Westerners to see this at times, but there are people in Africa who we would consider to be undeveloped and underprivileged who I know have visited the UK and been appalled at the decadence and moral impropriety they have seen. They lament the lack of Christian sensibilities and think it is we who have lost our way and us that needs to fall back in line with how things should be done in Christ.
The question ‘Is the world getting better?’ usually means one of the two things – either it is meant as an enquiry as to whether people are getting better, or it is meant as an enquiry as to whether the human standard of life is getting better (with much overlap between the two). My first issue is that qualification is needed regarding the use of the term ‘better’ – just what is meant by ‘better’? Better is a relative term, and ‘quality’ and ‘value’ are highly subjective conceptualisations – so it ought to be clear that with regard to the first question there is no objective way of answering this, not unless we pick a particular essence of being human and see how we can value or quantify it. With regard to the second question, I think this is easier to answer, because ‘standard of living’ is much more amenable to statistics and value judgements – so although ‘standard of living’ is itself a subjective concept regarding the value placed on statistics, I think I will satisfactorily show that there are good reasons to believe the standard of human life has greatly improved every century, and will almost inevitably continue to do so.
So on what grounds can we say that the West has advanced better than the rest of the world? We can make an attempt do so in the following way – let’s ask what it is that brings about the most successful human growth and achievement and development and human standards of living. If we want to look at progression in terms of how we’ve evolved, we can identify progression in terms of increased life expectancy and improved health. Around 6,000 years ago the estimated world population was in the region of 20 million people. Even if we go back, say, 50,000 years previous we can see that 20 million people after 50,000 years is an incredibly poor return. As a comparison, consider that in just the past few hundred years the world population has increased from 1 billion to just under 7 billion. This is because in the modern age far fewer mothers lose their offspring in child-birth, far fewer people die of fatal diseases, and the more crude and feudalistic ways of co-existing have over time been supplanted for more peaceful democratic ways. That’s not to say we’ve got everything right – far from it – but there is an obvious causal link between improved ways of living and better standards of life.
It is no coincidence that countries with a Judeo-Christian foundation and/or background are the countries that perform best in terms of development, economy, and quality in how it treats its citizens, and how they treat one another. There is a marked difference between countries with a Christian foundation and those that lacked it - and that does at least show that the Christian virtues of love, grace, charity, kindness, generosity, moral goodness and sacrifice are of paramount importance in a civilisation’s history.
What else has the West done that has seen it progress so successfully? We can probably see by looking at how Western civilisation differs from the other major civilisations; for example, consider the difference between the West and, say, the Islamic, Chinese, Indian, and Japanese civilisations. Let me tell you what makes a successful civilisation, and in doing so you should be able to see why the West advanced better than all the other civilisations, and why some of the above civilisations are becoming more successful by copying the pattern of the West. Along with what has already been identified in the values of Christianity, the following criteria is important for a successful civilisation: first, rule of law that encompasses human value with a good balance of conservatism and liberalism; second, rights and considerations of citizens (people’s right to vote, have health care, contribute to society, rights of ownership, work ethic, consumerism, equality rights); third, external competitiveness; and fourth, pro-active interest in science, technology and medicine.
Those four criteria are, I think, the key to forming a progressive civilisation. It is a myth to suggest that the West simply got in first and colonised the world through conquest and power (although there is some truth in that) – what really happened is that the other civilisations had their chances but lacked the above criteria. Long ago one might have reasonably forecasted that the Chinese would have done what the West did – but they were too culturally conservative, lacked too many of the Christian values, and had a very centralised ethos that discouraged individual citizens in being free and active participants in their country’s development. So too the Islamic civilisation – there was a point at which one might have thought they would have been the main world force – but unlike the West they lacked most of the basic necessities related to liberty, freedom and self-value that bootstraps a healthy democracy, and they repressed their citizens with backward theocracies that were always likely to implode into schismatic sectarianism and factionist mentalities.
Regarding the standard of living, we need only trawl back through time to see the obvious improvements in this present age. Many people are quite defensive about this position – they think that people who argue the world is getting better must mean that the world is all rosy, that we can be complacent in our attitudes towards change, and that there isn’t a lot of hard work still ahead of us. This skews the reality of what is being argued – I do not deny that the world is bad – it is bad, and will always be bad. I’m simply arguing that it is less bad than it was in previous decades and centuries, and that to understand history and cultural studies is to know that the fact of an overall improved standard of living is fairly self-evident.
We know that in every day and age people look to the past and see many ancient systems as less developed and cruder than their own, so they assume we have 'progressed' in some objective sense. After all, that is exactly what I have contended already in the last message. Naturally it is understandable that there are many people living in the present day who prefer the present day moral systems to anything they conceive about the past. So could we be looking at our own morality through a rose-tinted lens? In some cases, yes, but I do not think that would be a justifiable reason for denying the overall progression, for it need not be the case that it is the ‘present’ that confers the favourable tint, it seems more likely that certain times are favoured because they were the best times for a particular individual – thereby a bias has formed. Most of us have a fondness for a particular time in our life when the world seemed like a good place to live; a time when future memories were being made, and when it felt great to be alive. Perhaps that is the biased lens through which we make our decisions about the best times.
As regards the question of accuracy concerning the idea of progression – one only need think about the following point to see what I mean. Consider if you will our evolutionary beginnings, and the Stone Age men, the Bronze Age men, ancient Palestine, and then after the Roman age of human worship, vanity, hubris and self-importance, the chaos of feudalism and Dark Ages mentality (although the Dark Ages weren’t quite as dark as many like to make out), we had the black death of the 14th century, the dreadful religious repression of the 16th century, the cruelty, poverty, immorality and debauchery of the 18th century – into which was knitted the first stands of the Social Contract, Rule of Law, and the foundations of Democracy. Most of the world in the 19th century was effectively under military, monarchical or colonial dictatorship, with the rights of the indigenous inhabitants shockingly denied by oppressive states. Millions died from deaths in the 19th and early 20th century that would not happen on that scale nowadays in most of the world - slavery, war, fatal pandemics, disease, infant mortality, and an inability to cope with natural disasters. Moreover in the 19th century people usually worked 12-14 hour days in dreadful conditions, and pay was so poor that children and pregnant women had to work in such conditions for most of the day. That’s to say nothing of the many other 19th century hardships in Britain and, of course, the mass starvation in Ireland.
Some think that the 20th century was the most brutal, catastrophic and inhumane century in history, but this isn’t true – it was by far the best century in history and the 21st will be even better. All you have to do is think of any time before the present age and with a little thought you will soon realise that it was worse than now. For example; if you were a woman, or black, or an ethnic minority, or poor, or disabled, or homosexual, or almost anything else for that matter you would have been in a worse position a few decades ago than now – one need only look in history books to see that that is true.
After the two World Wars mankind was, to borrow an H G Wells term, ‘Drifting down the stream of fate to degradation, suffering and death’ – post-war innovations were obviously an improvement on the brutalised conditions of wartime Britain – innovations in economics, welfare, anthropology, psychology and science and technology helped allay people’s fears that we were a sickly Hobbesian civilisation playing out realisations founded in his Leviathan; that somehow the social contract had been broken and torn to shreds under the thumb of war psychosis and death pathologies. The threat to civilisation from the two World Wars and from the spectre of a Cold War apocalypse led to the fear that we as a species were dwindling into nonentity. The fear that provokes our insecurities smacks home the reality that we were always on the brink of destruction – yet even the most impassioned optimists could not have imagined the innovation, comforts and improved standards of living that would fall upon us decades henceforward. The enlargement of the European Union to include most of the European countries that were occupied and terrorised by the Soviet Union demonstrates a progression that those most negatively affected probably never thought would happen. Our medial care, our science and our technology are evidence of a standard of living we could have scarcely imagined in the early part of the 20th century.
At no time in history except now has the great wealth of books and opportunity for learning been available to any who wish to better themselves. We have better health care, better housing, better schools, better policing, in fact, most things are better. Parliamentary democracy and free market capitalism have brought about better socio-political principles than at any time in history. Harold MacMillan was right ‘We never had it so good’. There is an extraordinary degree of equality, freedom, liberty, prosperity and opportunity that has never been achieved before in the history of human progression. The civil wars, death and injustices that were caused by fascism, communism and various autocracies in the 20th century probably will never reach the nadir they did back then (although we still have lots of work to do)
With a little thought we can see that there has never been a better time to be alive than right now. Education, healthcare, occupations, travel, money, opportunity, peace, prosperity and a genuine potential for those willing to grab at it – virtually everything in the world is better than it once was, and it will in all likelihood continue to improve as we progress. And that is how I know the error of those who say things were once better than they are – it goes against the framework of what human progression is. Every decade we use our findings, our discoveries, our innovations, our sciences, and our technology to improve the world as best we can – we do not remain inert in very many areas of living.
History is rocky and volatile, it is not a smooth and predictable linear path – and what I have said above is only one side of the story. It is not that we want to view the West’s achievements through rose-tinted spectacles (in some cases I abhor what the West has summoned up and continues to incubate) – but I think we have identified some key tenets to progression and human value that show the West has fostered and adapted them better than their counterpart civilisations, and that that success has been most acute in the times when we have best reflected the values and virtues presented to us by Christ.
Next time I will look at why if we’ve had all this progression the picture Christ paints of future generations is bleak, and why despite the obvious areas of progression (as per above) there are ways that we haven’t progressed as far as we sometimes like to think.
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James is a Christian writer and local government officer based in Norwich. You can access his current collections of columns here
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