Before debunking progress we need to define progress.
The first thing to eliminate is the idea that we can measure progress as a quantification of capability or means, such as energy, money, power, numerical advantage, or complexity. It is easy to see why this would be absurd. If having greater concentrations of energy is better, then we should all want to collapse into a black hole. If power is the most important then we are forced to the conclusion that Stalin was the greatest man who ever lived. If having a larger population is better, then the most advanced organisms are microbes. If you mean complexity then a teaspoon of soil with its millions of species of bacteria is many orders of magnitude more progressed than all of human technology combined.
More generally, any quantity that attempts to capture how capable something is neglects the point, which is what that capacity is to be used for. It’s a means without an end. We admire not large populations but happy populations. We admire energy not for its own sake, but because we can use it for so many ends. Once the means in itself is considered good, you end up with an absurd goal of having an enormous capacity to no purpose.
We might be tempted to define progress as the loftiness of one’s culture, in terms of science, philosophy, and art. But the success of our science is measured in terms of technology, which brings us back to mere capacity. The success of modern philosophy is usually explained in terms of science. It’s true that we've produced a lot of art, but whether it is genuinely better than that produced in other cultures or in previous ages brings us back, full-circle, to the question of how we measure that worth.
The most common view among intellectuals, perhaps because it most evokes feelings of compassion and indignation to injustice, is that progress is the increased satisfaction of every human's material needs—food, clothing, health, and shelter. This makes sense because it is an end, not a means. A hundred schemes for progress have been proposed along these lines, starting with the Marquis de Condorcet and Karl Marx, and continuing today in the writings of Amartya Sen and Jeffery Sachs. Here we have a notion of progress that is widely influential and has been around for centuries. Here we have a worthy antithesis.
In short, this kind of progress means a decrease in the sum total of human suffering. I think this is very close to what people mean by “progress,” but it leaves out something important: human joy. If we only count suffering, a negative quantity, we can’t account for all the things people do not out of fear but out of desire for reward. Going to work is a kind of suffering, but it pays off in the joy of prosperity. Childbirth can be agonizing, but people do it for the joy of family. Fighting in wars is terrifying, but it is often done for the joy of victory. So if we are to define progress in terms of suffering, I will have to side with the utilitarian philosophers: what matters is the sum total of happiness, minus the sum total of suffering. The founder of utilitarianism, Jeremy Bentham, first introduced the idea of measuring total happiness in the late 18th century. We will come back to the details of his theory in later chapters. For now, this is my definition of progress:
Progress is a permanent increase in the ratio of the happiness of all people to the total suffering.
And the thesis of this book can be stated:
The ratio of the total happiness experienced in the world, to the total suffering, converges to one when each is summed over a long-enough period of time.
Happiness and suffering can fluctuate over time, as resources become scarce or plentiful. So I’m not saying that this quantity will always balance exactly. But similar to the way flipping a coin repeatedly will eventually lead to an even ratio of heads and tails (a phenomenon called the Law of Large Numbers by probability theorists), good and bad times, I will argue, will also approach an even ratio over time. Utilitarians such as Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill were in fact among the first to argue that total happiness could be increased and total suffering decreased. They believed that using birth control could achieve this. Their ideas became widely implemented after about 1900, when birth rates in Europe and America began to plunge. Since then, prosperity in the West has increased and hunger has declined, and it is generally believed that the ratio of happiness to suffering is getting higher and higher.
Our society now takes progress for granted. We assume that the human condition is improving, and will continue to improve. But I think we’ve been too hasty in celebrating our victory over the past. The majority of the world remains in dire poverty. The human population is still growing, and resources are dwindling. The most disconcerting fact is also one of the best known—it would take six planet earths to support the world population if everyone were to adopt the Western way of life.
We are flaunting the wealthiest, most exploitative nations as examples of the possibility of progress. Western civilization is unsustainable. Its industry and energy use are growing exponentially, even if its population is not. It cannot survive forever in its current form. The fact is that there have been thousands of civilizations over the course of history and the vast majority have collapsed. Many of these civilizations, including the ancient Greeks and Romans, used population control. Limiting the population is not, contrary to popular belief, a cure-all.
If it eliminates suffering, birth control does so by eliminating the struggle to flourish that’s at the root of the creativity of human evolution, which produces so much diversity in our species. We know this instinctively. The fertile energy of sexual passion makes life life: a holy mixture of joy and sorrow, triumph and tragedy.
Life should be such a mixture, I will argue. If it is not, we should conclude that something is wrong with our perception of it. Life is worthwhile because we must strive toward the best, happiest outcomes, and avoid the worst and saddest. It’s why we have a mind in the first place, to be able to consider these contrasting possibilities and learn from the pain of mistakes. Paul Valerie, the French poet and aphorist of the early 20th century, was correct to point out, “Happy peoples have no mind. They have no great need of it.” Even before Darwin, Malthus argued that, “To avoid evil and to pursue good seem to be the great duty and business of man ... and it is by this exertion, by these stimulants, that mind is formed.”
The fundamental inconsistency in the idea of progress is easy to state, if not to fully grasp. If we imagine a world where the worst forms of suffering have been eliminated, we are necessarily imagining a world with that much less challenge, that much less triumph, and that much less mind. Life itself is thus extinguished along with suffering. Progress means that by degrees the need for the business of living disappears. Life disappears.
But this way of putting it sounds surreal and fantastical. And we are left with a no less abhorrent picture of our present world, with its exploding human population, and untold suffering due to lack. Are we to simply turn up our noses to the miseries of the poor and say, “Such is life”?
Absolutely not. Life is, as Malthus argued, essentially a struggle against evil. The struggle must continue. What should cease is the idea that this struggle can somehow be won once and for all. Such a victory would mean the destruction of life itself. This book is about how to to understand this abstract insight from a practical, physical point of view. What can we and can’t we realistically expect for the future of our civilization? To address this question systematically I will be applying Malthus’s theory of population (Chapter 1), Darwin’s theory of evolution (Chapters 2, 3, and 5), and utilitarian decision theory (Chapter 4). We will look at some evidence concerning the short-to-medium-term survival of our industrial civilization (Chapter 6), and suggest that intellectual life should be re-oriented toward the classics rather than scientific progress (Chapter 7).
Thomas Malthus was the first to argue that the basic ecology of populations will prevent any long-run improvement of the world. The joy of procreation causes population growth, and this growth causes resource limitations, famine, and suffering. In this way, Malthus believed that human life remains in an overall equilibrium, never getting better or worse on the whole. This is a good start toward a theory of what I call “creation-destruction balance.” In short, population growth is a kind of creation, and limits to growth mean destruction. Roughly speaking, growth is always balanced by limits, so total creativity and total destruction must balance in the long run. In Chapter 1 I will attempt to extend and refine Malthus’s version of this theory.
However, most modern progressives view birth control as a final “solution” to Malthus’s dilemma. In Chapter 2 I argue that this neglects the effect of evolution on the human population. Recent studies suggest that mutation has been increasing the rate of congenital diseases in industrialized countries, and that if the trend continues the effect will be catastrophic within two centuries. (See Kondrashov AS, 2003; Lynch M, 2010.) Chapter 2 will go on to explain the theoretical core of this book, evolution by mutation and natural selection. Evolution is essential to life. Without mutation, there would be no diversity, and without selection over this diversity, no new structures can be formed or preserved. Selection means that some organisms succeed and others do not. Here again we’ll see an aspect of the evolutionary balance, a mutual dependence of creation and destruction—which correspond to joy and suffering in humans.
According to the progressive view, humans, by use of reason and technology—such as genetic engineering, for example—can overcome the forces of evolution. I will argue in Chapter 3 that this is not at all the case. The process of natural selection is not special to biological life, but applies with equal force to human ideas, culture, science, and technology. “Mutation” in human culture can mean the generation of new ideas, random or not; “selection” can mean the competition among these ideas, whether it takes place rationally, economically, or by violence; and Darwin’s theory of evolution will still apply strictly. Because some ideas reproduce themselves faster, and it takes physical resources to store them, socio-cultural evolution will necessarily reach a creation-destruction balance just as biological evolution does. This process can already be seen in countless instances, including the struggles between Islam and the West, the competition among social theories, and the universal endeavor by writers and artists to become admired and emulated.
A common objection to evolutionary arguments is that joy and suffering do not always correspond to reproduction or failure to reproduce. In Chapter 4, I will argue that, on the contrary, joy and suffering are essentially the mental sensations of evolutionary success and failure, whether of our genes or our ideas. When we succeed in spreading our genes or ideas, we feel pleasure. When our ability to survive or reproduce is diminished, we feel pain. The fact that we can sometimes trick our inborn perceptions of reality by using such things as contraception or psychoactive drugs only strengthens the force of this insight. In the long run, our perceptions of success and failure should track our actual evolutionary success and failure, because those whose perceptions are discordant are eliminated by selection. (An example of this would be the extinction of the practice of infanticide in antiquity, an attempt to enjoy the pleasure of sex without having to raise the child.) The upshot is that the Malthusian balance between creation and destruction implies an overall balance between joy and suffering.
The view that natural selection applies strictly to humans is often derided as “Social Darwinism.” It is criticized as being a heartless and brutal view of the human condition, pitting us all against each other in a perpetual struggle for dominance. In Chapter 5 I argue that a proper understanding of evolution shows that selfish behaviors have no intrinsic selective advantage over non-selfish behaviors. Charity, kindness, and benevolence can and do have evolutionary benefits. Biologists may disagree on what the mechanism is behind such evolution, but none seriously doubt that non-selfish behaviors can evolve by natural selection.
In Chapter 6 I’ll attempt to anticipate where our current civilization is going, and how this should affect the way we live our lives. It appears that our exponential economic growth, coupled with fast-depleting non-renewable resources, will cause the decline or collapse of our industrial civilization within the next few centuries, if not decades. Even without resource limitations, this outcome would be inevitable due to the effects of cultural and biological mutation. Our population and its diversity have been growing rapidly for a couple of centuries, but a return to a creation-destruction equilibrium, as in the last dark ages and the non-industrialized world, is inevitable, and we should aim for cultural achievements in science, philosophy, art, and religion, that will be able to stand the test of future dark ages and benefit generations less affluent than our own.
Chapter 7 will argue that our philosophy should focus less on ways to perpetuate modern unsustainable world civilization, and more on how we can improve as individuals, families, and local communities. Modern science is a good source of facts, but doesn’t supply reliable, tested principles for living a successful life. Tradition and ancient wisdom—classic literature, sacred texts, and canonical philosophy—are the most reliable sources of truth, analogous to the oldest parts of our DNA, tested over centuries or millennia of natural selection on culture.
excerpt from Chapter 1: Malthus's Principle Explained
excerpt from Chapter 2: Evolution and Birth Control
excerpt from Chapter 1: Malthus's Principle Explained
excerpt from Chapter 2: Evolution and Birth Control