When www.humanprogress.org launched on October 30, 2013, the launch was accompanied by an essay I penned in the Reason magazine titled, “Human Progress: Not Inevitable, Uneven, and Indisputable.” In the article, I briefly described the progress that humanity has made over the last two hundred years or so. Empirical evidence, I argued, clearly shows that compared to the previous 300,000 years of Homo sapiens’ existence, our recent advancement has been staggering.
In merely 0.08 percent of our time as a separate species, we became vastly richer, healthier, and more knowledgeable. The average global income, which was practically stagnant for millennia, rose by a factor of 14. Instead of dying at the age of 30, we can look forward to living into our late 70s. Widespread illiteracy, ignorance, and superstition have been, to a great degree, replaced by a more scientific and rational outlook that helped us to eliminate ancient diseases, like smallpox, create the iPhone, and send people to the moon.
Above all, we became more moral. Two hundred years ago, slavery was widespread; women were without the vote or equal protection under the law; homosexuals were imprisoned or worse; people of different religions were routinely discriminated against; the circle of empathy did not extend far beyond the family – let alone to other nations, races or, for that matter, animals, which were tortured for fun. And that was the “moral situation” in the most civilized countries on the planet.
What a vastly different and more moral world we have created! In the United States, Americans elected a black man to the nation’s highest office. In much of Europe, women preside over many a government. Gay youths take their same-sex partners to the prom. Hundreds of billions of dollars flow from rich countries to the poor to alleviate hunger and disease. Cruelty to animals is frowned upon or punished outright.
But I also noted that human progress was uneven and far from inevitable. Gale Pooley and I recently revisited that subject in Superabundance, which will come out in August. We wrote,
The “line” of progress is jagged, not smooth. Western Europe, for example, experienced tremendous economic, political, technological, scientific, and medical advances during the century that separated the end of the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815) and 1914, only to descend into the barbarism of World War I and World War II. Yet Europe rebounded, just as it did after the fall of Rome and the subsequent Dark Ages. There are, in other words, rational grounds for cautious optimism. But optimism should not be confused with inevitability. We could yet destroy our civilization through human action, such as nuclear war, or watch helplessly as an asteroid hurls through the sky and wipes out most of the life on Earth.
When we wrote those words, we could not have imagined that Europe, the continent of my birth, would yet again be mired in a bloody war. The long-term decline in all types of violence – including homicide, genocide, and international conflict – is very real and has been part and parcel of moral progress. The savage invasion of Ukraine by the Russian military does not negate that long-term trend, but it is a reminder of the fragility of human accomplishment. With every fiber of my body, I still believe that the future of humanity will be ever better. But, as we also noted in Superabundance, it will never be perfect.
Progress does not mean that we will ever reach a paradisiacal end state where everything will be optimal for everyone everywhere. New problems will arise, and they will have to be solved, however imperfectly, by future generations. As such, the world will never be a perfect place. After all, the beings who inhabit it are themselves imperfect. As the German philosopher and advocate of gradual human progress Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) observed in 1784, “From such crooked timber as humankind is made of nothing entirely straight can be made.”
The Russian onslaught on a peaceful people confirms the crookedness of human nature, but our flaws do not negate our ability to create beauty, prosperity, and peace. As we watch the conflict in Ukraine unfold and spare a thought for all the other conflicts in the world today, let us remember the causes of progress – including reason, science, freedom, and humanism. Let us be grateful for what we have and recommit ourselves to the defense of the values and institutions that have made liberal societies the best places on Earth.