Culture Magazine

Ada Palmer, a Historian, Takes a Look at Both the Idea and Reality of Progress [it's Complicated]

By Bbenzon @bbenzon
Ada Palmer, On Progress and Historical Change, Ex Urbe: History, Philosophy, books, Food & Fandom.
From Part 6 (of 6):
Few things have taught me more about the world than keeping a fish tank.
You get some new fish, put them in your fish tank, everything’s fine. You get some more new fish, the next morning one of them has killed almost all the others. Another time you get a new fish and it’s all gaspy and pumping its gills desperately, because it’s from alkeline waters and your tank is too acidic for it. So you put in a little pH adjusting powder and… all the other fish get sick from the Ammonia that releases and die. Another time you get a new fish and it’s sick! So you put fish antibiotics in the water, aaaand… they kill all the symbiotic bacteria in your filter system and the water gets filled with rotting bacteria, and the fish die. Another time you do absolutely nothing, and the fish die.
What’s happening? The same thing that happened in the first two centuries after Francis Bacon, when the science was learning tons, but achieving little that actually improved daily life. The system is more complex than it seems. A change which achieves its intended purpose also throws out-of-whack vital forces you did not realize were connected to it. The acidity buffer in the fish tank increases the nutrients in the water, which causes an algae bloom, which uses up the oxygen and suffocates the catfish. The marriage alliance between Milan and Ferrara makes Venice friends with Milan, which makes Venice’s rival Genoa side with Spain, which makes Spain reluctant to anger Portugal, which makes them agree to a marriage alliance, and then Spain is out of princesses and can’t marry the Prince of Wales, and the next thing you know there are soldiers from Scotland attacking Bologna. A seventeenth-century surgeon realizes that cataracts are caused by something white and opaque appearing at the front of the eye so removes it, not yet understanding that it’s the lens and you really need it.
progress is both a concept and a phenomenon
So when I hear people ask “Has social progress has failed?” or “Has liberalism failed?” or “Has the Civil Rights Movement failed?” my zoomed-in self, my scared self, the self living in this crisis feels afraid and uncertain, but my zoomed-out self, my historian self answers very easily. No. These movements have done wonders, achieved tons! But they have also done what all movements do in a dynamic historical system: they have had large, complicated consequences. They have added something to the fish tank. Because the same Enlightenment impulse to make a better, more rational world, where everyone would have education and equal political empowerment BOTH caused the brutalities of the Belgian Congo AND gave me the vote. And that’s the sort of thing historians look at, all day.
But if the consequences of our actions are completely unpredictable, would it be better to say that change is real but progress controlled by humans is just an idea which turned out to be wrong? No. I say no. Because I gradually got better at understanding the fish tank. Because the doctors gradually figured out how the eye really does function. Because some of our civil rights have come by blood and war, and others have come through negotiation and agreement. Because we as humans are gradually learning more about how our world is interconnected, and how we can take action within that interconnected system. And by doing so we really have achieve some of what Francis Bacon and his followers waited for through those long centuries: we have made the next generation’s experience on this Earth a little better than our own. Not smoothly, and not quickly, but actually. Because, in my mock papal election, the dam did break, but those students who worked hard to dig their channels did direct the flood, and most of them managed to achieve some of what they aimed at, though they always caused some other effects too.
Is it still blowing up in our faces?
Is it going to keep blowing up in our faces, over and over?
Is it going to blow up so much, sometimes, that it doesn’t seem like it’s actually any better?
Is that still progress?
Because there was a baby in the bathwater of Whig history. If we work hard at it, we can find metrics for comparing times and places which don’t privilege particular ideologies. If we work hard at it, we can find metrics for comparing times and places which don’t privilege particular ideologies. Metrics like infant mortality. Metrics like malnutrition. Metrics like the frequency of massacres. We can even find metrics for social progress which don’t irrevocably privilege a particular Western value system. One of my favorite social progress metrics is: “What portion of the population of this society can be murdered by a different portion of the population and have the murderer suffer no meaningful consequences?” The answer, for America in 2017, is not 0%. But it’s also not 90%. That number has gone down, and is now far below the geohistorical norm. That is progress. That, and infant mortality, and the conquest of smallpox. These are genuine improvements to the human condition, of the sort that Bacon and his followers believed
Progress is also natural ... in the sense that the human animal is part of nature
would come if they kept working to learn the causes and secret motions of things. And they were right. While Whig history privileges a very narrow set of values, metrics which track things like infant mortality, or murder with impunity, still privilege particular values — life, justice, equality — but aim to be compatible with as many different cultures, and even time periods, as possible. They are metrics which stranded time travelers would find it fairly easy to explain, no matter where they were dumped in Earth’s broad timeline. At least that’s our aim. And such metrics are the best tool we have at present to make the comparisons, and have the discussions about progress, that we need to have to grapple with our changing world.
Because progress is both a concept and a phenomenon.
The concept is the hope that collective human effort can make every generation’s experience on this Earth a little better than the previous generation’s. That concept has itself become a mighty force shaping the human experience, like communism, iron, or the wheel. It is valuable thing to look at the effects that concept has had, to talk about how some have been destructive and others constructive, and to study, from a zoomed-out perspective, the consequences, successes, and failures of different movements or individuals who have acted in the name of progress.
The phenomenon is also real. My own personal assessment of it is just that, a personal assessment, with no authority beyond some years spent studying history. I hope to keep reexamining and improving this assessment all the days of my life. But here at the beginning of 2017 I would say this:
Progress is not inevitable, but it is happening.
It is not transparent, but it is visible.
It is not safe, but it is beneficial.
It is not linear, but it is directional.
It is not controllable, but it is us. In fact, it is nothing but us.
Progress is also natural, in my view, not in the sense that it will inevitably triumph over its doomed opposition, but in the sense that the human animal is part of nature, so the Declaration of the Rights of Man is as natural as a bird’s nest or a beaver dam.

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